So there we have it: APOEL F.C., the champions of the Cyprus, are in the Champions’ League; Shamrock Rovers have made it to the Europa, with a hard fought win over Partizan Belgrade; and Scotland boast the grand total of zero teams in Europe before September. Scotland has long suffered from an inferiority complex because theirs is smaller than England’s… population, of course. Yet we trumpet our love of the national game with such pointless stats as “per head of population, more fans go to watch games in Scotland than anybody else in Europe”. We’re small, but we’re passionate. We’re the glorious underdog! Well, good on us!
That particular nugget about “head of population” came from Neil Doncaster, a man who makes me think of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” every time I hear him, because “he talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge”. Doncaster is always quick to pull some optimistic statistic out of his businessman’s brain as we collectively watch the national game go down the tubes. I mean, his reaction to the exits of Rangers from the Champions’ League, while not optimistic, was still “that means less money for the rest of our clubs”. Spoken like a true fan of football. Yet maybe that is the way to convince him: statistics and marketing.
Doncaster also says that next year’s coefficient will mean 2 teams in the Champions’ League (CL), but if that is true, he is still playing the political economist, because the longer-term forecast is bleaker than the weather over the Edinburgh Festival. He overlooks the point, Tweeted by the ever-perceptive Zonal Marking during the qualifying draws last month, that observed how Scottish teams must do well in Europe this season. Why? Next year, Scotland (currently in 17th) loses their 2007-08 coefficient, which will reduce the total by more than half as things stand. With no European victories from a single Scottish team, the SPL’s qualifying status will plummet below the esteemed leagues of Sweden, Bulgaria and Belarus. The mighty Cyprus, already pipping Scotland by virtue of APOEL’s qualification for the CL, will edge further ahead without having to win a point.
Cyprus: a country with a population smaller than Edinburgh and Glasgow combined, at just over 800,000. APOEL have a ground little bigger than Hibs’ Easter Road, but have made the CL group stages twice in the last 3 years. The league boasted a total attendance of 498, 316 in 2007-08, a match average of 2,738. This compares with the SPL’s total attendance of 3.1million in 2009-10, some 6 times the size, although this included the disproportionately large support of Rangers and Celtic. The match average was 13,949, around 5 times the size. Thierry apologises for the stat bombardment, but one must engage with the only language that executives actually talk. High attendances, and match prices to rival the lowest in the English Premiership, yet still Scottish teams are in debt and struggling in Europe. Plus stats from the excellent Swiss Ramble blog show that Scottish teams, in the main, generally have half-empty stadia.
Well, Thierry is a big believer in not blaming one factor for a problem, when many are evident. What can we suggest? More per head of population watching, yet half empty grounds? Yes, there’s the recession, but this attendance problem has been happening for years. One factor must be the dominance of the Old Firm. Not only do clubs fail to sell out, except against derby rivals and the Old Firm (OF), they lose regional fans to the duopoly that many other fans call “The Ugly Sisters”. Without the OF’s contribution, average attendances drops by an astonishing 56%. Average attendance drops to just 7424, meaning Cyprus’ per head football viewing becomes nearly 3 times Scotland’s. So how much money and interest is in the game outside of Glasgow’s Big Two? Another factor, is too many teams. Edinburgh can just about sustain Hearts and Hibs in good years, but there is no way that Dundee needs two teams on the same street. A final one, that I will suggest is responsible, is resultant fan boredom from OF dominance and repetition. Turning up to struggle against the same eleven opponents week in, week out is a trifle boring, especially if only one team goes down. Part of the drama of a poor EPL last season was the relegation Judgement Day, where any one of about 6 teams stood to go down, depending on results. It was one of the more thrilling days of the season for the neutral fanatic.
The Solution: Expansion?
You know what I’m driving at: Cyprus, with their population of 800k, and average attendances of a couple of thousand, have a top league of 14 teams. While APOEL have won 5 of the last 10 titles, the other 5 titles have been shared between 3 other teams: the familiar-sounding Euro minnows of yesteryear, AC Omonia (2), Anorthosis Famagusta (2), and Apollon Limassol. This means that they watch a lot more competitive football, between more sides, and Thierry Ennui contends that it makes sense to expand the SPL to at least 14 teams. Here’s the 5 reasons why:
1. More Teams Means Less Fixtures.
Not only would a larger league reduce the need for 4 meetings per season, or the even more ridiculous three, but it would allow for a winter break which so many managers have been requesting. No more 4 hours trips across Scotland on skating-rink roads, only to discover that the ref has called a last-gasp inspection, and canned the match. No more fixture backlog that induces horrendous congestion as the season climaxes. And more room to start the season earlier so we can have less of the current problem of flabby squads full of new signings getting pumped out of Europe in July. Less costly postponements. Less gate receipts, true, but also less overheads and hopefully less teams being dumped out of Europe. Plus there is more money to be had elsewhere (see below).
2. Bigger League Means More Variety (Means More Interest).
Just now, each SPL team has a total of 11 league opponents. They will play 6 of them 3 times, and 5 of them 4. Before cup matches. This can lead to teams facing each other 6 times in a season, which is i) frankly ridiculous ii) pretty unexciting and iii) practically a bleeding league in its own right! The league needs fresh blood and ideas.
