SPFL TV deal: Neil Doncaster on 'big moment in history', his future, Rangers 'settling scores' and 'sleeping soundly'

Led into the SPFL boardroom for The Scotsman’s interview with Neil Doncaster to discuss the new Sky Sports television deal, a temptation had to be resisted to chuckle over the Teflon Don nickname the governing body’s chief executive has acquired across his bruising 13-year tenure.

SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster has described the signing of set-up's new TV as one of the great days across his 13-year tenure.  (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)
SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster has described the signing of set-up's new TV as one of the great days across his 13-year tenure. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

Trim and attired in a waistcoat, were he to have lent back in his chair and pulled out a chunky cigar – as if, with the straight-laced Englishman – the Don in full control of the family business type-scene would have been complete. Doncaster had good news to expound on with the supposedly Rangers-threatened £150million five-year extension on broadcast rights, signed off thanks to backing from 41 of the 42 league clubs. And little wonder.

It has become hackneyed to bemoan the meagre returns on Scottish football television deals, Sky’s input and the apparent refusal to put the rights out to tender. Such doesn’t equate to the reality of the fresh terms. There is security and stability inherent in remaining faithful to a known, reliable partner. And a decent uptick with the current £25m sum for 48 games becoming £30m for 60 games in 2024-25, with the potential for another £8m from two tranches of 10 games that will go to market should Sky pass on them. Of course, the naysayers – Rangers again, with the club notably never mentioned by name by Doncaster – have taken issue with the lack of a tender process, the much better terms overall earned by Nordic countries, and the unwillingness to copy these nations in offering all games for streaming. Doncaster has pretty compelling answers for those gripes. Underpinned by the fact matchday revenue in Scotland, in averaging out at 48% of clubs’ earnings, far outstrips all other major European leagues.

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“I don’t see any desire among our clubs for all games being streamed,” he said. “What I see a desire to do is have a balanced approach where you have a number of games that are broadcast live on Sky Sports, a number of games that can be streamed by clubs on a pay-per-view basis [five per club], and a number of games where you have to be in the stadium to enjoy them. And we have that. We have gone up to 60 games, from season 2024-25. That could potentially go up to 80 games live on Sky Sports and another, up to, 60 games on pay-per-view. The rest of them only, the bulk, only available if you are in stadiums to view them.

“We have to protect the in-stadium experience. It is something uniquely Scottish. The passion, the drama, the excitement, and I think this deal does that by ensuring we retain people in stadia. It is different for other European league and the comparisons with other European leagues are therefore very false. They are largely about broadcast products. We are not that. We are an in-stadium experiences. That is what the fans want and that is what the clubs want.

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“We have to remember that during covid, Sky stepped forward. They recognised we were so reliant on turnstile income and allowed clubs to stream games when we couldn’t get fans in stadia. That level of support from our key partner shouldn’t be forgotten. One of the reasons why a long-term deal with one of the UK’s leading sports broadcasters was so attractive. And I don’t understand the testing the market claims because of course we tested the market. We had a meeting of the 12 Premiership clubs where our broadcast advisor outlined the discussions that he had had with other broadcasters. So it is an absolute fallacy to suggest that there hasn’t been market testing. It is a relatively small market place, you know precisely who the likely bidders are going to be and clearly it would be folly not to talk to everyone who might have an interest in your rights. We did that. And on the basis of these discussions we have decided to go with Sky Sports.”

Doncaster has been presented as an autocratic figure. Yet, the genesis of the TV deal puts the mockers on that. When a group of new movers and shakers in Scottish football, largely North American based, pointed a way forward, he embraced their proposals – the principal one being to have £50m distributed to clubs within five years, which will require a further £12m uplift, approximately – and they reached an accommodation with him. There appears only one recalcitrant party in all this …

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“The process we have gone through to get where we are was kick-started by the likes of [Hibs chairman] Ron Gordon, [Dundee United chairman] Mark Ogren, [Aberdeen chairman] Dave Cormack, [Hearts chief executive] Andrew McKinlay and [Dundee owner] John Nelms, back last year,” said Doncaster. “It ultimately led to Ron Gordon and myself sitting down with Sky as early a year ago. These are really experienced senior business people. In Ron’s case, with vast experience in sports broadcasting. They understand the territory. They are architects of this deal; they are promoting this deal. They are not going to promote something that they don’t believe in. They believe in it and the fact that 41 of 42 clubs have endorsed the change in rules to enable us to accept the Sky proposal is vindication of the process.”

Doncaster deserves to have his sound governance over the latest TV deal recognised when he has had more brickbats come his way than a brickbat supplier. Attributable to some of the game’s greatest traumas coming on his watch. Many, including this writer, have given him serious kickings. Whether related to his prioritising of economic considerations over natural justice in attempting to shoe-horn newco Rangers into the top flight following the Ibrox club’s liquidation in 2012, the farrago of the “magic vote” by Dundee in calling the Covid-19 season of 2019-20 early, and the botch in resolving the conflict of interest dispute with Rangers over the cinch sponsorship deal. The bad blood from those latter two episodes seems to have created a schism with the Ibrox powerbrokers never to be resolved so long as he is around.

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“I don’t know,” he said when that suggestion was put to him. “I look back to some comments that were made in July 2021 about settling old scores. I don’t know what the real motivation is from those who say they don’t like the deal. Ultimately, we can only be focused on what we are here to do. And that is to serve the interests of all 42 SPFL members clubs and drive the league forward. When you are in our shoes, a league body, you are there to serve the interests of all 42. It is dangerous to be distracted by noise from outside. You have to focus on what you have to do. Which is to serve the interest of all 42 member clubs as best you can. I absolutely believe, fervently believe – and I think 41 out of 42 clubs also believe – that today’s deal does that.”

Gordon has said he senses clubs are prepared to work on a more collegiate basis. And, generally, work with Doncaster, it would seem. Just as well, since the man is in no mood to go anywhere. Even when SPFL favourites in auditors PriceWaterhouseCoopers previously published research stating the median tenure of chief executives is five years. Doncaster has been in post almost three times that. The question then begged is: why bother with the grief? “I am absolutely motivated by the challenge to get to £50m to be distributed to member clubs,” said the SPFL chief executive. “I think it is an ambitious target, an exciting target. I’m personally excited to be able to achieve that for all 42 member clubs. And today’s announcement is a very significant, but first step, on that journey. Many more steps need to be taken but I am absolutely up for taking those. In partnership with our member clubs and the likes of Ron and Dave, who have stepped up and offered their expertise and helped to deliver a very significant and positive outcome.

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“Ultimately you have to do the right thing and I have done that for the last 13 years. And people may disagree with things that you do – that is entirely a matter for them – but I go to sleep soundly at night, certain in the knowledge I have done what I have believed to be right at every turn. Look, it is a rough, tough, world. This isn’t a role for the faint-hearted. You do need a thick skin. And I have a thick skin and I relish the challenge that Scottish football throws up on a daily basis. But you do get really great days as well. And I think today’s announcement is one of those. To be able to announce a really key deal, an extension with Sky that ties them to us for seven years, with the SWPL getting its live broadcast deal on Sky Sports for the first time ever, these are really big moments in the history of Scottish football and I’m really proud to be part of it.”

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