Cinch Not a Cinch for Rangers

by | Sep 30, 2021

Rangers Football Clubs, old and new, have often thought themselves laws unto themselves. And Scotland’s football authorities have hardly discouraged them, these days at least as much due to Rangers and Celtic’s over-importance to Scottish club football’s financial model as any age-old prejudices.

This financial importance drove the authorities’ attitude to Rangers’ financial collapse (cue exploding irony-meters) in June 2012, to the point of denying that they’d died, despite it being in “all the papers.” Front-page news too. Thus a nine-year-old club could celebrate a 55th Scottish title last May, with its supporters allowed to do so as if they were…a law unto themselves, massing mask-less in reckless numbers in Glasgow’s St George’s Square, as if there wasn’t a pandemic on.

And, last Thursday week, they were allowed to bar ex-Celts Chris Sutton and Neil Lennon from being BT Sport Europa League analysts, over “security concerns” about the duo’s presence; a tacit admission that Rangers couldn’t trust their own fans to behave properly, which was somehow missed by Scotland’s football media (what would the story be if Gary Neville caused “security concerns” at Anfield? “Neville’s a trappy git”? Or “Liverpool fans stand condemned”?). Rangers “complied with all Uefa contractual obligations to facilitate BT Sport as host broadcaster.” But that wasn’t relevant. BT Sport were not the ones barred.

However, even stopped clocks are right twice-a-day. So, Rangers’ latest law-unto-themselves-ness may have legal validity, a possibility accentuated by their plausible accusation of wonky Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) governance. Although, as the story has developed, the truth has become shrouded in semantics.

On 10th June, the SPFL announced online used car dealership cinch (“cars without the faff”) as its sponsor and “car partner,” in a five-year deal reportedly worth £8m, though SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster attached no figure to his claim that this was “the largest-ever sponsorship deal in the SPFL era.” That the previous deal with Ladbrokes was £5m over two seasons, and thus a larger annual amount, may have explained his aversion to detail.

The 2019-founded firm’s sports sponsorships also include being the “Principal Partner” to the England and Wales Cricket Board, an “Elite Partner” to Northampton Saints rugby club, the “Title Sponsor” of the pre-Wimbledon Lawn Tennis tournament at the Queen’s Club and, live from Parody Stadium, Tottenham’s “sleeve partner,” Left sleeve only, mind, as if the concept of sleeve partnership wasn’t absurd enough.

Ah, yes. Sleeves… On 31st July, the SPFL’s opening day, Rangers refused to comply with cinch’s specific matchday requirements. There were no cinch adverts at Ibrox, no “cinch man-of-the-match” award and no cinch logo on Rangers’ shirt sleeves. This was initially linked to Rangers’ expressed dissatisfaction with the league. On 30th July, club Managing Director Stewart Robertson told Rangers TV that the SPFL had “undersold” its “product in “several areas,” e.g. TV rights. “The SPFL is only getting £25m for 48 league games,” he noted. “How can we say that we’ve sold it well?”

And Robertson’s concerns were understandable. Rangers are oft-reportedly on a financial “even keel” nowadays. But this has depended on huge financial support from directors such as Douglas Park (not in breach of ‘Financial Fair Play’ regulations…Scottish football has none). There have also been regular supporters’ share issues, the latest closing in July and falling £2.3m short of its £6.75m fund-raising target. But the tangible, legal issue concerns Park alone. He owns the imaginatively-titled car dealership, Park’s Motor Group (PMG). And because cinch are PMG market competitors, Rangers’ non-compliance may be IN compliance with SPFL rules.

On 2nd August, SPFL chairman Murdoch MacLennan responded to Robertson, e-mailing all clubs to stress that cinch’s “the biggest single sponsorship deal” in the league’s “131-year history.” He credited Doncaster and “his commercial team” for clinching the cinch deal in a “challenging economic environment.”

And he expressed his very “disappointment that one of our clubs has not felt able to deliver inventory to cinch,” i.e. pitchside adverts, man-of-the-match awards and, of course, shirt-sleeve logos. “Your board” (yuk!) would therefore “be discussing this situation later this week” and there would be “a further update” on Rangers’ alleged clear breach of “fulfilment of rights obligations.”

But Rangers were ahead of MacLennan’s game. Their rule-based response was trailed in the news reports of his letter. And two days later, elected SPFL board member Robertson’s own all-club communication combined Rangers’ side of the story with a comprehensive takedown of the league’s conduct since the deal was announced.

Rangers were reliant upon rule 7.1 in the SPFL rulebook’s section I: “Commercial, Broadcast and Sponsorship.” This states that “a Club shall not be obliged to comply” with league rules if it meant “that Club being in breach of a contractual obligation entered into prior to the Commercial Contract concerned being approved to be entered into” by the SPFL. Here, the Commercial Contract” was the cinch deal. And the “contractual obligation” was…unspecified.

Robertson insisted that “When the SPFL Executive put forward the written resolution” on the cinch deal, “Rangers immediately notified Neil Doncaster that…we would be unable to provide (cinch) with many of their rights” due to an unspecified “pre-existing contractual obligation.” And he stressed that Rangers had complied/would comply with league rules “and fulfil all sponsorship obligations which do not conflict with our pre-existing contractual obligations.”

