Scottish politics seems to be having a wee holiday this week. The First Minister has a little chat with the Scottish Secretary over the referendum, deciding nothing, the Unionists demand “answers” to questions on a completely different subject, Jim Sillars witters on about something or other in yet another bitter rage about how well the SNP’s doing without him, and the Scotsman quietly admits that some of its previous scare stories (this time the ones about Scottish membership of the EU) were cobblers and hopes nobody notices. In other words, business as usual.
The reason everyone’s putting out a skeleton service operating on auto-pilot is, of course, that they’re all transfixed with the goings-on at Ibrox. And rightly so, because it’s an enormous story which reaches out and touches the entire population in a way that politics almost never does. For fans of Rangers, their entire world has fallen in. For fans of other clubs it’s either hilarious, or a time for rising above petty rivalries and showing solidarity with their fellow supporters, ie it’s secretly hilarious. For Rangers employees it’s a worry, for battered wives, social services and hard-pressed A&E staff it’s a blessing and for booze retailers it’s a catastrophe.
We also can’t ignore the possible political consequences. For decades Rangers FC has served as a weekly indoctrination service for the defenders of the Union – you can’t spend a large proportion of your leisure time waving Union Jacks and singing “Rule Britannia” with thousands of fellow loyal subjects of Her Majesty (she of the Revenue and Customs) without it having some sort of effect on your worldview.
But for the media, which for months on end has largely turned a blind eye to the scale of Rangers’ problems and left the blogosphere to pick up the slack, it’s a time of panic. If Rangers fall they’ll probably take half the circulation (and pagecount) of the Daily Record with them, and the tabloid media in general is desperate for the club to survive in something as close to its present form as possible.
So the story, told loudly and relentlessly, is that Scottish football couldn’t live by Celtic alone. Rangers, it’s insisted over and over, are vital to the continued health – nay, the very survival – of the domestic game. Their friendly, loveable fans, we hear, are the lifeblood of every other club in the league as they turn up twice a season to swell the stands and consume the Scotch pies and Bovril that pay the wages of the home side’s gangly centre-half. The TV riches that pour into SPL coffers would vanish too, without the juicy prize of four Old Firm games a year to tempt Sky into opening their gold-plated chequebook. All in all, take Rangers away and you might as well padlock the turnstiles from Inverness Caley Thistle to Queen Of The South and call it a day.
But is it true? No. It’s a load of balls.
This blog loves nothing more than a good delve in some stats, so we’ve been wading waist-deep in them this week. And the conclusion we’ve reached is that the collapse of Rangers would in all probability be the best thing to happen to Scottish football this century. Along with its Parkhead twin, the club is a giant vampire squid choking the Scottish game to death, and history strongly suggests that Scottish football can ONLY flourish if one or both of the Gruesome Twosome is in poor health.
Firstly, let’s look at some of the myths.
We’re told that the smaller clubs need the influx of cash generated by home games against the Old Firm every year. But how much is that really worth? Under the current SPL structure, there’s no guaranteed number of such fixtures each season. Aberdeen, for example, got just three last year (two against Rangers, one against Celtic), because they were in the bottom six of the league at the time of the “split”.
In season 2010/11, the Dons had an average attendance at Pittodrie of just under 9,000. For the three Old Firm games, the average attendance was 13,378. That’s 4,504 extra punters through the gates per match, or a total for the season of 13,512. In other words, having Rangers and Celtic come to visit was effectively worth the equivalent of about 1.5 extra home games a year. (1.52, if you want to be picky.)
Now, for a club on a tight budget like Aberdeen, 1.5 extra home games a season is a handy bit of cash. If we assume that the average spectator spends £40 on their ticket, programme, refreshments and whatnot, it’s over half a million quid in (gross) revenue. But it’s not the difference between life and death. It could be achieved just as easily by an extended cup run or qualification for Europe – things which are significantly more likely to happen if you take one or both of the Old Firm out of the picture.
Indeed, just a modest amount of progress in Europe can effortlessly eclipse a season’s worth of Rangers and Celtic ties. In season 2007/08 Aberdeen reached the last 32 of the Europa League, which is very much the poor relation of UEFA’s club competitions compared to the cash cow of the Champions’ League. Getting to the last 32 of it isn’t exactly spectacular success, but it nevertheless brought the Dons four extra home games that season, which drew a total of 74,767 paying customers.
