FOOTBALL in this country is facing a watershed moment. On the line when top-flight clubs vote on whether to accept newco Rangers into the Scottish Premier League are their own futures as much as the future of the Ibrox club.
The tensions they must wrestle with can be percolated down to right versus might, fairness versus finance and supporters versus broadcasters.
Outside of SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster, no-one, and that includes the club’s manager Ally McCoist, has sought to make a moral argument for a post-liquidation Rangers continuing as before in the top flight. Required to start again as a new company because of a whacking, unpaid debt to the public purse, most acknowledge the just settlement for the club would be to start again in the bottom tier of the Scottish Football League. Only a monetary argument has been forwarded for the new Rangers acquiring the SPL share of the old Rangers.
News broke yesterday that the Scottish Football Association is prepared to intervene to broker a merger between SPL and SFL which would appear to offer Rangers a lifeline. The Ibrox club would probably be demoted just one division in the sort of ham-fisted compromise which will enrage many fans and one or two chairmen.
Reports last week painted a bleak picture of life in the top flight without the Ibrox club. They spoke of diminishing media and commercial values so severe that they would threaten the very existence of some clubs.
In the face of such intense pressure, any resistance to Rangers, who need to be backed by seven other clubs for the share transfer to go ahead, was expected to crumble. It may yet, but as it stands the majority of club chairmen appear prepared to contemplate at least one season without the Govan side when they get together to vote in just over a fortnight. They do so through fearing that the alternative could be a lifetime without their bedrock supports. And private calculations by these clubs have given them reason to conclude that, while Rangers being asked to apply to the SFL would initially make for seriously wintery trade conditions in the top flight, the move would not precipitate the nuclear winter suggested by the naysayers.
The outright fury and “them or us” ultimatum directed from the rank and file over the prospect of their clubs granting SPL access to a newco is presently holding sway for the kingmakers of the SPL. Season ticket sales have largely dried up as supporters demand that their clubs uphold a principle, as they see it, before they continue to endorse them financially. The absence of contrition from those in the Rangers camp over bringing the Scottish game into disrepute and the fact they took the SFA to the civil courts has drained sympathy utterly.
“If the vote was tomorrow Rangers would not be in the SPL next season and I believe up to eight clubs would vote against them,” one SPL chairman told Scotland on Sunday on condition of anonymity. “That figure could certainly change the more the scaremongering carries on in the lead-up to a vote. However, I have never known an issue to unify so many fans and so many clubs. Those of us running clubs have to remember we are the custodians of Scottish football and integrity must come first. We can’t go for short-term fixes that put TV deals before the fans. Any decision that underestimates the strength of feeling among supporters could cause a massive long-term problem for the game. And I don’t think many chairman are about to underestimate the importance of being as one with their fans.”
In recent days it has been speculated that up to £20m from broadcasting and sponsorships could be lost by the SPL teams were Rangers not in the top flight. Factored into that reduction is a withdrawal by both broadcasters Sky and ESPN. A new, as yet unsigned, £16m-a-year agreement covering five seasons scheduled to start in August is on the table but Sky has claimed privately that it would not bear a three-year absence of Old Firm games. Yet, it has emerged that, even if Rangers were not an SPL club next season, there would still be a television deal. Unlike Sky, it is understood ESPN’s current contract stands for next year irrespective of which teams play in the SPL. ESPN’s deal is believed to be worth £4.5m a year, around a third of what is paid by Sky.
