Is Scottish football being short-changed by TV?

In this morning’s Daily Mail, Neil Doncaster expresses his unhappiness with the TV contract the SPFL have with the BBC (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3273253/SPFL-chief-Neil-Doncaster-calls-BBC-pay-Scottish-coverage.html)

Speaking as the SPFL announced a six-figure sponsorship deal for the League Cup with the energy company Utilita on Wednesday, Doncaster reaffirmed that the overwhelming view from within Hampden was that the national broadcaster was selling the Scottish game short.”

The value of the present contract sees the BBC pay the SPFL one million pounds per season for the thirty minutes Sunday highlights show, Sportscene. As is pointed out in the article, the BBC currently pay £68 million for Match of the Day on Saturday and Sunday (Match of the Day 2), as well as the online show Match of the Day 3. So there is a great more content involved – two hours and fifteen minutes against thirty minutes.

But leaving that to one side, the fact is that the BBC does put a great deal more into English football than it does for our own game in Scotland. In that respect, the complaints made by Doncaster, and his chairman Ralph Topping, do have some traction. For instance, if we assume that the BBC pays £70 million per year for broadcasting league football – £68 million in England, £1 million in Scotland and £1 million between Wales and Northern Ireland – then on a per capita population basis, Scottish football’s ‘share’ ‘should be’ £5.8 million (8.3% of £70 million). Clearly £1 million is a good deal short of that.

Moreover, if we look at TV spend elsewhere, Scottish football is not well served. There is little point in comparing Scottish football to England, for the latter is more like Marks and Spencer compared to our own corner shop. However, we might make meaningful comparison with other “small” countries. For instance, the TV deal in Denmark – which has only about 45% of Scotland’s match attendance – is worth 45 million euros. The population of Denmark is comparable to our own (5.6 million to our own 5.3 million), yet at present exchange rates their TV deal for football is worth £33 million. You can just imagine the smile that this would put on Neil Doncaster’s face if the BBC came up with that figure.

In fact, if we look at pretty much any “small” country in Europe – Belgium, Switzerland, Norway, Greece, Austria and Poland – Scottish football fares less well financially than any of these.

However, Neil’s warlike noises seem doomed to failure, since, notwithstanding that the BBC is so skint that it is reportedly giving up its franchise for “The Voice” (forecast to go over to ITV in due course), the BBC has already been pretty clear about where it stands on this matter. In a report in May this year, headlined “Scottish football doesn’t deserve more cash, insists BBC supremo Barbara Slater” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-3082609/Scottish-football-doesn-t-deserve-cash-insists-BBC-supremo-Barbara-Slater.html?ITO=1490&ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=twitterfeed) Ms Slater, BBC’s Director Sport, is quoted as saying “the ‘inequality’ was a price worth paying to retain highlights of England’s more lucrative Premier League.” Or put another way, that she wasn’t going to pay more for Scottish football as it might mean losing the Premiership.

I actually have a great deal of sympathy for Ms Slater on this point. TV after all is a “bums on seats” industry, and more seats will have bums on them for Manchester United playing Liverpool than for Inverness playing Kilmarnock. That is the sort of calculation that she has to make.

But the population share argument, and in particular the comparisons with other, even small, European countries misses an important point. All the European countries we considered are independent with their own independent national broadcaster. The Danish example quoted above reflects the support of Danish TV for its football. Scottish football lacks that quality, for its national broadcaster is a national broadcaster for the UK, and thus has to make its decisions based on UK criteria. As Slater contends in the latter Mail report, Match of the Day is an important programme for the BBC, showing highlights of the Premiership, which has become a global brand. It is that which is competing for TV cash with the SPFL.

Doncaster, asked if he would lean on politicians, replied “‘Let’s wait and see what happens but there are a number of people interested in this debate who would like to see more investment from BBC Scotland in the game here“. If this were an approach to Scottish politicians in an independent Scotland to lean on its Scottish national broadcaster to put more money into the game, then that could be successful. I fully support Neil Doncaster when he is quoted as saying “There certainly needs to be more investment in the national game” –given the role of money in contemporary football that is axiomatic, though by no means the only matter in ensuring a high quality of Scottish football. But when he goes on to say that this investment should come “from the Scottish national broadcaster” he is dead wrong, for there is no “Scottish national broadcaster”. Scotland is only a region in the UK national broadcaster, the BBC and it’s hard to see the kind of approach implied by this report as being successful, especially with the BBC in its present cost cutting mode. And that Neil, is why when you come to renegotiate the TV deal, you might be lucky to find there is still a million pounds per season on the table, given the financial outlook for the BBC.

But even if that were quite different, on a UK basis Scottish football is sideshow, particularly compared to the Premiership. It is Ms Slater’s role to maximise the TV audience in the UK as a whole. Match of the Day is an enormous draw, and almost certainly puts more “bums on seats” than Sportscene per pound spent. In contrast DR, the Danish national broadcaster, might be expected to have a commitment to the football played in their own country. Leaning on politicians in that sort of context might be successful. However, the BBC have four football leagues which they might support, and must make a commercial decision from the perspective of the UK. And who else, Neil, do you have to negotiate with if not the BBC?

What Neill needs to appreciate is that this isn’t only a football matter. He might want to talk to his chairman about this – “Ex-William Hill Chief Backs Scottish Yes Vote” (http://news.sky.com/story/1313028/ex-william-hill-chief-backs-scottish-yes-vote)

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