Neil Doncaster: A(nother) Premier League Chief Executive Under Pressure
Scottish club football’s top man, Neil Doncaster, has little other than nominal occupation in common with slimy sexist Richard Scudamore.
Both are English and league chief executives. But Doncaster, the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) boss, now has the opportunity to fashion another similarity, the ability to get away with just about anything. Scudamore, we now know, can do what he likes, how and to whom he likes. Doncaster tried this in 2012, bending over backwards, sideways and eachways to keep Rangers in the Scottish Premier League (SPL) after their liquidation was confirmed.
However, more Doncaster machinations recently emerged. On May 16th the “Celtic Research” (CR) twitter account patiently – 140 characters-at-a-time – told previously unpublished tales of the November 2011 SPL broadcasting rights deal – a hurriedly-signed extension to the existing five-year deal signed with SKY and ESPN in July 2009. The deal attracted controversies – especially a clause guaranteeing four Rangers/Celtic “Old Firm” games, which Doncaster claimed was in existence for a decade. Doncaster has not revealed the precise date of its introduction, however. CR also revealed the SPL’s, now the SPFL’s, subsidies to ESPN to show Rangers games. When SPL and Scottish Football League (SFL) clubs voted a replacement Rangers into Scottish club football’s bottom tier in July 2012, Doncaster and the SPL made it more financially viable for ESPN to transmit Rangers games.
The first financial inducement (only cynics would call them “bribes”), which did not survive last year’s SPL/SFL merger into the SPFL, was a £250,000 payment to ESPN if ESPN’s total audience for Scottish games was below four million-per-season. The second, which survived BT Sport’s 2013 acquisition of ESPN’s contract, was: “ESPN and the SPL shall work together in good faith to reduce the cost of producing…live Rangers league games, subject to an overall contribution by the SPL to ESPN’s production costs…of no more than £250,000 per season.” “(Rangers’) games in the lower divisions would not have been broadcast without this subsidy,” CR added.
There was a financial logic to the “four Old Firm games” clause, as these were easily Scottish football’s most watched, with no other team having been Scottish champions since Aberdeen in 1985. But this wasn’t the point of CR’s claims. The problem was that to guarantee FOUR games-a-season, the clubs had to be in the top six after 33 matches, when the SPL splits into two mini-leagues, consisting of the top and bottom sixes. Given their title duopoly, the fourth Rangers/Celtic meeting seemed a given. It was nonetheless legally unenforceable without a top-six placing for both sides regardless of on or, as became key, off-field performance. As CR asked: “When would that have passed a basic level of legal scrutiny?” And this was more to CR’s point. Doncaster said the clause was introduced more than a decade ago. So when Rangers went pop, Doncaster claimed SKY, ESPN and their money could leave Scottish club football, unless a new Rangers was accepted into the SPL in 2012/13 or, at worst, the second tier, SFL1. CR said “that was/is a lie.”
Doncaster was thus able to present SPL and SFL clubs with the “Armageddon” scenario – the multi-million pound drop in revenue if the new Rangers were ordered to start life in SFL3. The clubs didn’t buy it – partly because supporters threatened their own wee Armageddon through refusing to buy season-tickets if the SPL included Rangers. SKY and ESPN deals, amended to include Rangers, were announced on 31st July and 3rd August respectively, with Doncaster whinging about a “seven-figure” revenue shortfall and the “significant damage that has been done” by the clubs’ decision. However, part of that shortfall, we now know, was the afore-mentioned “subsidies.” CR argued that “In Doncaster’s eyes, the Rangers brand had to be saved above all else. Giving the broadcasters sweeteners was part of that.”
As was the Old Firm games clause. Doncaster used it to battle calls for an expanded SPL (in which teams would “only” meet twice) before it underpinned the “Armageddon” agenda in 2012. For instance, on BBC Radio Scotland on 30th April, Doncaster claimed that “a written clause…that says Celtic and Rangers must meet four times a year” was in “the current contract.” Scotland’s mainstream media (SMSM), predictably, connived in this. In mid-June the Daily Record newspaper story quoted a “Sky insider” insisting that “three years without Rangers,” while they won promotions through the SFL, “would blow the whole deal out of the water,” because “the longest SKY will wait for them…is a year.” This echoed Doncaster’s fears. With good reason, CR suggested, asking the Record “was the source of this story not a Sky insider at all but Neil Doncaster?”
CR said Doncaster was “briefing selected journalists off the record that a Rangers would be in the SPL, AT ALL COSTS” (CR’s emphasis). “(They) were briefed that the TV deals were based on four Old Firm games per season. The only problem,” explained CR, in language betraying considerable frustration, “was that was total pish. Did they ever see the contracts? B****ks did they. Took Doncaster at his word.”
One briefed journalist was Record sports editor James Traynor, whose later incarnation as Rangers media chief explained his willingness to…ahem…co-operate. CR asked: “If the Record ran a “Sky insider” story, what the hell was the role of Traynor as Sports Editor? Given that he had personal briefings from Doncaster, why did copy appear in his paper quoting sources from questionable origins?”
So, the story so far…
JULY 2009: The SPL signs a five-year broadcast deal with SKY and ESPN.
NOVEMBER 21 2011: The SPL signs an extension to the above – five years from 2012, conditional on four Celtic/Rangers games being “available” for broadcast.
FEBRUARY 14 2012: Rangers enter administration.