It would appear inconceivable that Sky would not match ESPN’s commitment, at least for a season. A £4.5m outlay is pin money for the broadcaster, who last week agreed a £2.228 billion package for English rights. That mind-boggling deal means the cost of one solitary game in the Premier League down south, such as Reading against Southampton, is equivalent to £6.5m. Or, put another way, little under what Sky has been paying for their entire 30-game package up here in recent years. Of course, Sky will be content to present the worst-case scenario for the Scottish game so that SPL clubs might be “nudged” into a course of action that will deliver them the best return for their investment in Old Firm matches. That makes good business sense. However, with schedules to fill, so does spending a paltry £4.5m on screening even a Rangers-bereft Scottish top flight. Moreover, with ESPN losing out to BT for their two EPL packages, they could be willing to take up that slack for the SPL were Sky to pull out entirely. A reduced £9m television deal for next season chimes in with the figures that this newspaper recently presented in projections as to what could be lost by clubs other than Celtic in the event of there being no Rangers in the SPL next season. We calculated the average loss would be £375,000. These figures appear in line with those the clubs have been working through in private conversation.
“Most chairman have been talking among ourselves regularly and the figures we have been coming up with have not matched the doomsday numbers that we have seen presented in the press,” said the SPL chairman. “We have all agreed that one or two teams would really struggle for one season, but that would be one season only. There is constant turnover in player contracts and it would simply be a case of readjusting our budgets accordingly after a painful first year. We can’t go for short-term fixes and we are wary of a perception that Sky can hold Scottish football to ransom. Already we have heard of supporters reacting to that appearing the case by cancelling their subscriptions and moving to other platforms. Many of us do not see the TV deal as the fundamental issue some seek to portray it.”
Yet consensus on this issue, as with every other in the Rangers saga, does not exist. Doncaster, for instance, is said to be confident he has “got the numbers” for Ibrox to be hosting SPL football next season. And another club chairman, who also asked not to be named, maintains Scottish clubs taking a leap in the dark for the sake of sporting integrity and shoring up their supporter base could leave them with the gloomiest of prospects. For all the talk of an eight-strong “no” vote, the only rock-solids among the Rangers refusniks are understood to be Celtic, Hibernian and Aberdeen. “It is all right for those three clubs,” said the second chairman. “They have big enough financial backers that they can bear the loss of millions for the three seasons Rangers wouldn’t be in the SPL. It isn’t the same for other clubs. You have to feel for such as Stephen Thompson at Dundee United, or Derek Weir at Motherwell. They are in a horrible predicament. Both are lifelong supporters of their clubs but their financial models are predicated on the central revenues we have guaranteed from broadcasting rights. The Thompson family have put their personal fortune into United. Yet, if Stephen signs for an SPL without Rangers, he could be signing for administration and therefore signing a death warrant where his family’s control is concerned. The margins are so small and the sums involved so significant. I’m not convinced certain clubs would be able to survive if the status quo was disrupted. I have spoken to sources at Sky who have said they would walk away if Rangers were in the Third Division. Equally, now ESPN have lost the rights to the Barclays Premier League they could close their channel in the UK. They have a break clause in their deal with us for next summer, when their English agreement will end.”
Yesterday’s news that clubs could look at rebranding the First Division as an SPL 2 and seek to demote Rangers to the lower tier of a two-league structure to keep Sky on board does not please everyone.
“How would that serve sporting integrity, you have to ask?” the second chairman states. “You can’t be half pregnant. You surely either accept that the new Rangers can be an SPL club or accept they must start again in the senior game?”
The hearts-and-minds battle over which scenario to vote for has yet to be won. Right now, though, for a newco Rangers the struggle appears more likely to be lost.
HOW YOUR TEAM WILL VOTE
The Dons have been bounced into the voting-against-accepting-a-newco-Rangers-into-the-SPL camp by a support implacably opposed to them taking this course. After a poll by the club’s Trust revealed 97 per cent were against the move, Pittodrie chief executive Duncan Fraser maintained their “views and feelings” would be “taken into account” and that the “integrity of football...must be central to any decision.” One of three clubs now considered to hold a settled position.
The Scottish champions have no option but to register a “no” vote. They must serve natural justice as their support demands of them as to do otherwise would precipitate a collapse of their season ticket numbers. Yet, if they were to help bring about a hiatus in the top flight rivalry with their ancient adversaries, it would force them to take a thumping financial hit running to millions more than any other club as the other cost of that would be the loss of the veto afforded by them twinning with Rangers to sustain the 11-1 voting structure.
