Scottish football restrictions come at a cost and smarter solutions are needed - Iain McMenemy

We are two weeks into the current three-week period of restrictions that were imposed on outdoor sports events by the Scottish Government and commenced on Boxing Day.

Iain McMenemy, chairman of Stenhousemuir FC.
Iain McMenemy, chairman of Stenhousemuir FC.

Clubs in the Scottish Premiership decided to postpone their fixture calendar for three weeks by bringing forward a planned winter break, whilst clubs in the three professional tiers below decided to keep playing but with crowds limited to just 500.

So far so good. However, clubs are already starting to feel the financial losses. The early new year fixtures are often the local derby matches where clubs can achieve increased capacity crowds with the knock-on positive effect on hospitality and other match day income from larger crowds. But sadly, this was curtailed this year under the new restrictions. For the Premiership clubs, no matches and no income. For the clubs in the Championship Leagues 1 & 2, the income was severely restricted.

There were also additional costs incurred as clubs had to steward other parts of their grounds in order to allow for social distancing. It was a testing time for clubs, but the hope is that these restrictions don’t remain in place any longer than the three weeks.

Whilst matchday income reduced, unfortunately there is little scope to reduce costs. The overwhelming majority of costs are for player wages, and the show must go on so there should be no question about reducing these outgoings. This is their employment, they should continue to be paid in full for doing their job, just like any other sector.

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The lockdown by stealth imposed in Scotland, is in stark contrast to what is happening down south. This was of course easy to see as the games in the English divisions were televised with full crowds in attendance, whereas all Scottish Premiership games were pulled from the TV schedule.

Now let me be quite clear for all those that play political eye spy with newspaper columns – I’m not advocating that we in any way compare political differences and decision making between any of the four nations. What I do advocate, is that we analyse the data available within each nation to help inform.

In other words, the four nations imposed different restrictions at different times, can we find out from the data how successful the different restrictions were and use this to guide us going forward? This shouldn’t be about proving that any administration was right or wrong, it should be to simply ensure that we know what restrictions work, when to impose and remove them, and help us understand why that may be.

Whilst blanket restrictions and shutdowns were the only tools at our disposal at the start of this, when we had no data on COVID, and no experience of a pandemic, we now have the understanding, lived experience, and data from two years of living in a pandemic on a global scale.

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We need to apply smarter solutions as the virus will be here for a while yet, so we need to find ways of living with it that ensures we keep moving forward, whilst putting as many targeted protections in place as possible.

This applies to businesses, organisations, individuals as well as governments. We all have a role to play in a shared society.

Within football, the authorities need to be pragmatic, but smart and responsive too.

When it came to making decisions about how we handled the current restrictions, the Scottish FA and SPFL took a different approach to how they had handled things previously. Rather than imposing league wide restrictions, there was consultation and consensus. Not everyone will be happy at the outcome, but there is no doubt that the governing bodies deserve credit for handling this in a refined and smarter way. The lack of criticism from the majority of clubs is testament to this.

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Going forward we need to continue this trend. There is more we could do to be ready to react to any future challenges.

As an example, when the Premiership postponed their fixtures, there was perhaps an opportunity for the league and the broadcasters to look for something to replace lost matches. As the championship, Leagues 1 and 2 continued playing, perhaps we could have struck a deal to televise a few of these matches. Not to generate revenue, but to give some profile to lower leagues and to fill the void of having no Scottish football on the tele.

I floated this suggestion on Twitter, and there was significant engagement on this idea from football fans. There was debate around broadcasting games, a highlights show from across the divisions, club-generated content, and more. The interest shown demonstrates that there is an appetite for content from outside the Premiership, something that has been proven by the success of shows like A View from the Terrace.

This Twitter example also demonstrated how sensible it is to involve supporters in discussions around football governance. That one single tweet had over 250,000 page impressions and over 7,000 engagements. Supporters want more than the ability to attend matches, and they deserve the right to be included in shaping the future of our game.

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They have ideas, fresh thinking and see the game from a different perspective to the decision makers. One way that Scottish football could engage in smarter thinking is to identify more opportunities for supporters to interact with decision making.

As with covid, there doesn’t need to be a one-size-fits-all approach. What’s right for one club may not be right for everyone. But as we continue to battle restrictions, and need to change and adapt what we do to react, one thing is certain, the fans remain at the blunt end of it, and the smart thing to do is to modernise our relationship with supporters to pay them back for sticking with us through some very difficult times.

Iain McMenemy is the chairman of Stenhousemuir FC

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