Half an hour before on air, every seat is occupied in the BT Sport truck.…
If you’re a Scottish football fan, you’ve probably watched a match, or at least part of one, on Periscope at one point or another. It’s the ultimate in citizen broadcasting, by the people for the people. Of course, the standard isn’t up to much – camera at the mercy of every jerk and jump of the fan holding it, usually positioned behind one of the goals, with little love hearts populating the screen for no apparent reason. And that’s only if the 4G signal is strong enough to sustain it all.
This is the measures some Scottish football fans are forced to take to follow their team. In terms of live coverage, there is no other alternative, besides following updates on Twitter. While there is football on TV most nights, most weeks there is only one match broadcast from the Scottish Premiership. In the age of wall-to-wall sports coverage, our national game lags behind.
2018 is the year that things will change, though. Scottish football, or rather the broadcasting of it, finds itself at a critical juncture. There has been much hand-wringing over the deal the SPFL receives from BT Sport and Sky Sports, as well as BBC Scotland, for live rights, but the discourse will come to a head over the next 12 months.
This year, the SPFL are expected to start talks with both BT Sport and Sky Sports over the league’s live TV rights contract. The current deal doesn’t expire until the end of the 2019/20 season, but the SPFL has already spent time outlining its positioning ahead of negotiations. They want a sole rights holder and those negotiations will start in 2018.
From that may come a number of different opportunities. BT Sport, in particular, have breathed fresh life and new ideas into British sports broadcasting in general. They have placed an emphasis on social media, showing the Champions League final live on YouTube for each of the past two seasons. They could do a similar thing in Scotland, merging their focus on TV with their social media presence.
Of course, many will point out that things are already getting better. BT Sport have shaken up the Scottish football scene over the past few years, with Sky Sports also doing their bit by revamping their coverage for the start of the 2017/18 season. David Tanner is gone, long live the age of Hayley McQueen.
Across the board, there is more of a willingness to listen to fans on what they want from the broadcasting of their team. BBC Scotland, for instance, listened to those who said they wanted to watch highlights of the weekend’s Scottish Premiership action on Saturday, on the day the majority of games are played. Now, Sportscene is shown at an earlier time on a Sunday. It’s broadcast in standard definition, so they are small steps, but steps nonetheless.
It’s important, though, that this willingness to listen results in tangible change in the way Scottish football is broadcast. That change must be written into the deals the SPFL strikes and in the very way games are filmed. Broadcasting in football is changing, not just in Scotland, but around the world. This is a fluid industry and things mustn’t be allowed to become stagnant. The renewal of every live rights contract presents the opportunity for a renewal in approach. That opportunity mustn’t be spurned.
To their credit, the SPFL seems to recognise this. The league body plans on installing Pixellot camera systems at Scottish Championship grounds for the 2018/19 season, opening up a myriad of possibilities for fans who wish to watch their team live in action. Pixellot is an unmanned camera system that uses a single camera with multiple lens to automatically track the ball on the pitch.
With this technology, it would be possible for the SPFL to experiment with a streaming service, much like the one MLS offers to fans in North America. At the very least, it would give individual clubs more freedom to sell live coverage of their games outside the United Kingdom and Ireland. This is similar to what English Football League clubs have implemented this season with the creation of the iFollow platform, which allows fans to subscribe to stream every live game their team plays. It would mark a fundamental change in strategy from the league.
It should be pointed out that the idea behind the establishment of an online platform for live Scottish matches to be viewed on wouldn’t be to replacement TV as the primary medium for our game. The two mediums compliment each other. It works this way in MLS and it could work this way in Scotland.
The Scottish Premiership and Scottish football cannot compete with the Premier League for viewership in a traditional sense. We are past the point of no return when it comes to the TV appeal of the two pursuits. Scottish football fans are more likely to come across a Premier League fixture on the box than a Scottish Premiership one. There is very little that can be done about that, with broadcasters solely interested in drawing the biggest audiences as frequently as possible.
What’s more, the Premier League’s TV bubble might be about to pop. Viewing figures are down and with the arms race between BT Sport and Sky no longer as fierce as it once was, Richard Scudamore is relying on an outsider like Amazon or YouTube getting involved in the bidding to keep the price for rights as high as it is.
The only way, in TV terms, the SPFL could steal a march on their more illustrious neighbours south of the border is by ditching their commitment to the 3pm TV blackout, which at present Scotland opts into. They are not bound by it, and so they could feasibly be the only show in town by going alone, refusing to conform to the restrictions set by the Premier League and England.
This looks unlikely, though. Instead, the SPFL should look to the gains they can make in other mediums. Broadcasting live on the web, whether through Facebook or Twitter or some other service, was once viewed as experimental, a leap into the unknown. Now, however, it has been proven as an effective way to package a sports league. 2018 will be the year Scottish football undergoes a broadcasting revolution. Although this revolution might not be televised. It might be on the internet, instead.