The tone of chairman Stephen Thompson’s language has noticeably changed in recent days. Last week, he made much of having to recognise, above all, the feelings of his fanbase, which is hostile to re-admission of the reconstituted Ibrox club. Talk of a complete Sky withdrawal has resulted in him now giving voice to a need to recognise the importance of television money. Without it, he said, “some clubs would face insolvency”, adding: “The smaller the club the greater the need for TV money, so it’s important for us.” Important enough for Thompson, with heavy heart, perhaps to try to sell his support the club’s endorsement of SPL status, but with stiff sanctions attached, for Rangers 2012.
HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN
A club that toiled to pay its players’ wages on time last season is hardly likely to be wowed at the prospect of any reduction in its revenues. Especially when they are still seeking £800,000 from Rangers for the Lee Wallace transfer. However, it would go against everything that Vladimir Romanov has previously preached if he were to vote in one of the Glasgow “mafia” after they have been shown to have used tax dodges to sustain their dominance, and that could hold the key in the final analysis for the Tynecastle club.
Chairman Rod Petrie’s “sporting integrity cannot be obtained for any price” remains the soundbite that absolutely nails the Leith club to a position of not accepting a newco Rangers. In most projections, a prudently run Hibs would not be one of the major losers if forced to redraw budgets to compensate for the fiscal reductions inherent in losing the Ibrox club, while the unstinting backing of Tom Farmer would allow them to cover any shortfall in the immediate term anyway.
Chairman Kenny Cameron took umbrage to suggestions earlier in the week that they had made up their minds to back a newco application from Rangers because they could not afford the drastic drop-off in revenues predicted by some if that were not approved. “Any speculation is purely that and we find it strange that some seem to know how ICTFC would vote under certain circumstances – they must have a crystal ball,” he said. Must be considered one of the clubs whose vote remains up for grabs.
Chairman Michael Johnston is a man alone among his SPL cohorts in making it plain that there must be a Rangers in the Scottish top flight and that commercial considerations must trump sporting integrity. He has further stated that the new Rangers must not start next season with any points or financial penalties – these believed to be a possible trade-off for entry for some clubs – in having already been punished enough.
The Fir Park club are understood to be seeking assurances over the broadcasting rights before arriving at any decision on a new Rangers. Their fan ownership model makes them more beholden to the mood of their masses, which has appeared insurrectionist if they do not say “no to a newco”. Another club whose position may be considered to be in a state of flux.
The newly promoted Highland side will increase revenues next season whether or not they have Rangers to play in their first tilt in the top flight. Chairman Roy MacGregor said he has taken a “calculated risk” on his budget that is not dependent on income that could be attached to the presence of an Ibrox club in the top flight. MacGregor’s largesse is what County count on. The fact he has said as the “new kid” he will listen to others could make for the likelihood that he serves sporting intergity if it is the case for doing so that is made most passionately by his peers.
The one Scottish top-flight club with cash in the bank, they could survive any downturn in the economic viability. As chairman Steven Brown has been quick to point out, the Perth side don’t need a Rangers because they spent many seasons in the First Division balancing their books without them. Yet with Brown also describing the potential loss of the Ibrox club top the top flight as a “disaster” it is thought he is one of those who is likely to be swayed were swingeing tarriffs attached to SPL entry for a newco.
His fuliminating “the law is an ass” response to Rangers’ challenge in the Court of Session to the sanctions imposed on them by the SFA judicial panel made the Paisley club’s chairman Stewart Gilmour the most outspoken critic of what he saw as the Ibrox club’s reckless disregard of football’s jurisdiction. That is believed to have hardened his attitude towards a newco Rangers. And even though he is in the process of selling the club on to a local fan body, with the vote set to come before the £1.5m buy-out earmarked for 4 July, it is thought a “no” vote would not go against the thinking of the club’s hardcore and future owners.