The play-off format will create six high-profile ties not covered by the current four-year broadcasting deals with Sky and BT Vision – the company that will take over ESPN’s package as of 31 July – and one of the first tasks for the new SPFL board could be auctioning these games between two potential bidders.
The football club board members will be elected at the 27 June meeting to formally constitute the SPFL. The board will be nine-strong, with a chief executive, chairman and non-executive director, three members from the current Scottish Premier League, two from what is presently the First Division and one giving voice to the other two divisions.
The board, expected to approve the League Cup and Challenge Cup running as before, will begin an expected two-week process of selecting a chief executive, while SPL chairman Ralph Topping is set to step down on 27 June. SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster and SFL counterpart David Longmuir will both continue in post until the selection process is completed. It is widely believed Doncaster will fill the role. He has refused to declare his intentions regarding the vacancy, however, and despite stating that a sponsor for the new set-up could be decided on “in one or two days”, treads carefully on what potential role he could have in discussions with broadcasters over play-offs.
“You have to be respectful of the new board,” said Doncaster. “But the key role of any league is to maximise the commercial benefits for the clubs that play within that league so I would expect the new board to be focused on doing its best, through its chief executive, to commercialise that league competition to the max for the benefit of all 42 clubs.”
The play-offs between upper and second tier will see third play fourth home and away in what is currently the First Division for the right to meet the second-placed side on the same basis. The winner of this tie will face the second-bottom placed team from the top flight in a play-of final, again over two legs. It is planned that the second leg of this final will be played on the same weekend as the final round of top-six games, meaning the bottom six will conclude a week earlier.
With the season ahead requiring to be condensed because of the need for a mid-May finish in advance of the World Cup finals in Brazil next summer, the top-flight league campaign will start on 3 August and conclude on May 10/11. The Scottish Cup will revert back to a Saturday and be played on May 17 – a week before the Champions League final – with this year’s winter shutdown acquiring an optional element.
In the fixtures released this week, games will be scheduled for the shutdown weekends, with full cards listed for Sunday, 5 January and a week later. However, two midweeks have been left free in the last two weeks in January and, should clubs hosting games in the shutdown prefer to play then, they can unilaterally elect to do so. Should a club playing away in the opening weeks of January want to switch to the later midweek, the can apply to the SPFL to do so. Celtic, should they stay in Europe beyond Christmas, would likely opt for a break, with a number of other clubs potentially also valuing a short break at the season’s halfway point. It is expected notice would require to be given by mid-December on opting out of the early January weekends.
“This decision has been made because we are keen to respond to supporters’ demands and what they say they want,” Doncaster said. “They have made it clear they don’t like midweek fixtures in winter months. In the original fixture list there were two midweek fixtures in January, which is clearly the worst time of year to have them. If they can be moved to a weekend, then if the club want to they can.”
BT Vision replacing ESPN could see more Friday evening matches – both in the top flight and involving Rangers in the third tier. And a unified police body, more than a unified league structure, is considered significant, with the police having apparently softened their stance towards any of the major Glasgow clubs playing on Friday evenings.
Doncaster has welcomed the formation of the SPFL as a driver for the greater good. “I won’t do predictions on anything but certainly there is more interest and more value to a combined league and that’s when you’re talking to sponsors, broadcasters, whoever it may be,” he said. “Being able to talk with one voice on behalf all 42 clubs has benefits.”
The dissolution of the SFL after 123 years has been portrayed as Scottish football’s soul being swallowed up by a hostile takeover. This perception that has followed from the fact that the new SPFL will have the same company registration number as the SPL. “The legal company was formed in 1997,” said Doncaster. “There is no legal company in the SFL, it is an association of members. You can look at it through legal eyes if you wish, or you can look at it through historian’s eyes. What is important is that the newly merged league looks forward and looks very much to the benefit of its 42 member clubs.”
And looks to Doncaster to lead it? “I have been consistent on this question. This cannot be and must not be an issue about individuals. It has to be about what is in the best interests of the game as a whole. It would be disrespectful to the new board to be creating any pressure for that. It’s for the board to make its decision about the right people.”