He then asked why the SPFL executive signed the deal “when they knew there was an issue and without further checking with Rangers as to its extent?” Were cinch told that the SPFL “could not provide all the rights it was contracted to provide, due to Rule I.7.” And why did MacLennan credit Doncaster for the deal “when it was introduced…by an agency that will receive…£500,000.” Was this “the best use of Scottish football’s limited resources” or could it have been better spent on “a full-time commercial director?” he concluded, rhetorically.

MacLennan’s update arrived on 9th August, two days after Rangers again wore cinch-less sleeves. He claimed that there was “no realistic option, in compliance with Scottish FA articles, other than to refer this dispute to Scottish FA arbitration…with great reluctance.” Rangers had refused “to give the board sight of any pre-existing third-party contract” that would stop them “providing inventory to cinch.” And he labelled Rangers’ stance “a real and substantial commercial risk to the SPFL…which materially threatens the SPFL’s fee payments to all 42 SPFL clubs.”

But on 23rd August, PMG holding company, Park’s of Hamilton Holdings Ltd, obtained a ruling at the Court of Session (Scotland’s High Court equivalent) in Edinburgh that arbitration must involve them. Park’s said “the Court considered that the failure to include Park’s went against the SFA’s own rules,” and expressed “surprise” at the SFA’s court opposition when “their rules clearly state that any arbitration process should feature all interested parties.” (SFA Article 99 says that “any other party of parties with an interest in the dispute” should receive “notice” of arbitration processes).

Rangers’ reaction re-focused on poor SPFL “corporate governance and leadership.” And they suggested that the league should have been “less confrontational” and “antagonistic,” too obvious a pot/kettle interaction to be anything but a knowing p**s-take…surely? They had an immediate opportunity to be less antagonistic when, according to the Daily Record ‘newspaper,’ they were to be sent “a design of the official top-flight winning flag” in advance of its raising before last Sunday’s home game with Motherwell. But they didn’t take it, instead raising their own cinch-free flag.

The clear next step seemed to be an agreed legal process to let Rangers commercially-confidentially reveal the nature of their commercial relationship with Park’s and how Rule I.7 applied to it. Such as…well…SFA arbitration. Certainly, if Park’s were the “interested party” the case rested upon them being, they’d want to prove it, which was difficult without them offering “sight of any pre-existing third-party contract.” Instead, last Wednesday, the SFA successfully sought leave to appeal the Court of Session decision. And emergent facts at that hearing put the dispute into a whole new context.

The SPFL had received a May 2021 contract from Rangers, which was heavily-redacted to protect claimed “commercial sensitivities.” But SPFL Advocate Lord Keen had “considerable doubt” about the redactions. And he invited presiding judge Lord Braid to “direct” disclosure of the full contract “to your lordship in a sealed envelope” so that the redactions could be “examined and the issue of commercial sensitivity determined.”

Lord Keen claimed this was important because of what he called “the fact” that “right up to June 7, Rangers Football Club Limited were “negotiating to sell” cinch “the naming rights to Ibrox, so it became the cinch Ibrox Stadium, and of course that was a proposal of considerable value to Rangers Football Club Limited.” This was three days before cinch’s SPFL deal was announced.

Lord Braid said that having granted the SFA “leave to reclaim” (appeal), he wouldn’t “make an order for Lord Keen’s motion.” And, that night, a Rangers statement denied any “negotiations,” claiming that when cinch approached them “in early 2021,” they “provided information on what opportunities might be available,” as is “common practice for our commercial team.” And “at no point did cinch offer any terms to Rangers.” But the statement was silent on whether Ibrox naming rights “might” have been “available.” And it remains unclear how Lord Keen could specify an end date to non-existent talks.

Indeed, vital details of who said what to whom and when remain unclear. Take the chronology of the contract negotiations central to the case. I was surprised that Park’s/Rangers’ oft-cited “pre-existing contractual obligation” had only pre-existed from May, when cinch/SPFL talks on a deal announced on 10th June were likely on-going. Thus, while the answer may be “no,” the question “did Rangers agree these obligations knowing that cinch/SPFL talks were on-going” needs answered.

Without such information, speculation/doubts about Rangers’ claims and non-compliances cannot be properly-informed. However, as ever, Scotland’s football media have been found wanting. They have body-swerved the case’s fundamentals. The Court of Session ruling was gleefully presented as a “Rangers victory,” an even greater achievement than winning 55 titles since 2012, as the case was Park’s. And the Record ‘newspaper’s’ Keith Jackson idiotically reported Rangers’ “right” to turn anything down “if they feel it breaches their own commercial interests.”

It wouldn’t now surprise me if this sh*te-show was all a cinch PR-stunt. After all, I doubt cinch trended on Twitter after announcing their Spurs left-sleeve sponsorship. But they did last Wednesday, making £8m currently seem more of an undersell than ever.

Before researching this case, I instinctively thought Rangers HAD a case. And I still don’t believe they would play silly buggers (as with Sutton and Lennon last week) on an issue affecting all 42 SPFL clubs, when no-one, certainly not Rangers, can afford to spaff money up courtroom walls. Then Wednesday came… Oh me of little faith.