or How Greed Has Killed Scotland’s Game

So, a new football season is about to kick-off, and the SPL is united only in disorder. Last season saw a referees’ strike that was frankly embarrassing, a twist to sectarian hatred that was downright sinister, and latterly an inability to restructure that may well prove even deadlier than letter bombs. The McLeish Report, heralded as the blueprint to a better Scottish Footballing Future; arrived, was studied, and – regarding the more radical second phase – was studiously ignored. No surprise really: the advice called for a structural shake-up of a what is increasingly resembling a self-governed cabal. As the World Cup bidding process and FIFA bribery scandals have shown, the governing bodies of global football look increasingly like organised crime syndicates to the average fan.

Now you see what he's been talking about!

McLeish’s second phase called for structural change, but the thing that the paying public wanted, a bigger and more competitive league, was stymied by the league’s money-men (including club executives), who fear losing share on Old Firm gate revenues and TV money. What the executives (and barely any of the paying customers) wanted was two smaller leagues that would keep the name of the SPL. Thankfully some of the outfits involved realised precisely how much less exciting a ten-team league would be than the current two-horse-race that features The Split, a concept so risible as to inspire reactions raging from distrust, through contempt, to outright mockery.

The Split was designed to generate excitement, and prevent a 44-fixture marathon every season; but it succeeds only in creating the rarest of phenomena, an SPL united in opinion. Being forced to play rivals an uneven number of times is the only common gripe to Scotland’s top-flight teams: Rangers and Celtic periodically complain about playing their bitter rivals Away three times, or else lament similarly imbalanced trips to Tynecastle or Tannadice. Meanwhile Hearts, Dundee United or whoever else are contesting the upper half of the split perennially bemoan the number of trips they make to the Old Firm. In the lower half, three trips to a relegation rival’s ground will guarantee rancour in the basement of the division.

Yet for all this unity among clubs, they still cannot agree on an alternative league structure. The reasons? Cold hard cash, and old-fashioned greed.  The vice-like grip that the top 12 clubs maintain on money obtained from television rights is a symptom of the lingering death of the Scottish game – financial rigor mortis is setting in, and the other signs are there for any amateur physician to see.

Prior to the SPL’s inception, Scotland’s favourite sport had lost only one major team post-war,  Third Lanark in 1967. Renton (1898) and Vale of Leven (1925) had also previously went under, despite also being founder-members and cup-holders. Many smaller clubs had similarly floundered and died around the Great War and Great Depression era, as the country and its game became modernised, and rural areas felt the pinch.  Third Lanark were the last founder-member club to become extinct since the 1920s, and boardroom greed was contended to be the cause.

Fast-forward to 1998 and the creation of a new-look top tier, which sprung up  in an attempt to monopolise television rights. The vision: to cash in on a prospective glut of satellite money, like that which had emerged south of the border. From this point, the Scottish game has arguably went into terminal decline. In comparison to the pre-SPL mortality rate of 3 major clubs in 108 years, we have witnessed 3 professional clubs in 9 years cease to exist as the trickle-down of money dried up. Airdrieonians went liquid, the first team to do so in 35 years (2002). Clydebank could not survive in their existing form and were bought out to become Airdrie United (2002). Added to make up numbers, Gretna dominated the lower three tiers with one dying man’s wealth at their disposal, but couldn’t survive without it and perished in 2008, shortly before their ailing benefactor.

However, the symptoms run deeper than mere death: assuming that the SPL would naturally explode into riches like the EPL, clubs banked all their money on ridiculously high-waged players, in an attempt to buy success and therefore a larger chunk of satellite money. One article observes that prior to the SPL, the top-flight made a profit in 1995-96, and yet had run up £44million debts by 1999-2000. Ten years before 2001, and now ten years later, the idea of Argentinian World Cup runner-up Claudio Caniggia playing for the might of Dundee Football Club is faintly ridiculous. But not during the false boom of Scottish football that heralded its decline.

As it became apparent that the Scottish top-flight wasn’t as saleable as the English, teams like Dundee, and Motherwell and Livingston, plunged into debt as the riches that were presumed to be arriving never materialised. One can only assume that this was the reason why the SPL scoffed at Sky’s offer of a reduced-price package, as their marketing department realised that a two-horse-race was not as desirable a package on a global scale. Sky knew what the league was worth. The SPL looked south with eyes green as bank notes, and said “We’re worth more than that”. They weren’t.

Setanta’s UK wing would make that fatal discovery in 2009, clutched in a mutual death-grip with the SPL as the neighbouring behemoths of Sky and their Best League In The World® absorbed all the talent, viewers and money that this small island can cope with. Suddenly, Celtic tightened the purse-strings, Rangers went into administration, and all the other SPL teams felt the pinch. So now, we see a situation were the bigger clubs in Scotland jealously guard what little spoils they can make, to the detriment of nationwide product development.

Unfortunately, even though everyone seems to want change in one shape or another, the 11/1 majority voting system that allows for no change without almost complete agreement – a nonsense if ever there was one, if you imagine applying that to national government – means that the status quo will be maintained, simply because agreement on one specific format can’t be made by any eleven of the teams. Which, was surely the point of such a voting system in the first place: no unwelcome changes for any of the member clubs. Protectionism, just like the ground-size issue that saw no relegation in 2003. If the Scottish game is to survive in any meaningful sense, then it will need drastic action from politicians or the fans, to ensure that the money-men don’t hoard the meagre profits, or allow stagnancy to choke the professional game to death. Thierry Ennui firmly believes that only a larger league will allow the game to prosper, both economically and technically. But that’s another story

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