Sky is the best home, best partner, you know you will get your money': Bullish words on TV deal and growth of game
It might not be a natural look for Hibs owner Ron Gordon to dress himself in battle fatigues and chomp down on a cigar.
Yet, likeThe A-Team’s leader Hannibal, the US-based businessman sees a lot to love in plans coming together. Cynicism has abounded – as is standard in these parts – over the grand designs Gordon has been a pivotal figure in the driving to push up the central funding to £50million from the current figure of £28m.
Abetted by Aberdeen’s stateside supremo Dave Cormack and those at the helms of Hearts, Dundee United and Dundee, an already fabled Deloitte review was commissioned into Scottish football finances. That has now been presented to clubs just as voting is taking place that is likely to see approval of a new Sky television deal. A package that would extend the broadcaster’s commitment to Scottish football to 2029. And, starting with the 2024-25 season, more importantly uplift the present earnings of just under £25m to a potential £38m. Gordon believes the revised contract can be the foundation for the £50m. An aim cemented with the creation of an innovations and strategy task force in which he and McCormack are joined by the chief executives of Celtic, Rangers and Hearts, in Michael Nicholson, Stewart Robertson and Andrew McKinlay, respectively.
The proposed contract would see the number of games available to screen raised from the current total of 48 to 60, starting in 2024-25, for a £30m price tag. This will require the number of times Sky can broadcast from any ground to be upped from four to five. Crucially, there is also another 20-game tranche available to Sky for an additional £8m, which, if they declined to take up, would leave the SPFL able to pitch them to other broadcasters. In the more immediate term, if the deal goes through, clubs would also be allowed to sell five games on a pay-per-view basis. It is understood that between £2m and £3m has flowed into coffers from clubs previously being afforded this facility across the pandemic.
The reaction to this package has hardly been joyous. The financial upstick has been deemed paltry, leaving Scotland with a TV deal dwarfed by those in countries such as Norway and Denmark. The reluctance to open the rights to tender has induced grumbling, and as evidence that the game in this country continues to be sold short. Then there is the disquiet over Sky hedging their bets with the £8m carrot for 20 more games as a fall-back option in the event of losing out on screening the English Football League two years from now. Gordon has pretty sound rebuttals for much of this sniping – even as he doesn’t deny that Sky’s retention of their EPL rights is at play when it comes to arriving at the £38m rights figure. Moreover, a £300,000 deal with the broadcaster for the women’s game that would kick in right away – and is almost double what the BBC pay for non-exclusive rights for the SWPL, and would rise to £5000,000 in three years – indisputable would be transformative for one form of the sport.
“The potential for 50% growth is nothing to scoff at,” said Gordon, now three years into his Easter Road tenure. “I don’t see right now anybody who is going to offer us more money. No-one. There is a Discovery deal that’s happening, and BT, Premier Sports and Viaplay in the market. But none of them is putting up significant money. You can take a bird in hand, or have a hundred flying around. I take the bird in hand. Sky is the best home, best partner, you know you will get your money. Being with Sky is where we want to be. The biggest league in the world is the EPL. By far it is the best football product anywhere. And for us to be little brothers to that on Sky is a great thing. I’d rather be a little brother there than a bigger brother on Viaplay with the EFL, for example.
“The truth is that the biggest handicap for us is that Scotland is a tiny market with five-and-a-half million. It doesn’t affect Sky’s subscriber base too much and I’d venture to say that even in Scotland the driver in subscribership around sports is the EPL. Part of what we are going to be able to do is promote – across EPL game coverage – the Scottish game. We are looking to create a 360 degree partnership, where they really get involved in developing the product. You can see that with the women’s game where, as well as the TV revenue, they will sponsor a cup competition. And we are really going to work it with Sky over production values and commercial possibilities. With a seven year commitment, then they are firmly with us. Maybe around the margins all of us might change one or two things, but as a whole, this is real progress for the league.
“The problem in the past is that we have 218 games but have only been able to derive value from 48 of them. The comparison with Norway and Denmark isn’t precise since they screen all their games live. And their gates at games suffer. We wanted to strike a balance because almost 50 per cent of our revenues come through gate receipts – the highest in Europe. So this deal still allows us to protect that. As it lets clubs get imaginative about what they do with the PPV games, even regarding scheduling and possible Friday and Saturday night kick-offs, which are popular.”
The “soft benefits” to be accrued as Gordon sees them come through such revenue streams as international rights. These are currently worth £2m but he believes the figure could be doubled if the package on offer come 2024-25 was 80 games instead of the current 48. Another possible boost towards the magic figure of £50m. Gordon does, though, recognises that if Sky retain EPL games, they are likely to have enough football on their platforms to pass on the £8m-costing extra 20 games on offer. “That could turn out to be one of the most exciting things with this option,” he said. “I’d rather we had Sky screening 80 games, but if they don’t take up the additional 20, we get to go to market, test if Discovery, Viaplay and so on are willing to step up. That’s why I say we have the potential to get the £50m. We may not get £8m for that, may get £6m. Sky could take 10. That is all for further down the line.”
The “building blocks” offered by the Deloitte report, meanwhile, don’t merely involve such as investing in the women’s game, alcohol provision at games as an element of enhancing the spectating experience, and “a little brand work” – that latter behind moves change the mindset at the SPFL and make it a “commercially aggressive” body and not just “administratively” focussed. Creating the best possible pathways for player development is a consideration. Gordon wants Scotland to be such a fertile ground for talent growth that clubs outside of Celtic and Rangers aren’t left parting with their prized assets for £2m and £3m while the big two can cash in for sums on a sliding scale from £6m and £20m. Instead there is a determination to push up the baseline for such sales to between £5m and £8m. Good luck with that, most would say. Not that Hibs owner is prepared to be deterred from the most arduous problem-solving in his missionary-work.
“Sometimes I think in the Scottish game we are our own worst enemy because we have a lot of great clubs, do a lot of great things, but we end up beating each other up rather than saying how good we are,” he said. “But, on that, over the time I’ve been involved here there has become a sense ‘we could do good things together instead of beating each other up.”
Whether that amounts to £50m of good things remains to be seen.
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