Sky will be receiving the rights to Scottish football starting in 2020. Does more money equal progression?
Sunday 22 May 2005: the last day of the year’s Scottish Premier League season. Ask any amateur pundit who would take the SPL title home at 5 o’clock and you would’ve probably have gotten an answer of either Rangers or Celtic – depending on allegiance. Going into the season finale, both of the Old Firm sides were away from home. Rangers travelled to Leith’s San Siro of Easter Road and Celtic made the shorter journey to Fir Park in Motherwell. Celtic held a slender advantage going into the afternoon’s play. Of course, we all know what happened next. Scott McDonald’s three-minute-brace gave his Motherwell side a scrappy win on the day. Rangers held course and won in Edinburgh 1-0, enough to see off a spritely Tony Mowbray led Hibernian. Celtic had done the most un-Celtic of things. They wrenched defeat clean from the jaws of victory.
Although it didn’t quite have the magnitude of Aguero’s win against QPR 7 years later, that balmy May afternoon exemplified all that was great about a plucky, plucky league. Although Celtic and Rangers had the lion’s share of the quality within Scotland, the remainder of the league had concentrated pockets of excellence which made the culmination of league play anything but a foregone conclusion. Steven Pressley at Hearts, Ivan Sproule at Hibs, the very same McDonald of Motherwell, but a few examples of squaddies who made the SPL an attractive prospect for TV executives in the early noughties. At this point, it was the Irish-based Setanta Sports that had the league’s rights and no doubt, the heads in County Dublin would’ve been licking their chops when Motherwell toppled Celtic. They were. Funnily enough, Setanta renewed their deal in 2006 and again in 2008, extending their run until 2010-11. The deal was thought to total around £125 million, the most lucrative offer that Scottish football had ever had the pleasure of receiving.
If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it was. Usher in June 2009. Setanta cannot pay to renew the very TV rights they are supposed to own. The SPL has to step in and provide windfall payments for the majority of the league’s clubs. Setanta goes into administration, Scotland’s top league is left without a broadcaster and there are no more Sundays of the Helicopter variety.
Scottish football learned the hard way. Crucially, however, it did learn. It learned that more money doesn’t always equate to progress and as such, they opted for the plucky young upstarts of BT Sport next time they sniffed a renegotiation. Despite a rocky start, BT Sport has been the perfect platform for our game to grow. They hire pundits with a working knowledge of the Scottish game. They provide an hour-long build-up and expert analysis following matches. They have the perfect odd couple in Stephen Craigan and Chris Sutton and a willing host in Darrell Currie. These may sound like bare necessities for any broadcaster, but they are all things that Sky Sports lack when they get the coverage of the chosen weekend’s biggest game. That’s why, when it was announced in November last year that Sky had paid £160 million to be the exclusive live broadcaster of the SPFL, questions surrounding the dichotomy of progress vs. profit were again raised.
Sky Sports bought into the Scottish market in the satellite-driven era of the late 1990s. The result: steady cash flow was pumped into the Scottish game, the likes of which had never been seen before. This was a big deal. Rangers were coming off the back of 9-in-a-row, fuelled by the reckless riches of steel magnate David Murray. Sky’s finances looked to restore parity to a strewn top-flight. With the same money that bought future club legends Moravčík or Numan however, there was usually a Sylla or a Prodan for balance, the lattermost failing to make a league appearance for Rangers. Like the Southern neighbours, investment was out of the question. It was a case of spending for the sake of it.
At this time though clubs in the SPL, especially the Old Firm, could afford to get it wrong. If one of Celtic or Rangers signed a flop like Momo Sylla, then they could rectify that problem six months later as another window opened. Yes, this did wonders for title races in Scotland and it gave us a Helicopter Sunday in ‘03, ‘05, ‘08 and ‘09. But it gave us the same two teams over and over and over again, battling it out for the same trophies. Which is why 2018-19 has been such a breath of fresh air for most fans up here. Sky are rarely in the picture and when they are, they’re usually satirised for the latest cock-up they’ve made despite their re-attestation that “Scottish football matters.” There’s also a genuine title race at the minute. They might be finding their feet again but even the most ardent Bhoy would say Celtic are shaky. Although they are currently playing second fiddle, Steven Gerrard has vastly improved a Rangers squad that has at times looked totally bereft. Aberdeen lie in fourth, three points behind the Old Firm, Derek McInnes ensuring that he is nothing if not consistent. Then we have the Cinderella story of Steve Clarke and Kilmarnock. They are in third, surely ahead of any realistic expectations any Killie fan could have harboured before this season started. The fact they are here now is testament to the power of shrewdness. Killie’s free signing of Youssouf Mulumbu last season proved to be a masterstroke. Likewise, their continual faith in Jordan Jones paid off when the once wildly inconsistent winger was called to be dropped by fans and pundits alike. Had that been a decade earlier, there would’ve been no patience. Jones would’ve fallen. Instead, both these unfancied players were given time. And now, Mulumbu finds himself at Celtic and Jones will be a Rangers player come Summer.
BT couldn’t compete, or perhaps couldn’t justify competing, with Sky. Which is why, with the promise of more money and the quick fix it provides, Scottish clubs need to do all they can to cease the march of regression back to a two-horse race. The sustainability and validity of the nation’s game depends on it.