Friday the 13th is often considered the most unlucky of days in Western society. On the west side of Scotland on Friday the 13th of July 2012, a vote took place that many considered to be a game changer that would make Scottish football suffer for years to come.
A financial “Armageddon” was predicted by the much maligned SFA chief Stewart Regan if Rangers FC were consigned to the depths of the Scottish Third Division at the vote. Pressure was applied to the chairmen of the 30 SFL clubs to allow the Newco into the Scottish First Division to save Scottish football from what many so called ‘experts’ have described as a long, slow death of the beautiful game north of the border.
However, the SFL chairmen felt that the information they were being fed was scandalous. Some of the chairmen stated they were not going to be forced into a ‘yes’ vote; others went about their statements in far more vigorous terms. Turnbull Hutton, chairman of 1st Division club Raith Rovers, laid into the SFA’s plans – even going as far as stating that what the SFA were proposing was “blackmail”. Corruption in the Scottish game…well I never!
The night before the vote the result was still up in the air. It was likely that the clubs would accept Rangers into the SFL but not Division 1. Yet there was still a chance that there could be a last minute change of heart and the big-wigs at Hampden HQ would get their way, despite the protests of fans of every single club in Scottish football – including the Rangers fans themselves.
At just after 2pm today, their fate was sealed. The SFA chiefs did not get their way. Rangers would not play in the First Division. They would start their campaign, which begins in a mere four weeks time, in the Scottish Third Division. Well, if plans for an SPL2 are not proposed in the next few days and Rangers are accepted into that of course. But, for now at least, it is the 4th tier of the Scottish game that the Ibrox side will be playing in come August 11th.
The big question regarding today’s decision is; what is the future for Scottish football? It is not a question that is easy to answer as the events of the past 6 months have never been seen before. And I don’t just mean in Scottish footballing terms. We have seen other clubs in other countries sent down divisions due to a reckless approach by their club’s leaders, either in terms of finances or rule breaking. Fiorentina in Italy went into judicially controlled administration in June 2002 after racking up an extraordinary amount of debt and suffering relegation. They were refused a place in Serie B the following season and had to start again in Italy’s fourth tier.
Juventus attempted to pervert the course of matches and were relegated to Serie B back in 2006. Portsmouth entered administration, the first English Premier League side to do so, in 2010 and, still suffering financial difficulties, find themselves in League 1 next season and starting with a 10 point penalty.
But the Rangers case is different. They are a huge part of Scottish football; Scottish life in general. Last season they had the 19th largest attendance in European football; the 5th highest in Britain. They have won 54 league championships, 60 domestic cups and reached 4 European finals (winning one and reaching the UEFA Cup final as recently as 2008). They, along with Old Firm compatriots Celtic, alone were calculated, back in 2005, to have made a direct contribution to Scottish GDP of £80.3 million, with Old Firm related spending totalling £204 million, £11.4 million of which being injected from overseas, according to the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde. Although the figures are likely to be slightly reduced in a post-credit-crunch society, the likelihood is that the figures will still be huge when viewed against every other Scottish league club. In simple terms, Rangers are a big deal.
So is this “Armageddon” day just around the corner? We don’t know. Nobody really does. A lot will depend on a certain Mr Murdoch and his Sky TV deal. They have an unsigned five year deal on the table which was due to start at the beginning of the 2013/14 season. This will likely not be signed or, if it is signed, will be a lot less than the £80 million which was agreed in November of last year. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the reasons why this contract will not exist for very long. When you look at the audience figures in percentage terms Old Firm games make up 65% of total audience figures; Rangers and Celtic vs other SPL teams is 30%. Just 5% is for other SPL teams against each other. Therefore it might not be too much of a surprise if around 40-60% of the £80 million figure was wiped.
However, there will still be much intrigue for football fans in viewing Scottish football. I know that I will be following the progress of Rangers very closely next season if they are in the Third Division and I would love to see Peterhead and Berwick Rangers hosting the blue half of Glasgow live on TV. Yes, there is every chance that even a far weakened Rangers side would annihilate these semi-professional teams. But imagine if Stranraer or Annan managed to beat Rangers? That would surely be worth £80 million alone!
If the TV deal does go to the window and Sky, ESPN or any other broadcaster doesn’t show the Premier League of Scottish football then it doesn’t have to be the end. For years fans have been sick of being pulled along by TV companies saying when their matches will be played. Due to the popularity of English Premier League games, the Scottish games gets some truly terrible kick-off times. Aberdeen away on a Saturday lunchtime; Inverness away at 12 noon on a Sunday; 2.15pm kick offs just so there are not as many clashes with the precious Super Sunday fixtures. This is what fans have been putting up with for years. Surely the time to end this frankly scandalous affair is now.
3pm Saturday kicks are what the large majority of fans want. Crowds at Scottish games have been suffering for years. 10 sides in the SPL last season had a ground with a maximum capacity of over 10,000. Only 3 of these sides (both Old Firm clubs and Hearts) were able to get an average attendance of over 10,000 fans. Frankly that is shocking. Moving more games to a traditional kick off time, combined with lower tickets prices to entice fans back to their clubs and, without Rangers in the league to dominate with Celtic, makes for a more competitive league. It sounds simple but, as we have all learned recently, the SFA does not do simple.
Sadly though, the current state of Scottish football was always likely to happen. When the SPL was formed back in 1997, it followed the English Premier League model of taking all the sponsorship money that came its way and divided it solely for the top clubs, thus leaving the lower league sides to fend for themselves. Before the SPL was created, league sponsorship money was divided proportionally between clubs in all four divisions; after the SPL was formed, this was no longer the case. It is no surprise that there have been examples of SFL clubs failing to get into the SPL due to their club’s structure, either financially or in terms of buildings.
What Rangers being in the Third Division can do is give a more even distribution of finances right through the SFL. If they do start in the Third Division they will play 9 clubs four times next season. 2 at home; 2 away. The Rangers fans have proclaimed they “don’t do walking away” many times in recent months. If this rings true then SFL clubs can expect a huge increase in attendances; hopefully from local fans taking a more positive approach to supporting their home side in the wake of the current Scottish football crisis but certainly from the away Rangers support, as well as their two trips to Ibrox a season. If/when the newco gains promotion to Divisions 2 and 1 a similar model will apply. By the time Rangers next play in the SPL they will have played the majority of SFL clubs with each one getting a big pay day from their matches with the blue half of the Old Firm.
The future of Scottish football is still up in the air and by the time you have read this article something may happen which changes the situation once more. The time for change though is now. One quote which rings so true with the situation in Scottish football is this one by Marie Robinson:
Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.
Perhaps the new ending can be a prosperous one for Scottish football after all.