Mark Poole explores current plans to restructure the Scottish Premier League, but are TV demands too much of a stumbling block?
In an effort to halt the decline in interest, revenue and quality in the game, the Scottish Premier League is working on a blueprint to restructure the competition. They recognise that the current format, with the 12-team top flight that splits into two after everyone's played each other three times, isn't working. The SPL will only confirm that they are looking at various options, including the possibility of an expansion and play-offs, and that no further details can be discussed until later this year.
Many fans favour a return to a simple league of 18 or 20 teams, just like before the Premier Division was introduced in the 1970s, because the monotony of playing the same teams four times every season is one of the main factors turning them off the game. But, because of TV money, they're unlikely to get their wish. Although SPL broadcasting revenue is less than a third of what it was nine years ago, the league and the clubs seem unwilling to risk it further by having fewer than the four Old Firm fixtures Sky demand each season; the four Old Firm games a season that are making one of the world's biggest grudge matches the one thing no one ever thought it could ever be – boring.
So the far more likely option would be to continue with a format that includes the artificial split, either tweaking it or undertaking a far more radical overhaul. Both would be likely to involve appropriating some of the lower-league teams – who are currently governed by the Scottish Football League – into an expanded and oft-discussed two-tier SPL, of between 24 and 28 clubs.
The tweaked version would probably involve two divisions of 14, with the SPL1 sides all playing each other twice before splitting into a top six and bottom eight, for two more games against the teams they're left with, possibly with some sort of relegation and promotion play-off. The teams in SPL2 would all play each other three times. While an increase in the number of teams that could be promoted and relegated each season would be a step in the right direction, it's hard to see what other benefits this format would bring over the current failed model.
The more radical overhaul springs from the drawing board of Hearts managing director Campbell Ogilvie. Earlier this year he proposed – and you may want to take a deep breath before reading on – two divisions of 12, in which all the teams play each other twice before the bottom four from SPL1 join the top four from SPL2 to form what I like to call SPL1½, before everyone plays each other two more times.
All the points the SPL1½ teams have accumulated in their first 22 games are wiped out, with the top four promoted to SPL1 and the bottom four relegated to SPL2 on the basis of just their final 14 games. Which may or may not be fair. And what would the teams left at the bottom of SPL1 with no hope of securing a European spot have left to play for in their last 14 games if they can't be relegated? Or the top teams left in SPL2 if they can't be promoted? Would this new structure make you more interested in Scottish football?
Of course a new league format is only one part of a bigger picture and couldn't solve the biggest problem, as identified by former first minister Henry McLeish's recent Scottish Football Review – lack of investment at the grassroots of the game and a consequent lack of talent. But an 18- or 20-team top flight would bring a break from the mind-numbing predictability that's putting supporters off. When you've lost eight times against Celtic or Rangers last season, do you want to see them again? How much enthusiasm can Hearts fans muster for four more Kilmarnock or Motherwell fixtures after playing them each 40 times in the last decade?
Most of the teams that would join an expanded top flight are established and well known and should acquit themselves well against most of the current SPL sides. Ross County and Raith Rovers competed in the Scottish Cup semi-finals last season, Queen of the South were in the final a couple of seasons before that, Falkirk knocked Hearts out of the League Cup just a couple of weeks ago. Like Falkirk, Dundee, Partick Thistle and Dunfermline all have recent SPL experience.
And a bigger top flight would diminish the ever-present nightmare threat of relegation for many SPL sides, enabling them to ditch defensive tactics and make concrete plans for the future rather than taking short-term measure after short-term measure, in a desperate struggle to avoid that financial trap door. But the final decision comes down to the clubs. And while there's any Sky money left on the table, it doesn't matter what the fans want.
From WSC 285 November 2010