We demand better from broadcasters who put more money into the Scottish game, but do we really deserve it? Craig Fowler asks
Last Thursday, Neil Doncaster and Ralph Topping led a delegation to London in order to discuss a new TV deal with BT Sport, with talk of similar discussions to take place with Sky Sports.
At present, Scottish clubs are signed to a contract granting them £82million over four years for the rights to broadcast SPFL matches. Seeing as Rangers are back in the top flight, meaning a return of the Old Firm derby, those running Scottish football are confident of getting our best ever TV deal. And, if you don’t include the Setanta deal - seeing as it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on when the company went belly up - it’s a fair assumption they will seek the best ever deal. But will it give Scottish clubs the type of money required to haul ourselves out of the current, seemingly never-ending funk?
Just because the Old Firm derby is back and there to be milked for up to seven times a season (urgh), doesn’t mean the TV companies are going to lavish our clubs with riches. They haven’t in the past, why would they start now?
Sure, BT Sport have treated the game with more care than Sky when it comes to live broadcasts. Games featuring neither Celtic nor Rangers are still given sufficient build-up, with excellent features on both teams and the same sort of analysis you find when one of the Glasgow giants are involved. However, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be as generous when it comes to the bottom line. Scottish games not involving Celtic or Rangers don’t pull in the viewers, with the exception of the Edinburgh derby, which is due to return next season.
It seems the horse has already bolted. There was an opportunity in the late 90s to embrace Scottish football. There was a higher standard of player, Hearts had not long run the Old Firm close for a title, and attendances were on the up after the decent marketing campaign (probably the last time I’ll ever say that about Scottish football) built around the creation of the breakaway SPL. It couldn’t compare to the spectacle of the English Premiership (as it was called then), but there wasn’t as much of a startling contrast as there is today. However, as usual, the typically Scottish parochial view remained. Nobody wanted to watch a game unless it involved their club. Therefore, matches not involving either of the Old Firm returned miserly viewing figures.
As stated in Issue One of Nutmeg Magazine, fewer than 20,000 people watched a game between Dundee and St Johnstone broadcast by Sky back in 1998. That’s when Sky realised interest, or at least the type they could make money on, extended to only two teams.
Scottish clubs expected the next TV deal to push their riches into the stratosphere. Instead, Sky basically offered the same deal, knowing they were only going to see a significant return on their investment from one fixture. The clubs pulled out and we’ve been circling the drain ever since.
We have little right as fans to bemoan Sky and BT showing a disproportional interest in the Old Firm. They’re a business and that’s where the money is.
It’s a harsh reality, but we’re complicit in this duopoly. I’m not pointing any fingers. I was part of the problem as well. I remember being excited to watch the likes of Sheffield Wednesday v Blackburn on Monday Night Football back in the day. I wouldn’t open the curtains if they were in my back garden now, but that’s a different story. In contrast, you couldn’t have paid me to watch Dundee v Motherwell.
I was too caught up in the hype, the production, the noise of the crowd and the better players to realise that, in the long term, my disinterest in the Scottish game other than Hearts was harmful to my own team. I was devaluing something of which they were apart of and depended on. It’s a lesson the Celtic and Rangers could learn before the next time they flutter their eyelids at England and reignite the fanciful notion of playing down south.
The only way that’s going to change is if we embrace Scottish football, warts and all. We need to start taking an interest in games such as Dundee v St Johnstone and show Sky and BT or whoever else is interested that there’s a market for clubs other than you-know-who. That’s the only way the offer is really going to change.
As illustrated in a report by STV Sport last week, gate receipts account for 37 per cent of revenue for our clubs. It’s a percentage higher than any other league in Europe. So we can rightly demand a higher slice of TV money, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to get it.
The football nation was recently in the gutter. You could argue it still is within the context of Scottish football history. Why would Sky and/or BT acquiesce to our demands and hand over a TV deal which will allow us to be competitive again? It would be like a player returning from a serious knee injury, sustained in a period of poor form, and asking for better terms on his contract. It wouldn’t happen.
I’d like to remain optimistic. However, I can’t help but feel I’ve watched this movie before. They’ll have sat round the negotiating table and argued our case. Sky/BT will have listen patiently and politely, and they’ll offer a deal which is a little bit higher than the one the SPFL gets now. It’ll be an improvement, but it’ll be nowhere near the figure required to haul ourselves out of the doldrums.
The suits will then come back, moan about how Scottish football isn’t getting a fair hearing, quote some empty statistics to make themselves seem both smart and blameless, and then grudgingly accept the offer.
We’ll all continue to moan about the poor quality on offer and the fact that Sky only care about two teams, all the while watching Everton v West Ham and ignoring every other club in Scotland other than our own.