Wednesday 17 April 2013

League restructuring?

If league reconstruction is the answer, it must have been a pretty daft question.

Scottish football has been thrown into disarray by the SPL decision the day before yesterday to reject the latest proposals for league reconstruction. The SPL voted 10-2 in favour, but their rules require a majority of 11-1, so the proposals fall, before they have even been tested by the requirement for 75% of SFL clubs also voting for them.

If the reactions to this seem disproportionate – anger shown to the dissenting clubs, St Mirren and Ross County, and Aberdeen Chairman Stewart Milne looking close to tears when interviewed on television after the vote – so too were the warnings issued before it.  We were told that the package of proposals was not negotiable or divisible, that there was and could be no ‘Plan B’, meaning failure of the proposals meant reverting to the status quo, and that restructuring had to be voted through for the end of this season – it couldn’t wait for a season (which would be normal practice) to allow everyone to consider the detail and get used to the idea.

So what’s all the fuss about?

To external observers the restructuring proposals seem bizarre.  Three divisions of 12, 12 and 18, with the top two divisions splitting into three divisions of 8 each (with the points tally wiped clean) after 22 games.  It seems contrived, but it’s a copy of a model that’s been tried elsewhere (Switzerland) and abandoned for not working. The details are so bizarre that they invite the suggestion they are designed to distract attention from the details that really matter.

I think this is about money. And I don’t mean the extra payments being redistributed below the top flight, important though that is to clubs like Accies. I don’t believe that’s what Stewart Milne was so upset about. The SPL clubs desperately need a new sponsorship deal, and a lucrative TV deal with SKY. I suspect these depend upon the new structure being in place for next season, and without it, many SPL clubs will see significantly reduced income next season (and some of them are sailing very close to the wind before these cuts - including Aberdeen, Hearts, Kilmarnock and Dundee at least). This would explain the urgency about putting the new structure in place this year, and would explain why we have no information about any new sponsorship deal, nor projections of SPL income, nor any valuation of the SKY deal for next season. This is only a hypothesis, but it’s the only one that fits all the known facts.

We clearly have deep-rooted problems in the Scottish game. The long term trends are all the same, over several decades – falling attendances, falling income, poorer performances by our national team, poorer performances by our clubs competing in Europe, and fewer top-quality players being developed or exported abroad.  We are seeing clubs’ debts rising, greater incidence of insolvency events, and the threat of several clubs going out of business altogether.

We introduced a new league model in 1975, we’ve been tinkering with it ever since, and all of the downward trends have continued. When we examine these problems now, do we really think league restructuring is the answer?

Simplifying governance into a single body would be a step in the right direction (these proposals don’t actually do that, but at least they would merge the SPL and SFL, which is a start).  Reducing the number of clubs sharing the game’s funding would be another (this is what is really meant by having fewer senior clubs).  Other possibilities include considering summer football, more artificial surfaces, indoor football, greater emphasis on youth development, more family-friendly policies, and new media deals.  But before we can agree on solutions, we need to agree on exactly what the problem is we’re trying to fix. We don’t seem very close to that, despite Henry McLeish's endeavours, and as things stand, league restructuring is at best just a disguise for other reforms.

How does this impact specifically upon Accies?  Our Chairman Les Gray expressed his reasons for voting for the proposals as being about a greater share for Accies of Scottish football’s collective income from sponsorship and TV deals, and better chances for Accies to reach the top flight – in the past eight years we have never been lower than fourth in the SFL, which means we would have permanently been in the second division of 8 after the proposed split. These are good reasons for Accies to support the proposals: they clearly favour us in the short term, but are they in the best interests of the game as a whole, or indeed Accies in the longer term?

Our financial situation may be more secure than many debt-ridden SPL clubs, but it is still precarious. Les has called a summit of first division clubs for next Monday, and that can surely only mean an SPL2 proposal on the table.  Will a group of the larger SFL clubs be able to quit the SFL and form a second tier of the SPL? Will that leave the rest of the SFL cut off from any top level funding coming into the game?  Can this be accomplished without civil war breaking out in Scottish football? A lot of questions need to be answered.


  1. This has all the characteristics of the court case in Bleak House that went on and on for years until no one originally involved was alive and all the inheritance had been spent. Unless an honest broker comes forward and is able to cut through all the agendas then I can't see a satisfactory outcome any time soon.

    I think you are right Ken to highlight the money issue as the split of the 2 top leagues into three eights seems to be about winning a new TV contract, otherwise I cannot see any attraction in this set up. Like many I would settle for an additional play off place at the foot of the SPL if there is to be no increase in its size but as that adds a second relegation spot that wont win support without the other parts of the package particularly the financial distribution.

    I can understand why it was put as an all or nothing package. In essence they were trying to keep all the clubs in line behind a package that the administrators believed they had secured support for. But having failed, the opportunity is there to get all 42 round the table and try at least once to thrash out a deal. That requires good will and in getting to where we are now the good will may have been exhausted.

    I assume Accies would not have been handing out 2 year deals to the likes of Gillespie and others on the basis of jam tomorrow. We have shown to much prudence for that so I assume we are not going part time any time soon. Famous last words.

  2. The SFA has now issued a statement, trying to find a way to get the restructuring back on track.

  3. I see we are now apparently threatening to resign from the SFL along with the other first division clubs. It would appear we are trying to force the SPL to vote for SPL 2 but given 5 SPL clubs are reportedly against this I really cant see what this will achieve? A Scottish Championship League perhaps but if its a standalone league assuming the SPL don't vote for SPL 2 where is the extra money coming from? The Championship in England is the 4th richest league in Europe I think in terms of income generated, a lot of this coming from TV money. Do the 10 SFL clubs think there is a TV deal out their just for them? For individuals who come from apparently successful business backgrounds I would not trust this lot to organise a brewery party!!!

  4. I wonder if this now qualifies as the civil war mention by Ken in the original post? I can't imagine the SFL is very pleased. I see this seems to be all about full time football, with Les arguing the issue, inter alia, on the basis of jobs. The economics of FT football in Scotland with so many 'senior' clubs being supported by a small population (42/c6m in Scotland, 92/c55m in England) is very fragile. There is no way a club like Accies can be FT given gate money and league prize money. Any deal based around a greater (not necessarily fairer!) distribution of TV is bound to be short term - based on the length of any deal.

    I'm going to be drummed out as heretic for this but....
    I have no issue with Accies reverting to PT football if that ensures the future of the club (assuming the structural status quo. However, I also have no problem if a PROPER restructuring of football in Scotland led to a huge reduction in senior clubs, with mergers a la Inverness, leading to clubs such as Lanarkshire Utd, Fife Utd, Angus Utd, Clyde Estuary Utd, etc. Interesting times.

  5. Today's latest:

    Looks like we have a compromise. None of the 8-8-8 split nonsense, but one league body, play-offs, and more money for SFL1. A small step in the right direction, IMO, and good news for Accies.