Celtic and Rangers finally break away from the SPL – well, on the television at least, writes Colin Armstrong

In keeping with a recent tradition of making joint statements, the Old Firm recently came together at Hampden Park to announce that they were joining the ranks of the super-power clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid in launching their own television channels. Both clubs were brimming with glee at the announcement. “Rangers Television is an exciting concept and one we have considered for a number of years,” beamed Martin Bain, Rangers’ director of football business. Celtic’s official line on the day was no less positive.

The deal, however, is fraught with problems. Despite having huge stadiums and huge followings, lack of TV cash means both clubs are in debt to the whopping combined tune of around £88 million – £68m of which allegedly belongs to Rangers – and both are currently looking for Bosmans and loan deals to fill their squads.

Setanta, the Irish satellite company that has the rights to show live SPL matches in a four year £35m subscription TV deal, are the partners with the Old Firm in this venture – and many feel that their sums simply don’t add up. When the Setanta/SPL partnership was announced in February, both Old Firm clubs voiced concerns that were severe enough for both to vote against it. However, with all of the SPL clubs in serious debt, the motion to do business with Setanta went through.

Five months later, though, the first doubts have appeared about Setanta’s ability to back up their promise of cash. Three weeks before the start of the new season Setanta had reputedly only managed to sign up 20,000 subscribers to SPL Live – well shy of the 89,000 they need just to break even. It is a problem that mirrors the ITV Digital deal with the Nationwide League two years ago. The first instalment of the Setanta deal (£2.5m) is to be paid this month, with the balance of around £6.5m due in April. If an improvement in subscriber figures does not happen then that second payment could be in jeopardy. “The SPL will be wishing they had the cheque already; if they do, they should cash it rather quickly,” said Professor Greg Philio, a media expert at Glasgow University.

However, despite these doubts, the Old Firm were more than happy to do business with Setanta when it came to launching their own television channels. With 70,000 subscribers to find, have Setanta simply recognised that by launching the Rangers and Celtic channels they might bridge the gap between actual and required subscribers? The cost for Old Firm fans to subscribe to their respective channels is £6.99 a month, compared to £12.99 per month for SPL Live. Old Firm supporters, however, have been offered a deal of £15.99 to subscribe to both, the incentive being that they can get live football on the SPL channel, something not offered on Rangers and Celtic’s own stations – their weekend games will be broadcast in their entirety on a Monday nights.

But what will Rangers and Celtic really get out of this? The chances are very little over the already agreed fee in their original deal with Setanta. A spokesman for MUTV advised the Old Firm that the revenue generated by United’s channel was not that significant and that any extra monies generated will certainly not equal the revenue received by Premiership clubs from their deal with Sky.

Both Old Firm clubs have huge expatriate followings in Europe, America and Australia, and are banking on these supporters taking up the new channels in large numbers but, again, the cash generated will still fall some way short of giving them a similar TV turnover to that of an English Premiership club.

It may even be the case that the creation of the Old Firm channels and the combined viewing deals offered to their fans, has simply guaranteed that Setanta will pay up on their original promise of £35m to the SPL over the next four years. The notion of Rangers and Celtic riding to the rescue of the SPL may seem far-fetched, but strange things happen in Scottish football these days.  

From WSC 211 September 2004. What was happening this month

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