We are now nearly five years removed from discussions about the Scottish Premier League expanding with an SPL2 division, sparking a war of words with Scottish Football League officials keen on retaining their say in how Scottish football would operate going forward. Since then, that plan collected a bit of dust that was kicked up regularly as calls were made for some sort of reorganization to the game in order to see the clubs be more competitive and more of them stable financially. When current SPL chief Neil Doncaster began pushing what appeared to be the most controversial of the reform recommendations from the McLeish Report–that of a ten team premier division–public optimism for meaningful reform likely dimmed. Supporter opinion polls demonstrated overwhelming rejection of the plan, and initially it was thought SPL club representatives would not come to an agreement to trim their flock by a further two, aware in reality it could be one of their own clubs that could land on the wrong side of the cut. After all, there would be no way the SPL would actually agree to something recommended them following an independent review, right?
So, it came as a bit of a shock when shortly after the New Year, news filtered through the Auld Lang Synes that the SPL working group had come to a similar conclusion and supported a ten team top flight with two premier divisions, relegation playoffs, and a pyramid system. Shock turned to awe when it was announced after the clubs met in Hampden mid-January that an agreement had been reached to indeed do just that, and that this reorganization would be set to begin for the 2012/13 season. Perhaps even more surprising was that this decision was reported to be by unanimous consent, as Dundee United representatives, among others, rattled on they considered the plan dead in the water. For a moment, it appeared a belief in the typical stubbornness by Scottish officials to see a recommendation out was misplaced, but that was only for a moment. Following the most recent AGM of SPL clubs, the revised proposal–to have a ten team premier SPL with a twelve team division right below it–looks to be truly rejected, and rather than reducing the number of clubs in the top flight, momentum will again increase to raise the current number to fourteen. What has now transpired over six months that has seemingly reversed general agreement to outright rejection?
Whatever the reason was for the public reversal, most likely that original proclamation by Doncaster in January was woefully wide of the mark. Club chairmen such as Kilmarnock’s Michael Johnston have been openly against the 10 team plan from the off, and John Yorkston of recently promoted Dunfermline looks to have made clear his club would be against the proposal. After Doncaster and Ralph Topping had traveled to Lithuania in January to discuss the matter personally with Vladimir Romanov in hopes of garnering his support, the bad boy of the league spoke well of them but remains one of the rebels to which Doncaster can not align to his cause. For clubs other than the Old Firm, the more salient issue is equitable income distribution within the top flight, and those clubs consider that for this to occur, they need more members than less to break the “Old Firm veto.” League rules are currently set so that, for any new resolution to pass in the Scottish Premier, there must be eleven of a possible twelve clubs in agreement. Effectively, Celtic and Rangers–who often have objectives at odds with the rest of the league–can scupper any deal. This exact situation happened in 2002, when the Old Firm blocked an initiative for the SPL to establish its own subscription television channel. With Celtic and Rangers able to secure higher revenues from selling broadcast rights to their home matches individually rather than having to share with the rest of the league, the Old Firm denied to the rest of the Premier League a proposal that might have been a more lucrative risk than the current £13 million per season the league receives from its ESPN/Sky contract in the wake of the Setanta collapse.
Perhaps herein truly lies the renewed renunciation of the ten team option for the SPL’s future shape. Figures recently released indicate that television ratings have increased by 28% over the previous year and are 47% higher than when Setanta was broadcasting Premier league matches a couple years ago. With the November deadline approaching for the SPL to decide whether to opt out of the remaining period on its present deal, club chairs might want to see if an improved bargaining position this time around yields a more favorable broadcast partnership, and they would be loathe to entertain that with the prospect of fewer allies about when the issue of a more equitable distribution of income to all SPL clubs still sits on the table.
Further–and this is a wild stab in the dark–with discussions at the recently-concluded AGM also including the league establishing its own pay TV channel again, club chairs might be hedging their bets against another Old Firm veto should that plan progress more earnestly. Following the 2002 showdown, Yorkston and Dunfermline were in the Scottish Premier League, and Yorkston walked away seriously hinting that there could be a future SPL that does not include the Old Firm. If another battle over TV rights is set to begin, this issue becomes paramount to the future of the league. Should the majority of Scottish Premier clubs favor its own SPL channel while the Old Firm returns to its 2002 posture, would the remaining league clubs threaten to form a new SPL without the Old Firm? This then would reduce the number of members to ten, which would be in line with one of the recommendations of the McLeish Report and the one Doncaster and Topping have attempted to rally the clubs in support. Currently without a soft place to land such an extraordinary set of circumstances presents itself, Rangers and Celtic might have no choice but to negotiate with the other club chairs as opposed to invoking their veto powers, setting into motion Romanov and others’ desire to obtain a bigger share of the TV revenue coming to fruition.
Another possibility–again, one not founded in any statements from a club–would be the approval of expanding the Scottish Premier League to 14 clubs in conjunction with realignment of the SPL and the SFL under one administrative body. To do so would call for agreement between SPL and SFL chiefs, something that has been difficult to achieve over the past five years since the SPL originally proposed to absorb the top division of the Football League into its own premier league with the SPL2 concept. In this way, the current non-Old Firm clubs would have more partners at the bargaining table when it came time to discuss issues of finance and distribution going forward, and more members that would be able to override any veto threats from Celtic and Rangers. Additionally, should the opportunity arise for the Old Firm to break from the SPL, a quasi status quo would have been rendered, as the remaining Scottish Premier League would still have twelve members, ones that might be much more attractive on their own then than they are currently.
Both of these potential outcomes, however, could be considered ludicrous in the extreme. A Scottish top flight without the allure of the Old Firm both domestically and abroad would be highly difficult to fathom to fans and any broadcast partner. Celtic and Rangers somehow finding entry into another country’s league system–namely being dropped somewhere within the English leagues–has already been dismissed by English Premiership back in 2009 and would probably be rejected again amid the howl of English club chairs who would see a southern insertion of the Old Firm as a severe threat to their wallets. Simply put, the Old Firm and Scottish football need each other, and another split as happened in 2002 should be avoided for them not only to survive but thrive in the future should either addition or subtraction be chosen for the top flight. Despite an expansion to 14 clubs being the popular choice for both supporters and club chairs, it is not the recommended reorganization from the McLeish Report. Of course, this makes it all the more likely to happen should actual change take place, as it would be more in keeping with the supposed stubbornness for Scottish football to do as it is told.
It could also finally sweep up the dust that’s been accumulating over the years regarding the idea of the SPL and SFL working together for the good of Scottish football rather than being old enemies, which might be the best proposal of them all.
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