Alert viewers will have noticed that even this humble adventure was therefore worth almost SIX TIMES as much to the Pittodrie club as an entire season of Old Firm fixtures, and that’s before you factor in the not-inconsiderable matter of extra TV money and participation bonuses, which would surely boost that multiplier to 10 or more. (It’s perhaps also worth noting that even the first-round first-leg tie against the unglamorous FC Dnipro of Ukraine attracted a larger crowd than any of 2010/11’s games against Rangers or Celtic, despite having thousands fewer away fans.)
From this we can see that if a team like Aberdeen qualified for Europe just fractionally more often, as a result of the demise of one or both of the Old Firm making places more easily attainable – maybe once every five or six years – the rewards could easily eclipse the losses. But there’s more to it than that, because the Europa League jaunt had a knock-on effect on domestic attendances too.
When Hearts came to Pittodrie in the middle of the Europa run, the gate was 14,000. The corresponding fixture in 2010/11, at roughly the same time of year, saw just 9,100 show up. In other words, a tiny glimpse of success saw attendance over 50% higher – exactly the same sort of boost delivered in a normal season by the visits of the Old Firm. Even two months after the Dons were knocked out of the tournament by Bayern Munich, a home game against Falkirk could pull a crowd of 11,484 – a comparable late-season match (vs Hibernian) in 2010/11 managed just 7,400.
Of course, you could argue that the higher attendances in 2007/08 were a result of a better season in general (Aberdeen finished 4th that year, compared to 9th in 2011). But then, that’s the point – fans are much more likely to turn up to watch games in a competition where their team has a fighting chance of achieving something than in a league where they’re just making up the numbers. Take one or both of the Old Firm out of the league and you instantly make it far more competitive, which makes it far more exciting, which makes it far more attractive for people to come and watch.
This isn’t just an idle theory. Within living memory, Scottish football has actually experienced an extended period where one or other of the Old Firm was in dire straits, and the result was a far more competitive league with substantially bigger attendances for the non-OF clubs. While this era is often dismissed as a brief Alex-Ferguson-inspired flicker in the mid-80s, it in fact lasted for almost 20 years.
The first phase was around the creation of the old Scottish Premier Division, running from the tail end of the 1970s and right through the 1980s, before David Murray and his bottomless wallet turned up at Ibrox around the turn of the decade. Rangers were in a woeful state at the time, winning the league just once in a 10-season spell between 1979 and 1988, and with home crowds at Ibrox regularly dropping below 10,000.
(One 1979 league game against Partick Thistle brought fewer than 2,000 loyal Gers fans to the stadium, and no, that’s not a typo – we really mean TWO thousand.)
But it wasn’t just Celtic who took advantage – in four of the other nine seasons of that decade the league title went to the smaller clubs (Aberdeen three times, Dundee Utd once), and it would have been five if not for the most infamous last-day implosion in Scottish football history robbing Hearts of the 1985/86 flag.
In other words, in a 10-team division fully 50% of the participants were mounting realistic challenges for the title – a feat probably never replicated anywhere else in the world in the history of football. The Scottish Premier Division was almost certainly the most competitive club league on the face of the planet, and such a healthy state of affairs was reflected on the broader stage.
Aberdeen won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup (with an all-Scottish team) in 1983, defeating Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to secure the trophy, and also beat that year’s European Cup champions SV Hamburg to join the illustrious list of winners of the Super Cup. The next season Dundee United got to the semi-final of the European Cup (with the Dons making the Cup-Winners’ Cup semis), and three years later Jim McLean’s men reached the final of the UEFA Cup, knocking out Barcelona along the way but losing the final 2-1 to IFK Goteborg.
The nature of Old Firm weakness changed between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s. David Murray had arrived at Rangers and was pouring money into the club, attracting big-name England internationals with the promise of European competition after English clubs were banned in the aftermath of Heysel. But while Rangers grew stronger Celtic weakened, and the Parkhead side hovered on the brink of bankruptcy for several years before being rescued by Fergus McCann in 1994.
As a result, the Scottish Premier Division remained competitive. Although that sounds a daft assertion in the wake of Rangers’ nine-in-a-row of league triumphs (1989-97), the fact remains that four different teams finished in second place over the period, with Celtic not managing to do it until 1996. Rangers’ average margin of victory in the league race during the nine-season run was under 7 points, which contrasts sharply with the typical modern-day gap between the Old Firm and the rest of 30+ points. In four of the nine seasons, a single game going the other way between Rangers and the runners-up would have changed the destination of the title.
