The SPL Debate Part I: What’s Wrong With Our Game?

Posted on August 23, 2011 by

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Let’s not beat around the bush, Scottish football has problems.  We’ve known it for a good few years, but while we’re all very good at seeing the obvious, not many in Scottish football are actually looking for a solution.  A lot of ideas are said in passing at press conferences, by well paid ex-pro’s, and even the opinionated press.  But nothing’s done about it, ever.

Of course to look for the solutions we first have to discover the problem.  A lot of these are blatantly obvious, a lack of money, poor quality players etc but some of them lie deep beneath the surface and all must be tackled before green shoots of recovery are found.

We’ll start off with the most obvious problem, money.  PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) have been tracking Scottish football’s financial landscape, more specifically the Scottish Premier League (SPL) for the last 21 years.  Their latest findings make for hard reading but are not surprising for anyone who follows the game in Scotland closely enough.

The following is from PWC and based on the 2009/2010 SPL season

  • Net debt is up £11m to £99m for all twelve clubs in conjunction with a 15% decrease in income from £198m to £167
  • Clubs were increasingly reliant on discretionary revenue streams which include sponsorship, marketing and merchandising.  However due to the credit crunch these avenues of income diminished compared to previous years.
  • The SPL also saw a drop in transfer sales from £29m to just £13m
  • 11% drop in attendance from the previous year
  • Poor European season
  • An overall drop in TV revenue since the Setanta collapse

You don’t need to have a diploma in finance to see the picture is very grim looking.  Add into account that over the past few years the SPL has seen four clubs enter administration (including Gretna who went bust), with Rangers and more recently Hearts facing serious Tax charges from Her Majesties Revenue & Customs (HMRC).  Hearts have recently cleared their tax issue but the fact they were even threatened with sanctions is not a good image is to set for the league.

Attendances have also been a bone of contention in recent years with more and more empty seats being seen at games.  In the last five years since 09/10 the SPL has lost 600,000 fans.  That’s a staggering amount and a massive kick in the teeth to a club’s bank balance all over the country.  The club with the biggest stadium, Celtic, saw a fall of almost 13,000 down to 45,583 last season when compared to an average gate of 58,512 in 01/02.

It’s no coincidence that a good run in Europe is often accompanied by high turnover.  Rangers, Celtic and Aberdeen have achieved their highest turnover when staying in Europe beyond Christmas, while receiving big drops in turnover when an early European exit occurs.

After Hearts’ 5-0 drubbing by Tottenham Hotspur in the Europa League this season comparison’s between the standard of the SPL and English Premier League (EPL) were being made.  Let me make one thing clear straight away, comparisons between the SPL and EPL are completely unfair.

The geographical locations make comparing the leagues a natural reaction, the population and financial situations of both leagues are a million miles apart.  The total cost of the Tottenham squad that travelled to Tynecastle had an estimated value that probably exceeded the entire SPL.  Van Der Vaarts weekly wage could keep a club like Clyde going for an entire year, we are not only talking about different ball parks here but different galaxies.

The main reason for the gulf?  TV money.  The amount of cash that SKY and ESPN have pumped into the commercial giant that is the EPL is colossal.  The SPL will struggle for years until it is able to negotiate a better TV deal and fund the top clubs in Scotland.  The current SPL TV deal with SKY and ESPN started in 2009 and is set to run until 2014. Scotland’s top clubs will receive £13m per annum split between the 12 clubs.  Compare that with Hull City, who in the same 09/10 season that Scotland’s new TV deal started were relegated from the EPL with £32m in TV money.  Faced with this fact, the 5-0 result Hearts faced is entirely plausible and easily explained when the leagues are compared financially.

So where do we go from here?  We know the SPL and all it’s clubs have big financial problems, most are in debt and struggling to breathe.  In part two I’ll take a look at the branding of the SPL, why it’s not attractive enough and what can be done to fix Scottish football.

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