20 years on from the birth of the SPL, is Scottish football actually any better off?

The year 1992 will go down in history as the birthdate of modern football. It saw the launch of the two biggest brands in the game today, the Premier League and the Champions League, and heralded the end of the old, nation-states of football, to be replaced by pan-national sport which took place in individual countries but was, in truth, bigger than and beyond them.

It was easy to be left behind – and plenty were. Scotland wasn’t one of the initial casualties of the movement of money to the top of the football pyramid, but the pressure of living next door to the ballooning, corpulent Premiership would soon take its toll. As Lisa Simpson said of Springfield’s relationship with Shelbyville – “they built a mini-mall, so we built a bigger mini-mall. They made the world’s largest pizza, so we burnt down their city hall” – so English football consumed the Scottish game. 

Two decades on from the formation of the Scottish Premier League in 1998, we can look back on the project and assess whether it was actually successful, and how much of that success (or lack of it) is attributable to Scottish football itself.

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The initial aim of the SPL was fairly transparent: the country’s top clubs wanted to keep the lion’s share of the revenue generated by Scottish football to themselves. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of this was to come from television and, as a cursory look below the border could show them, that meant Sky. In 1996, Scottish football’s TV deal with a combination of the BBC, Sky and STV was worth £3.3m a year: for the first SPL season in 1998/99, it was £11m. That part was a no-brainer.

Aside from that, the stated aims involved “the top clubs taking control of their destiny to drive the game forward on and off the park and deliver a brighter future.” The idea, as posited at the time, was that streamlining would lead to better competition at the top, more money for better players and thus a stronger performance from the national team and from Scottish clubs in Europe. The new breakaway league would also be able to impose minimum stadium standards on its clubs, forcing them to invest in infrastructure.

On the financial front, it’s hard to see how the breakaway has been a success. Since that initial £11m, Scotland’s TV deals have been horrendous. In 2002, Roger Mitchell, the man brought in to head up the new SPL, tried to start the league’s own subscription channel, SPL TV. The subsequent rise of streaming and targeted content suggests it was a prescient venture, but it was so far ahead of its time that it was completely unworkable. The two Glasgow giants pulled the plug on it, much to the fury of the division’s 10 other clubs, though ironically enough both Celtic and Rangers now operate profitable, pay-walled streaming platforms for their own games. The TV deal was rescued at the last moment by the BBC, but at a much reduced rate of just £8m a year.

An improved deal of £13m was agreed in 2008, only for broadcasters Setanta to default on payments after a year and leave Sky in the box seat. They had already shown a preference for the English Championship, granting it the SPL’s Saturday night primetime slot when Mitchell rejected the deal in 2002.

The current deal is worth roughly £18m per year, placing the Scottish top flight behind the likes of Poland, Denmark and Norway in terms of broadcast revenue. That deal, split between Sky and BT, is bizarre: Sky have exclusive rights to broadcast games from Celtic Park and Ibrox, but only show Glasgow derbies and trophy presentations. In practice, that means Scotland’s two best stadiums are almost never seen on television.

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The deal was signed in 2012, which brings us onto our next metric: the financial health of the top flight. That, of course, was the year Rangers were liquidated and reformed as a new club. Hearts and Motherwell also entered administration, as did Livingston and Dundee (both twice) and Gretna, who suffered the same fate as Rangers but were not resurrected. Defending champions Celtic are poorer than the poorest club in the English Premier League, Bournemouth, despite Champions League revenue, while Aberdeen, who have finished second three years running, have finances comparable to Rotherham United.

On the first two metrics, then, the SPL is struggling to make a case for itself. On a third, however, things start to look a little rosier. The infrastructure of Scottish football has undoubtedly improved: Falkirk, St Mirren and Hamilton have all used SPL money to open new stadiums, while Hearts, Hibernian and Dundee have all renovated their grounds. Attending Scottish games in 2018 is a much more pleasant experience than it was in 1998.

That said, attendances haven’t reflected this. The league average in the final season of the Premier Division was 18,000; last year it was 15,000, itself an improvement on the nadir of 8,800 in the Rangers-less season of 2014/15. Still, on a per capita basis, Scottish football remains comfortably the best-attended in Europe, and despite the perceived lack of quality and competitiveness on the field, terrace culture is thriving in a way not seen since the 1980s.

On-field quality was initially boosted by the birth of the SPL. Flush with TV money, SPL clubs were better able to keep hold of their best players and sign talented foreigners from overseas. Celtic and Rangers were further boosted by European money, and both won domestic trebles – the former in 2000/01 and the latter in 2002/03. Scotland’s coefficient peaked at ninth place after Celtic’s UEFA Cup Final appearance in 2003 and hovered around 10th spot until five years later. 

