Football has been streamed on the internet for almost as long as the internet has…
It is a little-known fact that the Scottish Professional Football League has a mission statement. It is “to maximise the commercial revenues of the clubs.”
In some areas this stacks up. Holding out for a £2m per annum naming deal from Ladbrokes, holding firm in the face of less-lucrative offers when the world of Scottish football was screaming at them to take any deal. Maneuvering into a position where BT and Sky will go head-to-head to be sole broadcast partners in the UK and Ireland from 2020, potentially securing the biggest ever broadcast deal.
Then there is the matter of Scottish league football being visible outside of these shores.
Not long after the collapse of Rangers, and the loss of the marketable Old Firm derby, the SPFL struck a deal to sell its broadcast rights to every other country in the world to one company: MP & Silva.
Now put yourself in the position of Neil Doncaster. You’ve lost your crown jewel for a few years. What will you do? You could take a paltry deal to tide you over a few years until that game reappears. You could sell big games individually to interested broadcasters through a vendor. You could even take your naming rights principles and don’t take any old offer.
What you probably wouldn’t do is sell the full rights for £2m a year, tied until 2023. A 10-year deal, locked in regardless of a broadcast market where revenues are increasing at a bewildering rate.
You know the punchline. This is what the SPFL did.
MP & Silva are no fly-by-night operation. They describe themselves as a “leading international sports media rights company”. And for good reason. They sell the big leagues to the big boys. The English Premier League in Asian markets. Serie A to every market outside of Italy. A host of European football leagues worldwide.
This is, I kid you not, part of the MP and Silva brochure to try and sell the SPFL to broadcasters. pic.twitter.com/Paobd1UnGl
— Richard Wilson (@timomouse) September 3, 2017
A bit of sleuthing from the blog This Football Life uncovered just how hard their sell of the SPFL was. Their brochure to clients for the 2016/17 season, bearing in mind this is to all markets outside of the UK and Ireland, really went on the hard sell. Listed as the league’s star players were Kris Commons (out of favour at Celtic), Steve[sic] Thompson (retired in 2016), Billy McKay (who moved to Oldham that summer), Chris Erskine (they had to get one current player right), Aaron Doran, Mikael Antoine-Curier and Jo Inge Berget. Jo Inge Berget, the one who made eight appearances for Celtic on loan from July 2014 to January 2015.
This year you still can’t watch Scottish Premiership games in North America. Let that sink in. Who can change that? Only MP and Silva have the ultimate power to sell the package.
The mechanics of the deal deserve revisiting. £2m a year. For that £2m a year, the SPFL have relinquished their rights to market their leagues outside of the UK and Ireland through broadcast mediums and are entirely at the mercy of the marketplace and third party marketers.
It wasn’t too long ago the MP and Silva deal was being trumpeted by the SPFL as the greatest thing on earth. A 2016 release said that the company had taken the Scottish Premiership to be screened in 102 countries, breaking previous records. Much was made of a supposedly-lucrative deal to show the league in China. How much does the SPFL make when new deals are negotiated? £2m a year. How much does the SPFL make if nobody is sold the league? £2m.
But all that said, does all the blame really lie at the door of MP & Silva? How about the SPFL gets its own house in order first? Does the SPFL really have a brand? What does it stand for? Is the Scottish Premiership in particular a brand that’s heavily promoted by the league from the centre? Do they build a story about the competition, its players, its rich narrative? Would anyone seriously try to argue any of that is true?
It is all fine and well bemoaning MP & Silva’s role in all of this but if our league body couldn’t even tell you itself what it is all about, why on earth should we expect others to understand and promote it?
And this is why the MP & Silva deal with the SPFL is a marriage of convenience. The league has to do literally nothing to receive £2m in its pocket each year. No fuss. MP & Silva, for their part, don’t have to push the Scottish Premiership as a league which is worth anything to any broadcaster in any market. Instead, it will typically be flogged as part of a bundle of rights, when the broadcast partner bidding ultimately has its eyes on a bigger prize.
Ultimately who suffers while everyone just shrugs shoulders? In the short-term it is the exiled fan. They have to venture to patchy club media methods or, worse, down illegal routes to watch their team. Then there is the casual football fan too. They aren’t exposed to what our league has to offer. Football fandom and football tourism is a thing. Celtic and Rangers particularly are known in any football-loving country in the world. That’s because of past glories, and nothing to do with the present day. Eventually, that familiarity becomes eroded.
Then there is the long-term impact. Everyone can sit and be complacent all they like right now, but don’t say you weren’t warned. The world is now a place you can watch any league you want, normally through online means. There are audiences out there to chase. If we have to spell this out to you any clearer, that is money. Cash. Revenues. All of which the door is being shut on because of an appalling marriage of convenience.
Cue Neil Doncaster quote that comes back to bite him on the bum.
“The SPFL is hugely popular across the world, reflected by the significant increase in the number of countries now showing games from our league and cup competitions,” he proudly said back in 2015 when it was said that our game was being exposed to a record number of nations.
“While in Scotland we constantly and rightly scrutinise our national sport and consider ways to further improve it, I think there is an under-appreciation of just how highly respected and liked Scottish football is by fans, other clubs and football authorities in all corners of the globe.
“This increased international exposure helps open up all manner of possibilities for our clubs from marketing and developing new commercial partnerships to opportunities to sell into what can often be a lucrative transfer market.”
And that’s just it, isn’t it? Except, of course, when the league is powerless to determine which countries, especially the most lucrative ones, get to see our league.
The SPFL are locked in for five and a half more years to a deal where they can’t control who sees Scottish league football matches. They are tied to a £2m a year deal. There is a blackout right now in markets full of expatriates and in marketplaces where commercial partnerships are possible. Why should this be an acceptable state of affairs? Why are clubs not stomping their feet? Do people even care?
This week we have explored what the future of Scottish football media is. Yes, the world is changing when it comes to where the money is. Trends may be changing gradually away from full-on rights to live games. But there is still a competitive marketplace out there where money can be made. Scottish football financially handicapped itself when the short-term cash was waved in its face at a time of crisis.