APRIL 30 2012: Doncaster confirms that the “current contract” contains “a written clause…that says Celtic and Rangers must meet four times a year.” JUNE 14 2012: Rangers’ liquidation confirmed. The Daily Record quotes a “SKY insider” saying SKY will only wait “a year” for Rangers’ SPL return.
JULY 4 2012: After persistent financial “Armageddon” threats if they refuse a replacement Rangers into the SPL, SPL clubs refuse a replacement Rangers into the SPL. JULY 13 2012: After persistent financial “Armageddon” threats if they vote Rangers into SFL3, SFL clubs vote Rangers into SFL3.
JULY 31/AUGUST 3 2012: The SPL announce amended TV deals with SKY and ESPN to show SPL games and fifteen Rangers games.
THE OTHER WEEK: The “Celtic Research” twitter account reveals that ESPN (and now BT Sport) receive(d) “production costs” subsidies of up to £250,000 and ESPN were guaranteed an SPL subsidy if its Scottish Football coverage attracted under four million viewers. Also says Doncaster’s claim of a decade-long “four Old Firm games a season” clause “was/is a lie.” STV ran the “production costs” story on May 20th, followed by newspapers – including the Record, “revelation” on May 21st that the cost of showing Rangers lower-division games “sits at £725,000.”
The following day, Doncaster wrote an “open letter to fans” to “restate the facts” following “some of the misleading information and rumours.” He re-iterated that “when Rangers ceased to be a member of the SPL, the broadcasters had the right to terminate the (TV) contracts immediately” which “would have been catastrophic for every club in Scotland.” And the production costs subsidy (“less than 3% of the annual value of the deal”) met broadcasters’ “increased costs…of erecting gantries, building rigging and establishing other facilities at a wide variety of smaller grounds.”
However, a Dundee United fan spotted that SPFL Rule I35 placed responsibility for “suitable gantries for use by television cameras and any other moving pictures” with the host clubs not the TV companies. As CR noted elsewhere: “I know that significant portions of the given explanation are total s**t. That leads to mistrust of everything.” Key documentation was leaked last summer via the Charlotte Fakes (CF) twitter account. This explained the timing of Doncaster’s haste to renegotiate a TV contract which still had two-and-a-half years to run.
At a General Meeting (GM) on 31st October, SPL clubs agreed to continue working on what Doncaster himself called “a funded, robust proposal” for an “SPL TV” channel for the next GM on 21st November. However, at “the (SPL) board meeting following the (October) GM, it transpired that there were certain circumstances in Scottish Football which would have placed the SKY and ESPN offers in a degree of jeopardy,” leading to “the board’s decision that (these) proposals ought to be recommended to the clubs.” But CF also leaked emails, dated October 6th, between Rangers’ then-company secretary Gary Withey and Rod McKenzie of SPL solicitors Harper MacLeod, contradicting that chronology. McKenzie referenced “an outline paper…setting out the process…being proposed to achieve the discussed end,” including “how…compliance with SPL membership criteria, ground…and player registration, both with the SFA and SPL, would be addressed.”
Withey said “the directors have a duty to explore all avenues.” But, crucially, McKenzie said he had “briefed the Chief Executive on our call” and that the “outline paper” was Doncaster’s suggestion “if there is an appetite to pursue this route.” We now know that this “route” led to administration. So Doncaster was already aware of, as CR delicately put it, “the depth of the shit they were in,” even though it was claimed “certain circumstances” had “transpired” after the October GM. Doncaster attempted to rush through the SKY/ESPN deal via written resolution, avoiding detailed discussion by clubs. This failed. But the board discontinued the “SPL TV” proposal, which left the SKY/ESPN deal as the clubs’ only “viable” option. This ensured that the SPL’s TV deal was formally tied to Rangers’ presence in the league. CF emailed the SPL board members involved, “to determine the reasoning behind” their decisions. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t “acknowledge my correspondence.” CF also asked SKY “to confirm if the four Celtic v Rangers clause existed and, if so, was this a SKY requirement. SKY’s PR referred me back to the SPL, indicating they had authority to discuss.” “One may read whatever they wish into this referral,” CF added. “Celtic Research” has now taken up that offer.
Without documentary evidence, CR’s revelations have been questioned, beyond inevitable cynicism about a “Celtic” source on “Rangers” matters. Indeed, CR noted that “only visibility of the contract would satisfy me” that his revelations were inaccurate.” Celtic’s own involvement has been particularly questioned. Celtic’s Eric Riley sat on the relevant SPL board. And CR admitted “there must be some” when asked about Celtic’s “complicity”, adding: “I hate that too.” CR also described a “London meeting” between Doncaster and current Celtic CEO Peter Lawwell as “very important.”
CR promises “more facts about the current and previous TV deals” which may keep alive a story that, like Scudamore’s sexism, threatens to die improperly resolved, despite CR’s view that: “Doncaster (was) lying about the four Celtic/Rangers games’ inclusion on the existing contract.” “Four Celtic and four Rangers, not four Old Firm games.” “The only previous clause was if they or us (joined) another league. The deal was introduced to SKY in October 2011, tying Rangers to the SPL…when the SPL executive saw the size of the (Rangers financial) hole.”
Doncaster has not been exposed as a sexist. And he couldn’t keep a Rangers in the SPL. But otherwise, like his English counterpart, he has done what he likes, how and to whom he likes. And, as Scudamore knows, that is power worth having.
You can follow Mark on Twitter by clicking here.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.