I know the SPL executives parrot that “a larger league may lead to unexciting games”, but if you agree with them, hear me out here…
a) At present, we have 12 fan-bases in the league. Therefore the game is watched by 12 sets of fans live, on domestic television, and globally. It stands to reason that if we increase the number of teams, the number of fan-bases increases too, so there are suddenly 16 or 18 sets of fans watching live, on domestic TV, and globally. I know Falkirk aren’t going to add the same number of fans as Rangers, but it’s still more people to watch the product. Supporters pay at the turnstiles, supporters buy merchandise, supporters pay for satellite TV (or go down the boozer, which has paid for it). So the league is ultimately marketable to a wider audience. Wider audience, more expensive advertising. The most simple mathematics.
b) The permutations of more teams playing allow for more different matches to be televised, rather than the current 4 Old Firm games, scattering of Edinburgh and “New Firm” derbies, and, well, just the same bloody games screened year after year. You’re worried about the games not being “interesting” enough? Let the broadcaster’s hype machine deal with that. Smaller teams may let in more goals. How fans hate goals! There are more unknown quantities, with a couple of potential Blackpools or Stokes to bring in a fresh approaches, and more opponents to play each season. More teams means more players to be embroiled in scandals, more managerial jobs at risk, and more transfers to be expounded upon and speculated about ad nauseum. More teams means more interest!
c) A digression a la Thierry: why aren’t the teams in the SPL promoting their brand globally anyway? I mean, I know Celtic play on their Irish connections, just as Rangers apparently have some sort of link to Ulster, and Hearts have links with Lithuania. But that’s just the lazy connections. Form a parent/feeder link with some other teams. Twin yourselves with an MLS team, or an A-League or a Belgian or an Austrian team. Modern teams are run by marketers and executives: make them do some f—king work in their chosen field! I remember cheap beanie hats that featured Hearts & Leeds side-by-side on them, back in the Eighties, and I reckon a link that thin could encourage new fans. What, watch more football? Ok then!
3. More Variety, More Competition.
Yes it looks like more teams are playing for nothing in a “World Without Splits”, but SPL seems to forget that there are many reasons for players to keep playing, even after they’ve been ruled out of the title race. Win bonuses, goal bonuses, future transfers, international call-ups, visiting scouts, a place in the first team, and indeed “to impress their local hairdressers” are a veritable shitstorm of reasons why teams feature players that still need to put in a shift.
“Well, yeah, but who’s going to make the fans go to a meaningless game?” I hear the critics argue. Again, I’m not the marketing branch of a sports organisation, but off the top of my educated head, I’d say: fan days (where kids / OAPs / students go free or for half normal price – NB you’ll still make money on pies and fizzy drinks – it’s Scotland). If you’re trying to run a company that uses sponsorship, then the more eyes see your hoardings, the more your hoardings are worth. It’s simple economics (not bad for a Literature major, eh?).
So players trying, fans watching: where’s the lack of interest?
Plus, my main point is that with a bigger league, you can deploy ideas such as “more than one team being relegated” or “relegation play-offs”. You could allocate a European place based on a four-way play-off between the best teams from each quarter of the season (excluding those teams already qualified, i.e. Rangers and Celtic). A play-off for Europe? Marketing gold, baby!
4. More Competition, Better Players & Football.
The more teams are in the top-flight, the more managers in Scotland can sell their club to a prospective signing with the dream of European football. Not buying that? Well how about the promise of being on a stepping-stone to greater things (i.e. the Old Firm or English football, generally). We would all be correct in suspecting, for example, that Antonio Valencia didn’t sign for Wigan Athletic with the dream of playing football for Wigan Athletic. Now look where he is. Billy Reid made a great Hamilton squad, two stars of which now also play for Wigan, on such promises. Anthony Stokes went to both Falkirk and Hibs with such an idea in mind. The more teams who play in the top flight, the more the standard of the smaller teams can be improved with some shrewd signings or loans. If the standard is improved…
5. Young Scots Get Tested.
When you aren’t being stomped by the Old Firm six or eight times a season, it’s a distinct possibility that you might consider blooding younger players with more regularity. They are then playing alongside, and against, the higher quality of player that has been attracted (see 4).
“A-ha!” I hear you cry, “that hasn’t worked for England’s national team!”. Of course it hasn’t, but then my main concern is not improving Scottish technique, but rather making the SPL a more marketable product, which is what makes the EPL stand out – not necessarily the quality of the football, but the standard of entertainment. Hopefully improvements will come from there. Plus, the SPL has an advantage regarding youths, with its Under 21s rule, which means that more youngsters will be in match squads than those put out down south. Plus, again, the more SPL teams are competing; the more Scottish youths are in the frame for a top-flight appearance at some stage during the season.
If more young players get blooded, who knows, maybe the Scottish game will improve somewhere down the line? Because for all that we are not really in direct competition with England, comparison is inevitable, and Scotland is miles behind as last week’s Battle of Britain(‘s nearly-men) showed.
So, are these five points convincing, or should Thierry shut his yap and stick to pretentiously referring to himself in the 3rd person? Comments welcome below…