Scotland will suffer from English football’s billions

Chris McLaughlin
Writer

A few weeks ago the “domestic” television rights to live English Premiership football for the three years from 2017 were sold for £5.136 billon, a 71% increase on the sum secured three years earlier. A figure so vast that if it were stacked in £1 coins, would reach more than 16,000km into space, almost half-way to the Astra satellites beaming down the pictures. This king’s ransom doesn’t include an additional £2.5 billion in “foreign” TV, highlights and internet rights.

Why should this matter so much to Scotland? After all no one else can compete with the English either. Germany and Spain respectively manage a mere £611 million and £615 million per year in total, less than a quarter of the new equivalent English figure – a fact increasingly troubling the sporting authorities there; particularly as the Premiership is only just starting to break into the US, Chinese and Indian markets, all of which possess enormous potential for revenue growth. Clubs at the bottom of England’s top tier receive £80 million in TV cash annually, more than the prize money for winning the Portuguese league, and more than double what a club like Celtic can earn from qualifying for the Champions League group stage. Financially speaking four-times European club champions Ajax are a now smaller enterprise than Burnley, a team which last won a major trophy when the telly was still in black and white and Britain still had military conscription.

The answer as to why Scotland should worry is that uniquely in world football English football’s “domestic” TV rights include not just broadcasts within their own FIFA member federation, but in four additional ones as well. This definition of “domestic” includes not only the FA’s home jurisdiction of England, but also Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as well. As far as the broadcasters are concerned the “UK and Ireland” are a single broadcast territory. The potential TV audience therefore is not only the 53 million people of England, but an additional 16 million others who live elsewhere, almost equivalent to the entire population of the Netherlands. 23% of UK and Ireland subscription TV revenues come from outside England, yet these as well as the advertising and marketing revenues which go with them, do not go the national game of these countries’ supporters, but rather the game of a foreign country instead.

As far as UEFA and FIFA are concerned the five football associations of the British Isles are completely independent, but the commercial reality is that as far as the broadcasters are concerned only one country exists. Unlike other small European countries Scotland has no state broadcaster; the closest thing it has to it is BBC Scotland which has a total annual budget of £200 million pounds for all its television, radio and online output. This is less than the £204 million paid by the BBC for the rights to edited English highlights for its Match of the Day programme alone. Scotland has no commercial broadcasters to speak of either. Collapsing advertising revenues mean that STV is simply too poor nowadays to be able to afford Champions League football as it did in the nineties, and so runs ITV’s network coverage instead. Since the Champions League began in 1992 ITV have held the UK broadcast rights every single year. In those 23 years Celtic and Rangers have played 55 matches in the group and final stages. Of these ITV has broadcast precisely 1, fewer than the number of matches featuring Blackburn Rovers.

Scottish football’s domestic TV deal is thought to be around £15 million pounds per year, barely 40% of the £33 million Danish football earns, despite having a similarly sized population and only half the supporter attendances. Norway earns £41 million, more than Greece, Belgium, Switzerland or Austria, all of whom are now ranked above Scotland in the UEFA coefficient table of relative league strength, and all of whom now have two Champions League entrant teams to Scotland’s one. So meagre in fact is the Scottish deal, that it would pay for only about one and a half games out of the 168 English Premiership matches soon to be broadcast each year. The football supporters of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are perhaps the only ones in the entire world who are forced to watch the World Cup and European Championships through a foreign country’s media.

English football supporters are prepared to pay more to watch football on TV than any other footballing nation, and so despite being dreadful at running football teams, at least have the funds to be successful at it for the time being. As I have written in these pages previously internet piracy threatens this revenue stream in the medium term, but in the interim no other nation can compete financially, not even the other so-called big leagues of Germany, Spain, Italy and France who are abject paupers by comparison. Scotland with its smaller population is even less capable of challenging the marketing revenues which power the sport in these nations, but we must recognise that the lack of an indigenous broadcasting and advertising industry threatens to undermine the financial viability of our game. A “Yes” vote last September would have radically improved the situation, but even a devo-max or similar settlement which returned control of broadcasting to Scotland could make yet a difference.