In 2008, Rangers reached the UEFA Cup Final and Celtic qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League for the second season in succession. In the decade since, Scottish clubs have appeared in Europe post-Christmas just four times, and no team other than Celtic or Rangers has even got to the group stage. Scotland has now slipped to 26th place in the coefficient, behind Azerbaijan, Israel and Cyprus. The birth of the SPL may have helped Celtic and Rangers improve, but the league as a whole didn’t really get better.

And what of the national team? Scotland qualified for the 1998 World Cup having appeared in five of the six previous editions of the competition; in the intervening two decades, they haven’t reached a single major tournament. Of the 23 players who went to France 98, half played their club football at home – the same proportion as the most recent Scotland squad. The key difference is that the domestic Scottish game was much stronger in 1998 than it is today.

Scotland are currently ranked 36th in the world, which is roughly the same as their position in 1998. They did, however, drop as low as 88th in March 2005, while a placing of 11th in May 2007 does as much to discredit FIFA’s system as it does to provide an insight into the strength of the national team.

By the time the SPL and the SFA quietly merged back together in 2013, the initial separation had been passed off as a big mistake. Crowds were at a nadir, the TV deal was poor, the national team was poorer, Hearts were in administration and Rangers had gone bust. By almost every metric, Scottish football is worse off now than it was at the time of the SPL’s first season in 1998, but a crucial question remains: just how much of that is actually Scottish football’s fault?

While it’s unquestionable that Scotland’s administrators could have secured better TV deals than they did, there’s an argument to be made that they have had little effect on the financial decline of Scottish football. Indeed, it could be said that their neighbours to the south have simply inflated the amount of cash in the game and made it impossible for Scottish clubs to compete. In 1998, each English Premiership club received around twice as much TV money as their Scottish counterparts, around £8m vs £4m. Now, that has ballooned to a guaranteed £94m for a English top-tier side compared to £18m for the entire Scottish top flight.

The clubs themselves must take a large amount of blame for their financial struggles. No one in the SPL hierarchy concocted the tax schemes which sent Rangers under – in fact, the league incurred the wrath of a majority of its members for attempting to parachute the new club back into the top flight – while Hearts’ descent into administration was largely of their own creation. 

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The improvement in infrastructure, prompted by Roger Mitchell’s rule that a minimum capacity of 10,000 was required to take part in the top flight, has undeniably been an successful element of the SPL project. It’s possible that clubs might have chosen to improve facilities anyway, but the concentration of cash at the top certainly made it more possible.

The fall in attendances may well be attributable to better TV coverage and fans choosing to consume games differently, while a general squeezing of disposable income and diversification of leisure interests have probably played a part too. The SPL can’t be blamed for such things and, as previously mentioned, Scotland is still the best-attended league per capita in Europe.

On the pitch, meanwhile, Scotland’s two biggest clubs were competitive in Europe until the rest of the continent overtook them financially. Celtic could once beat Barcelona, Lazio and Valencia in the UEFA Cup, but teams from peripheral nations can barely compete now that talent is concentrated at the very top. Scotland is far from alone here; across the board, the number of clubs from smaller countries defeating those from England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France has plummeted.

The failings of the national team are also difficult to lay at the SPL’s door. Factors well beyond the power of the SPL and the SFA have seen youth participation in football fall, and for those who do make it to the professional ranks, opportunities have never been scarcer. Fewer Scottish players play in the Scottish top flight than ever before, with over 50% of the league ineligible for the Tartan Army. 

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It can be quite depressing to consider how Scottish football has deteriorated since the SPL breakaway of 1998, although broader economic forces have been the most significant factor in the decline. Why shiver on a terrace in Paisley when you can watch the Premier League from the comforts of your own home?

There is, however, reason for cautious optimism. Despite the premature obituaries, the Scottish game is arguably in its best state of health since the zenith of the SPL a decade ago. Celtic may have won seven titles in a row, but the chasing pack are getting closer and closer, and any combination of the reigning champions, Aberdeen, Rangers, Hearts, Hibernian and Kilmarnock can offer a game worth watching.

In Brendan Rodgers, Steven Gerrard, Neil Lennon and Craig Levein, SPL dugouts are occupied by characters capable of generating column inches and driving media engagement, while on the pitch the standard of the homegrown player is arguably as high as it’s ever been in the SPL era. In many ways, Celtic’s policy of augmenting academy stars – youngsters with whom fans can identify and who can be relied upon not to depart for England at the first opportunity – with talent from abroad is a model to be followed. Fans of Hearts, Hibernian, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock will tell you their teams are as good as they’ve been for years, while Rangers are on their way back to the top. With all that in mind, the game is in rude health.

Had the SPL not existed, Scottish football would almost certainly have gone through the same strife. Taking Sky’s cash initially made the game richer, then poorer, before settling somewhere in the middle. It also proved that it’s pointless and foolish to compare Scottish football to the English game and to attempt to ape the Premier League in everything it does. Twenty years on from the breakaway, Scottish football might actually be creating something new for itself – and that is to be applauded.

20 years on from the birth of the SPL, is Scottish football actually any better off?
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