London Hearts Supporters Club

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[S Robertson 24]
28 of 030 -----L SPL A

Improved television deal makes picture a little clearer

richard wilson

22 Nov 2011

Having secured a new broadcast deal on improved terms for the Scottish Premier League, Neil Doncaster was entitled to be adamant.

“I’d be grateful,” he said, “if we could talk about the good news.” It seemed a rare success, since other leagues are having to cope with a fall in television revenue, but there are still consequences from the five-year deal agreed with Sky and ESPN.

The two companies offer stability, global reach and corporate authority for a competition seeking a replacement for its main sponsor – Clydesdale Bank – and continues to talk interminably about reconstruction. As with previous broadcast deals, Sky and ESPN have stipulated that among the 60 matches they broadcast live, there must be four Old Firm league games to choose from.

There is no possibility, then, of the SPL expanding to 16 or 18 teams that play each other only twice a season, at least until after 2017. Doncaster, though, stressed that expansion was not a viable financial option anyway – even if he admitted it was the “ideal”, and even although it is the option most popular with fans – because it would involve a fall in gate receipts and television revenue.

“Reconstruction remains a subject under discussion,” Doncaster said. “The league can’t meaningfully expand anyway. A 16-team league, playing each other once at home and once away, costs Scottish football around £20m. Fourteen might potentially work in terms of having a split league and retaining four Old firm games. Maybe. I make no predictions.”

The clubs were keen to explore SPL TV. It enabled us to talk about a number of options, rather than just Sky Sports and ESPN

Doncaster stressed that Sky and ESPN have sought “no assurances” about the size of the league, Friday night fixtures or other contentious issues. Attendances are falling, with Dunfermline closing a stand and St Johnstone considering knocking one down; some of the matches broadcast live this season have been played against a backdrop of half-empty stands and dwindling atmosphere.

Yet Doncaster has managed to negotiate a deal in which the two broadcasters pay more for the same product, at a time when their current agreement still has two-and-a-half years to run (although the SPL did have the option of terminating the contract at the end of this season). With few other broadcasters able to match the financial strength and stability of Sky and ESPN, it seems likely the SPL’s investigation of the feasibility of setting up their own TV channel was taken seriously.

The SPL employed IMG Media to evaluate the potential of starting their own station. The trade-off between selling their own product, particularly the lucrative Old Firm games, on an exclusive basis was that a new start-up channel would be vulnerable and many clubs are still traumatised by the collapse of Setanta in 2009.

“[SPL TV] was worthy of serious debate,” Doncaster said. “There’s been a lot of very good work carried out by a number of agencies that we work with, and clubs that were keen to explore the option thoroughly. Ultimately, it enabled us to talk about a number of options, rather than one option with Sky Sports and ESPN and for the clubs to make a decision. If you talk to the sponsors of each of the clubs, they are very reliant on the exposure they get from Sky and ESPN.”

Doncaster was reluctant to rule out further discussions on SPL TV, and it may prove a handy negotiating tool when the new Sky and ESPN deal runs out in 2017. There were other issues, not least what would happen if Rangers were to go into administration – “I wouldn’t want to be drawn on any particular club’s circumstances” – and Hearts’ recent failure to allow any of their players to be interviewed the last time the club’s match was broadcast live by ESPN – “If I go down that route I’m in danger of detracting from positive headlines”.

Neither did the new broadcast deal receive the unanimous backing of the SPL’s member clubs, although a majority voted in favour and Doncaster deserves credit for steering the agreement through. Supporters will still rail against Friday night and Saturday lunchtime kick-offs, but the reality for the game is that television companies now exert an influence on the calendar. Doncaster did argue, though, that it they are not to blame for falling crowds.

“That’s totally over-simplistic,” he said. “The economic climate, the amount of money supporters have in their pockets, is fundamental. Last season, our attendances were only down two per cent. That’s the context. The Football League is 25% down in terms of reported figures for its live deal. Other rights sellers in the market place are suffering similar reductions. In that context, giants like Sky Sports and ESPN have demonstrated a much improved level of confidence in Scottish football.”

Taken from the Herald

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