Indeed, over the entire 22-season lifespan of the old Premier Division, the Old Firm (in either order) took the top two spots just seven times, and five of those comprised the first two and last three seasons of the competition. Over a 17-year stretch in between, the Old Firm secured the 1 and 2 positions just twice. (Celtic-Rangers in 1978/79, and Rangers-Celtic in 1986/87.) Close to half the time – nine seasons from the 22 – the Old Firm couldn’t even both get into the top 3.
The SPL era, on the other hand, has seen Tweedlehun and Tweedlydee cosily slice up first and second place in 12 of its 13 seasons (the only blip being Hearts pipping Rangers to the runner-up spot by a single point in 2005/06). Where the Scottish Premier Division was the most competitive league in the world, the SPL is now the least competitive, and therefore one of the least healthy.
(During the life of the old SPD the Scotland international side qualified for World Cups in 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1998, and for European Championships in 1992 and 1996. Since the advent of the SPL in 1999, with the Old Firm hurling most of their money at foreign players, the national side hasn’t reached a single tournament finals.)
Of course, the game has changed since the Premier Division. The SPL, Sky TV, Champions League and Bosman have all conspired – entirely by design – to make life harder for the smaller teams and cement the dominance of the bigger ones who can command higher TV audiences. Even this, though, is a slightly misleading picture.
Media pundits are fond of pointing out that Sky’s interest in the SPL would plummet if it no longer had Old Firm games to offer its subscribers, and this is very likely true. What nobody points out, however, is that the OF hog so much of the Sky money for themselves that even a substantially-reduced deal from broadcasters would be more evenly distributed in a notional post-Rangers world, and so would likely end up with the smaller teams seeing fairly similar amounts of money to what they get now.
By way of illustration of the sort of sums involved, we examined the 2010 public accounts of Motherwell, who finished 6th in the SPL in 2010/11. Their total income from TV and radio was just over £1.2m. The bulk of that will have come from the Sky deal, but some will also be from elsewhere, eg the BBC rights to highlights packages and radio coverage. Arbitrarily, then, let’s say Sky is worth £1m a year to Motherwell.
A typical home game at the average 2010/11 Fir Park attendance of 5,660 will generate something very roughly in the region of £225,000. If Sky backed out and nobody took up the live-TV rights at all (the latter part being a highly unlikely scenario), the club would need to either play four extra home games OR attract an extra 1300 fans to each game to compensate, OR reduce its annual wage bill of a startling £3.3m, or some combination of the three.
In a more competitive league with more chance of European football and an increased likelihood of cup runs, that’s hardly an impossible dream – for reference, in 2007/08 when Motherwell finished 3rd their average attendance was around 1000 higher, at 6,600. The further 300 extra was achieved as recently as 2004/05.
And all that’s without considering extra prize money. The SPL’s current structure awards the team finishing 3rd in the league 9.5% of the organisation’s “Net Commercial Revenues” – ie all sponsorship money including, but not limited to, TV receipts. The team finishing second sees that sum boosted hugely, to 15%.
For perspective, that jump from 3rd to 2nd is by far the biggest gap between any positions in the league, at 5.5%. (Payouts are very roughly £2.5m for 2nd and £1.6m for 3rd, a drop in cash terms of around £900,000.) By comparison the gap between 3rd and 4th is only 1% and each subsequent place 0.5% less, so the drop between 3rd and the team relegated all the way down in 12th place is just 5%.
The difference between 2nd and 1st, however, is a mere 2%. It’s almost as if the structure was deliberately designed to ensure that the top two teams got the lion’s share of the money regardless of which order they finished in, neither ever benefitting massively over the other, while the rest fell further and further behind every year.
Without Rangers, whoever finishes second will get a whopping cash injection – though without Sky it could obviously be significantly less than the current £900,000 – even before they play a single game in Europe. (And in the SPL’s 13-year history, SEVEN different clubs have occupied the “best of the rest” spot in the final league table. The bounty would be shared around.)
But even beyond that, the data in the early part of this feature (which is broadly reflected for all other Scottish sides, not just Aberdeen, but we’d be here all day if we were to list every one) proves that the crucial core principle remains the same – a team with a better chance of even the mildest definition of success, eg qualifying for Europe or reaching a domestic cup final, will see a large upshoot in its attendance figures, and more than enough to compensate for the less-frequent visits of Rangers/Celtic fans or a drop in TV money. And the prime driver of that increased prospect of success is the weakness (or absence) of at least one of the Old Firm.
For all the commentators asserting that Scottish football would collapse – either in footballing terms or economic ones – should Rangers FC not make it out of season 2011/12 alive, the numbers simply don’t add up.