In WSC 259 I confessed to having given in to the lure of pay-TV, opting for Setanta rather than Sky for the sake of my bank balance. Now I am not so proud about my choice.
Setanta had collapsed only hours before one of my summer treats – the second State of Origin rugby league game in Sydney. Gone was my access to live Premier League and rugby league; no longer could I watch a Blue Square Premier match on a Thursday night and marvel at Rebecca Lowe’s calm touchline interviews.
The final live football production from Setanta Sports GB – their Irish and international arms are still operating – was England Schoolboys v France Under-18s from Wembley. The show was typical Setanta: bright and breezy, friendly and familiar, and yet also adventurous. They gave it the Blue Square Premier treatment: interviews with the England manager during the game, cameras behind the scenes etc. It was also a typically Setanta business decision. Even if the English Schools FA gave them the rights for free in exchange for the pitchside advertising, the £30,000 production costs of taking a crew to Wembley for such a low-key game can’t have made any sense .
Putting aside the seemingly pointless and embarrassingly low-rent Setanta Sports News, there have been few critics of Setanta’s creative output. At a Football Conference reception at the House of Lords last February, Setanta were thanked for “bringing new light to TV for the football-supporting public”. Although a given in other countries and sports less precious than British football, their access all areas policy was considered fresh and innovative, and has rubbed off on rival broadcasters – particularly ITV’s FA Cup coverage, which saw Nigel Clough allow cameras into the Derby dressing room at the break.
“Setanta were excellent for the Conference,” says Martin James of Sports 360, official agency of the Conference. “They did a great job for Blue Square – I’ve nothing but good to say about them. And the Conference was good for them: they used it as a guinea pig to try all their ideas and it worked well.”
Setanta’s financial performance was an entirely different matter. They had a solid business model based on non-League football, rugby union and golf. Viewing figures for Blue Square play-off matches were bigger than those for the SPL title-decider, leaving Setanta bosses delighted with their £3 million-a-year Conference deal, which brought in over 200,000 viewers for crunch games, and rather less pleased at spending £25m on Scottish football for similar audiences.
But they got ahead of themselves with the Premier League package and England internationals. Subscribers did not flock to them as expected and city analysts have their losses at around £100m a year. News Corporation nearly collapsed when they had to stump up relatively similar mammoth sums 20 years ago to keep Sky going when subscriptions were nowhere near enough to justify the project. Now Sky have around 9.5m subscribers in the UK and dominate the TV rights market. Despite Ofcom’s insistence that Sky cannot monopolise sports TV rights, Virgin Media and BT seem reluctant to take them on. ESPN have already snapped up Setanta’s Premier League package and could do the same with the SPL. Whether they are interested in club rugby union, Australian rugby league or IPL cricket remains to be seen.
At least Setanta had fully paid up the second year of their five-year Conference contract. “They didn’t owe the Conference any money so it’s totally different than the SPL and Premier League situations,” explains James, who will spend this summer battling with the 12 other Setanta orphans trying to secure a new broadcast deal. “Two years ago we would have had no chance but Setanta’s coverage means Blue Square has a massive profile now. Football League chairmen and managers are football-mad: they sit at home watching anything, so they know about these players. Would Millwall have paid £250,000 for Steve Morison from Stevenage if they hadn’t seen him on TV so much? We’ll find a broadcaster, it’s just whether we can get one that will pay us the money we need and give us as many games as we want.”
Setanta showed 52 Blue Square matches a year, at a production cost of £1.5m. No one is likely to repeat that. A game a week on pay-TV would delight the Conference, whose commercial partners will then want to renegotiate their agreements. Terrestrial highlights packages and online live streaming are other options.
