THE only way that Neil Doncaster could provoke more frothing-at-the-mouth rage from punters when details of the SPFL’s television deals emerge is if he were to follow the lead of comedian Jerry Sadowitz and announce them with his ‘chief executive’ hanging out.
Such is the unpopularity of the league body’s top man among supporters in the country, that almost every development which has the slightest whiff of his involvement is immediately decried and denounced as a disgrace, and the result of his widely perceived gross incompetence.
So it was that when news filtered out this week of a potential deal to extend the contract with Sky for the right to broadcast SPFL matches, there were the usual accusations that he had undersold our game.
While it is hard to argue that point when fans see leagues of comparable standing from around Europe attracting larger sums of money from broadcasters, on this occasion, there may be an element of shooting the messenger involved in the widespread reaction.
On further examination, while the deal is far from perfect, there are some things to like. For a start, there is the £30 million a year it is expected to generate for the right to broadcast 60 games per season by 2028-29. That is up from the £25m they currently pay for the right to show up to 48 matches.
There is the prospect of that annual figure rising to £38m per season if the broadcaster takes up their option to show a further 20 games, which they can do from 2024, and the proposal is understood to have gained widespread support among clubs. Apart from Rangers, of course, who are still of the view that the Scottish game is being undersold.
Critics such as those at Ibrox may rightly point out that on a per-match basis, the new deal would actually be worth less than the previous agreement, but the addition of more matches will always lead to less ‘valuable’ games being shown.
The return of investment on Ross County vs Motherwell, for example, will obviously be less than that of Celtic vs Rangers, but it may still be a valuable asset for fans of those clubs if that match was to be shown.
Even with the increase in matches being televised, there will however still be a lot of games that attending in person will be the only way to see them. Some may feel that is no bad thing, but the new deal has also offered something of a sop to those who would argue that clubs should be allowed to sell their own pay-per-view streams for matches that Sky have chosen not to show, as they could during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Clubs will be allowed to offer out PPV streams for up to five matches per season, so long as it doesn’t fall within the Saturday blackout times. That won’t go far enough for many, but it’s a start.
There is also the pertinent point to consider that the rights are only worth what someone is willing to pay for them, and for all of the faults of Sky Sports when it comes to their historic coverage of Scottish football, they have at least put up more cash than anyone else. If they would sufficiently back what is a talented team working behind the scenes on the coverage, they may even turn around fan perceptions of their output too.
The lack of an open tender process is a point of concern, and there may have been more money on the table had other parties been allowed to enter the bidding. But the feeling is that even though a vote of 11-1 is required to move forward with the Sky deal, clubs will opt for the security of a bird in the hand.
One of the drivers behind that is that the new television deal will be a key pillar of the stated target this week to drive up the revenues that the SPFL generates for clubs to £50m per season by 2029, the headline outcome of the independent review conducted into our game by the Deloitte agency.
Five (then) Premiership clubs – Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibernian, Dundee United and Dundee – commissioned Deloitte to undertake the review almost a year ago, and subsequently, a strategy group consisting of Aberdeen’s Dave Cormack, Celtic’s Michael Nicholson, Andrew McKinlay of Hearts and Hibs’ Ron Gordon was set up to figure out how to deliver its recommendations.
Gordon made something of a clanger when he called the Premiership ‘the little brother of the Premier League’ this week in his endorsement of the Sky deal, which is precisely the sort of comparison the unique Scottish football proposition should be looking to avoid, but there is some real causes for optimism contained within the five-year action plan that has been produced.
For a start, there is an ambition to position the SPFL as the ‘most dramatic, passionate and exciting league in Europe’, which is a damn sight catchier than ‘England’s wee brother’. And, intriguingly, there is the stated aim to transform the SPFL itself from a largely administrative body into a more active commercial body, with centralised marketing and commercial staff in place to drive an increase in revenue from broadcasting and partnerships.
There have been many stakeholders across the game banging the drum for such an approach for an age, and it seems indicative of a shift towards broader unity within the game for the sake of the greater good.
On top of this, there is an aim to create a programme of youth development competitions, and to nurture the growth of the women’s game - surely an open goal.
The SPFL clubs are believed to be unanimously behind these plans. Even Doncaster is on board, thanking the clubs involved in essentially doing his dirty work for him, by saying: “Their valuable work will undoubtedly enable the league to bring in additional commercial revenues for the benefit of Scottish football as a whole. It is an exciting time for the game.”
Yes, Rangers may still want him out. And yes, he is unlikely to win over the vast majority of Scottish fans, who turned on him long ago. But on this occasion, he may just be right.