RANGERS’ likely expulsion from the SPL is that rarest of opportunities to change the status quo, and it should be grabbed with both hands.
Rangers’ disappearance from the top flight means that the Old Firm no longer have an inbuilt veto, and if all of the other clubs – the so-called “Gang of Ten” – can come up with something that is in the long-term strategic interest of the game in this country, then they can no longer be stymied by the combined votes of the two Glasgow giants.
The “something” they should now be considering is a measure to make this a more competitive, vibrant league with the capacity to grow and strengthen. That something is abandoning the current system where each club keeps all of its home gate receipts and season ticket revenue. Instead, as with the Scottish Cup, they should be shared: ideally equally, but if not then with maybe 60 per cent going to the home team and 40 per cent going to the away team. Any income earned by the entity of the SPL – such as television revenues and the sponsorship of the League itself – should also be split evenly between all 12 teams.
Although all clubs except the Old Firm would benefit (at least on the basis of the 2011-12 attendance figures) any idea that this would produce a level playing field is well wide of the mark. The Old Firm would still have huge sponsorship deals, lucrative merchandising and their own in-house publications and online TV stations. And, of course, every other week they would still have half the income from a full Celtic Park or Ibrox. Last season almost two thirds of the gate and season ticket money spent by supporters of SPL teams was spent by those two clubs’ supporters, which means that, even after a 50-50 split was implemented, the Old Firm would retain an income which would be a multiple of that enjoyed by all the other SPL clubs, allowing them to retain a huge inbuilt advantage over the ten make-weights.
And make no mistake, make-weights is exactly what the other ten clubs are. Apart from Hearts coming second to Celtic in 2006, the Old Firm have finished first and second in the SPL in each of the 14 years since its inception in 1998.
Even worse than the Old Firm’s domination is the fact that the situation is gradually getting worse. The long-term, 50-year picture is of shrinking attendances across Scottish football except at the Old Firm (where their unfettered dominance has seen average attendances at the two grounds rise from 66,353 in 1967 to 94,272 today) but even in the era of the SPL there has been a steady but unmistakeable decline among the top clubs. The average total attendance across all 12 SPL clubs in 2001-2, for example, was 187,901, which by last season had shrunk to 162,064, a drop of almost 14 per cent. Of the nine clubs who were in the SPL in both seasons, only Hibs and Hearts have seen an increase in average attendances.
Nor is it just about attendances. Although many of the developments that have conspired against Scottish football – primarily the rise of pay-television, which favours leagues in countries with bigger populations – it’s worth thinking back to where we were in 1967-8. In that season, Celtic were European Champions and Rangers were European Cup Winners’ Cup finalists, but it wasn’t just the Old Firm who were doing well – Scotland were fifth in the UEFA coefficients partly because there was so much competition in the domestic game and because several clubs from outside the Old Firm had done so well in Europe. Kilmarnock were Fairs Cup semi-finalists, Dundee United beat Barcelona home and away on their European debut and Dunfermline lost in the Fairs Cup on away goals to eventual winners Dynamo Zagreb. Thanks partly to a virtuoso performance by Jim Baxter, massive underdogs Scotland had just beaten World Cup winners England at Wembley.
It is surely no coincidence that the most successful post-war era for Scottish football was one where the league was genuinely competitive, and one where gate receipts were split equitably. Back then the Old Firm’s support still dwarfed that of the other ten teams, yet within the previous 15 years Motherwell, Clyde (three times), Falkirk, St Mirren, Hearts and Dunfermline (twice) had all won the cup (indeed there was one ten-year period when Rangers won just one cup and Celtic none). It was the same in the league, with Kilmarnock, Dundee and Hearts (twice) all winning the title in the decade leading up to 1967.
The point is simply this. That genuine competition improves the product, which in turn puts more bums on seats, sells more merchandise and persuades broadcasters to part with more cash. Instead of the dreaded downward spiral, where kids – and, let’s face it, tomorrow’s fans always follow winners – continually migrate towards the Old Firm or just shun the game entirely because they don’t want to identify with their local team of perennial also-rans, there would at least be a chance of a virtuous circle.
There would, inevitably, be howls of indignation from Old Firm fans at such a proposal. So far the SPL has been run largely for the benefit of the two superpowers, and neither they nor their fans would appreciate a change to that status quo (although there should also be other changes, such as a mandatory youth structure and the banning of the practice of charging Old Firm fans through the nose at away games).
Yet to be successful every league needs genuine competition, which is a point that even those free-marketeers in the American major leagues such as the NFL and NBA understand, which is why their franchise system is backed up with a whole raft of measures (such as the draft and salary cap) to ensure a playing field which is level enough for their leagues to remain competitive.
And before any fans complain that it’s morally wrong to take the money spent by one club’s fans and give it to another, that’s exactly how general taxation works: we effectively take from the rich and give to the poor in the interests of a fairer and more cohesive society because this benefits everyone. So why the fuss about a more equitable division of the SPL’s resources? After all, without another ten clubs strong enough to at least occasionally upset the Old Firm, there would actually be no Old Firm.
Therein lies the point. The game in this country is gradually atrophying. The dominance of the Old Firm is, bit by bit, strangling the SPL – but it doesn’t have to be this way.