Despite being self-described as “the meat in the sandwich between the grassroots and the pros”, the Blue Square Premier now resembles a Division Two of my youth, with Luton, Oxford, Cambridge, Wimbledon, Wrexham and York involved. The league and the clubs have the profile broadcasters and advertisers seek. “We may be considered to be a minor player in the demise of Setanta but we know we have an excellent marketable product,” said Conference chairman Alan Lee in the last week of June. He is right. And we should be grateful to Setanta for shaking things up. It was fun while it lasted. Gavin Willacy
Setanta crashed and burned just days before the Scottish Premier League announced record profits of £23m for 2007-08. Of the two SPL clubs whose debt increased, champions Rangers automatically enter the next Champions League group stages and Hearts go into the final qualifying round for the Europa League. When Setanta failed to make their final £3m instalment for 2008-09 the SPL simply dipped into its rainy day fund to cover the bill. Ultimately, the SPL probably did more damage to Setanta than vice versa. This despite the Irish broadcaster exploiting the Old Firm domination of Scottish football with a blatant venality at which even the Daily Record would blanche.
Since 2004, the top flight, which has always been too large or too small because of its sickeningly concentrated major income source, did what it usually does – what it did in the days before anyone even had a TV – it milked Glasgow’s internecine cash cow for all it was worth. But it didn’t ever believe this would last, and budgeted accordingly. Hence the phlegmatic, almost bullish statements by SPL chairman Lex Gold when the latest TV rights deal bit the dust. Lex knows how football money works in Scotland, and he’s made sure his weaker member clubs know too. He focused on the £60m Setanta had paid to his organisation over the last four years, rather than the £125m deal which had just collapsed.
The product is seriously lacking. Even in its short four-year tenure as sole live broadcaster of top Scottish fixtures, Setanta screened three live “final day deciders”. But always between the same two teams. Setanta 2 was probably invented purely for the inevitable simultaneous broadcast of Rangers and Celtic’s final league fixtures. The second-last season of the BBC’s exclusive rights, 2002-03, included a similar “D‑Day” grand finale. Setanta’s business model – live screenings of every Rangers and Celtic away game and their own dedicated channels throughout the week – was therefore sound in its aim. Yet there was a 31 point difference between second and third in 2004-05 – last season that was cut to a mere 23. Never have “neck-and-neck” and “impossible to call” sounded less stimulating or more empty than when applied to Scotland’s top flight in the 21st century.
Rangers and Celtic are the proposition which attracts the Setantas of the world to Scotland but ultimately they’re the reason the same companies eventually cool their interest, get out or go bust. A bankrolled two-horse race can only be so interesting for so long. You need to create distractions, lest investors realise too quickly. Why else split the league in two with five rounds to go? Why allow the team in seventh to finish with more points than the team in sixth?
When there’s so much dead air after the headline news you need to go off script. This has led to seemingly endless reconstructions of Scotland’s top division since 1975 but has only provided four seasons when the world’s most interminable football duopoly was broken (and three of those were conjured up by a one-off called Alex Ferguson). Glory-hunting masquerading as socio-politico-religious “awareness” provides an unbeatable infrastructure for Rangers and Celtic. So there’s recently been few signs of the kind of incontinent spending among the minnows which saw Dundee and Motherwell almost go to the wall in the years immediately prior to Setanta’s Caledonian excursion.
The clubs currently on the brink up here are Livingston and Clyde, members of the Irn Bru SFL. Gretna’s implosion of two years ago, like Heart of Midlothian’s recent renaissance, was all down to one charismatic wealthy owner rather than Setanta’s dough. A promise of £20.5m over the next financial year has been reneged upon but it’s hoped and quietly expected that most SPL clubs have made no major investments on the strength of this. Certainly, when Rangers, Celtic and Aberdeen voted against the £125m, four-year deal tabled by Setanta last summer, the remaining nine clubs did not vote the other way blindly.
Two of the SPL stadiums on our screens last season had stands on only two sides. Falkirk’s third cantilevered job is currently under construction, but entirely paid for by a Bairns-loving entrepreneur. The inevitable sale of James McCarthy, a product of Hamilton Academical’s prodigious youth system, will finance any third stand at New Douglas Park. St Mirren have four spanking new stands and £9m from the recent sale of Love Street.
Just about every other set of SPL fans has been moaning for the last four years that their club neither spends enough on new players nor does enough to keep the good ones. For once, they are justified. Gordon Brown may be wavering in a financial crisis but his compatriots in charge of the SPL are proving true to the national stereotype. ITV Digital this is not. Alex Anderson
From WSC 270 August 2009