4 times a season; The same old bad movie

Date: 21st December 2015

The Same Old Bad Movie?

By Gordon Profit

How many times have you seen the film Jaws? It was first shown around the same time Scottish football went to smaller leagues and the four games a season format. Spielberg’s movie is a classic and I bet you will know most of the good lines, you will remember the head falling out of the boat and you won’t forget how Chief Brody finally nails the beast at the end. You may love the movie, you may watch it on TV if nothing else is on, but would you go and keep paying to see it at least four times (and maybe more) in under a year? Would the people who run the cinemas expect you to come back and do that? What do you think?

The administrators and clubs who run the game, we all love, ask us to do that very thing season after season. To compound that they keep asking us to pay more for it every year, move the date a game is played at short notice, ask fans to travel long distances to accommodate this scheduling at times when sometimes there is no public transport. All of this on a backdrop of declining standards. Oh and to add to that the custodians of Scottish Football seem unwilling to listen to their customers – you the fan.

Recently the Falkirk Chairman, Doug Henderson, stuck his head above the parapet and restarted the reconstruction debate calling for a 16 team top league. Survey after survey shows it is what the vast majority of supporters want. However the usual short term financial scare mongering started within the hour with the “it doesn’t work financially” line trotted out. We all remember the Armageddon bluff when today’s visitors Rangers fell on hard times. What did clubs do? They structured their business to suit. Scottish Football is not filled with large oil tanker organisations that can’t change direction quickly. Most of the Premiership Clubs and bigger ones in the championship have turnover less than £4m. They certainly are not RBS with layers of management and infrastructure.

Arguments against larger leagues seem to be built upon false premises – first and foremost that attendances would collapse and we’d lose the 4 ‘Old Firm’ matches per season upon which our TV deal is allegedly so dependent. If the last 3 seasons have taught us anything, it is surely that this is (and always was) nonsense. The facts are that we always had one of the, if not the, poorest TV deal of any mid-tier UEFA country and our match-day attendance figures, per head of population, remains amongst the highest in Europe. As a consequence a larger proportion of Scottish football’s income comes from fans, than any other comparable UEFA league – surely a good reason to actually listen to what fans want and fans clearly and consistently want a larger league. TV contributes under 10% of all Scottish football income but seem to call all the shots. We have just seen the league sell the rights for the new league cup set up. Did you know BT Sport are now paying about 100k less per game than the BBC did? How is that a great deal for clubs? Who will have to put up with odd kick off times, Monday nights and Sundays? Supporters again.

The argument that attendances are always better with smaller leagues is a myth. However it’s a myth which is widely believed because it does seem logical. Surely Hearts playing Rangers four times a season will always generate bigger crowds than Hearts versus Rangers twice plus St Mirren twice, due to a larger league? Although it seems counterintuitive, this isn’t necessarily the case. Past statistics show that match attendances are primarily driven by how well teams are performing, in particular the home team in each fixture. In prior seasons where Hearts or Aberdeen have been winning games and competing well, their home attendances versus Partick Thistle or Kilmarnock were considerably higher than their home attendances, even against Celtic or Rangers, in seasons where they were playing poorly and not competing. Competition and a strong ‘second tier’ of teams like Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen, Dundee United and Dundee are crucial to higher attendances. Celtic and Rangers would also be affected far less by a larger league than you might imagine. Again, attendance figures show that crowds at Ibrox and Parkhead are largely driven by how their teams are performing rather than by who they are playing against. The difference in attendances at Celtic versus Hibs, for example, isn’t significantly different for Celtic versus Hamilton. Ditto Rangers versus Dundee United or Rangers versus Raith Rovers. Finally, the smaller teams also get a massive attendance boost from being in the top league, but not only from the obvious benefits of playing at home to Celtic, Rangers, Hearts or Aberdeen.

Season ticket sales go up because fans are motivated to see their team play against such opposition but crowds are also much bigger in matches between clubs are the lower end of the league. Past statistics show that Falkirk versus St Mirren or Partick Thistle versus Livingston draw a considerably larger crowd, when playing in the top league, than when playing in the second tier. Think about it – the same clubs playing the same match, but perhaps doubling the attendance simply by being in a higher league. And that’s before we even get to all of the additional benefits of larger leagues, such as being able to play younger players earlier and so on.

Supporters in this country don’t get a great deal. They rarely seem to be included in the thinking far less the decision making. Falkirk however, to be fair on them, after a period of poor supporter relationships are now starting to engage positively. With the drive from the new Vice Chair Margaret Laing they are realising that listening to you the fan and adapting the model and approach to suit your views will long term be more productive than paying you lip service or even ignoring you. The new format with the Falkirk Fans Group is in its infancy however early progress has been encouraging.

Nationally they should think about taking the lead from clubs like Falkirk. The recently formed Scottish Football Supporters Association already has nearly 50,000 members. Its Board comprises of people who really care about our game. It has political backing from the likes of Henry McLeish and backing from the professional game in former Scotland Captain Gary McAllister. It is an organisation that has already started to represent us as fans at a European level. It was formed to represent Supporters Views with the governing bodies in Scotland. So far the game is yet to take it seriously choosing instead to speak to Supporters Direct which is an English based organisation that only a few Trusts have joined. How can that be right? Why would the game in this country ignore this organisation?
Fans don’t have all the answers, however the decline of the game shows the authorities certainly don’t either.

Regretfully I only see more decline for our game unless the mind set changes. Not listening to supporters, who are the biggest financiers of our game, is not an option any more.

We have, for years, been watching the same old movie. It is time to release a new one before the current movie theatre is showing B films that no-one wants to watch or even worse, get out of their house and go to see.

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