Alex Massie: Scottish football is relegated

The vast sums being paid to English football clubs in new TV deals highlights the gulf that separates Scottish clubs from their neighbours, and betrays our lack of star quality, writes Alex Massie

Celtic crowds have dwindled as fans have been less than gripped by the quality of football. Picture: SNS
Celtic crowds have dwindled as fans have been less than gripped by the quality of football. Picture: SNS
Celtic crowds have dwindled as fans have been less than gripped by the quality of football. Picture: SNS

THE north-south divide has never been starker. For once all the talk about Scotland and England being sharply different places has some merit. And the sorry truth is that Scotland has been left behind.

Size matters, you see. Size sells. The diverging paths of English and Scottish football can teach us something about capitalism and markets.

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In England, the latest sale of television rights to broadcast Premiership football demonstrated the vigour and success of the free market; in Scotland the impoverished state of our national game – on and off the field – is a reminder that competition can fail too. What works in England does not work in Scotland.

When international television rights are added to the pot the new deal for English football is likely to be worth as much as £2.6 billion a year. It is a mind-warping sum. As a result of this deal, the 20th best side in England can expect to receive £100 million a year from the television companies. No wonder Burnley are now worth more than Ajax and other giants of the European game; no wonder the world’s plutocrats see English football clubs as an investment as well as a rich man’s toy. English football is being flooded by such a torrent of cash that some clubs might even struggle to spend their new-found riches.

Is this, as some suggest, a mad and obscene amount of money? Perhaps so. Could the English Premier League do more to reduce ticket prices and invest in grass-roots football facilities? Certainly. Is it also a thrilling confirmation of the power of the market? Undoubtedly.

Granted, Sky are paying more than £10m for every match it broadcasts and if this seems a steep bill for the privilege of televising Stoke City versus West Bromwich Albion it might also be thought a bargain price for broadcasting Manchester United versus Chelsea. But competition – on the field between clubs and off it between broadcasters – has raised the game in every sense since the days, as recent as the 1980s, when English football was condemned as a “slum game”.

Meanwhile, famished Scottish football can only imagine such a feast. The Scottish Premier League’s television contracts are worth less than a handful of English games. The league’s lack of a sponsor is indicative of a wider malaise.

It’s all about the product, you see. And the product depends upon the competition. Previous television deals were essentially sold on the basis of four Old Firm games a season with fixtures involving other clubs being little more than a means of filling television schedules. There is little desire in Scotland for live coverage of, say, St Johnstone versus St Mirren, and no desire at all for such coverage outside Scotland.

The figures do not lie. Motherwell versus Aberdeen, broadcast on Sky Sports 1 – that is, on pay-TVs flagship channel – attracted fewer than 100,000 viewers earlier this season. Other fixtures on less popular channels have been watched by less than half that number.

The Scottish league might seem more competitive this year but its eventual outcome does not remain in doubt. Almost everyone agrees that even an underwhelming Celtic will win another title. The remarkable thing about Scottish football is not that so few people watch it but that so many still do.

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Healthy markets require competition. Judged by that standard, Scottish football has been sick for years. A duopoly might be marginally better than a monopoly but it’s still unhealthy. Within its own sphere, Rangers’ collapse was just as great – and as significant – as that of RBS. Like Fred Goodwin’s show, Rangers succumbed to hubristic folly.

Falling attendances tell their own story. It is nearly 30 years since someone other than Celtic or Rangers won the Scottish championship. Scottish football might “need” a revived Rangers but it needs much more than that alone. Who can truly be interested in a league in which the eventual result is known before a ball is kicked?

A gap between the haves and the have-nots in English football still exists but even the poorest members of the league can field a useful side for £100m. Even new entrants have a chance. Thanks to Sky and BT Sport, there has been a levelling-up in England.

By contrast, Scotland would need a levelling-down if something like an equal playing-field were to be created. American sport understands that, in the long-term, the strongest are weakened unless the weak are stronger. That is, it is in everyone’s interests that as many franchises as possible have a shot at success. The New York Yankees will always, thanks to their financial muscle, enjoy an advantage but smaller-market teams in places such as Milwaukee and Pittsburgh need to be more than mere cannon fodder if the league is to thrive and public interest be maintained. In the longer-run, everyone benefits.

Accordingly, US sport – run as a series of cartels – eschews the ruthlessness of European soccer. Revenue-sharing, scary caps and a player draft gives smaller-market teams at least the notional chance of competing with their larger, wealthier competitors. Scottish football probably needs something similar. Not just the pooling of meagre TV revenues but a wider redistribution of the sport’s income.

The days when the best Scottish clubs could challenge the top English teams are gone and never likely to return. But interest in the domestic game can still be revived if, that is, the product is made more appealing. That means the rich helping the poor and recognising that doing so is an act of enlightened self-interest. It means fostering – and regulating – a real sense of competition. If that were to happen, broadcasters might once again see Scottish football as an attractive investment. Which in turn would help raise standards.

Most markets, even free ones, are still usually regulated. But efficient markets offer something to all parties in a transaction. Judged on this basis, English football shows what the market can achieve even as Scottish football demonstrates what happens when markets are so lopsided consumers begin to appreciate that the game is rigged. The lessons of this, it should be obvious, go some way beyond the football field.