Learning From Other Leagues: The SPL
by Absolute Thai Football
The European League Coefficient decides how many of a country’s clubs will play in the Champions and Europa League based on their results over five seasons in those competitions. It’s two points for a win and one for a draw before the season’s total is divided by the number of teams from that country. Scotland are currently eighteenth, have dropped three places and are behind Israel and Cyprus.
Scottish League Winners since the formation of the EPL in 1992: 2
No team outside the Old Firm has won the SPL, with 2006 the only time when both clubs failed to place first and second after Hearts were runners up to Celtic. In the TPL there have been eleven different champions, but the wide spread of winners indicates more that, in the early days, there was a very even spread of resources. The vast majority of clubs shared nothing whatsoever on an equal footing whilst some clubs had slightly more.
In 1997 Premier Division clubs split from the Scottish Football League to form the Scottish Premier League as top clubs looked to keep more revenue. Previously, sponsorship money was divided proportionally between all league clubs, but the SPL put a stop to that.
Initially containing 10 clubs, it increased to the current 12 in 2000. Seasons have two phases: firstly, clubs play each other three times. Then the league splits into a ‘top six’ and a ‘bottom six’ where teams only play against others in their section, with previous points carried forward. No movement between leagues is allowed so Inverness finished last season seventh, with the fifth highest points total. In Thailand this would kill mid table teams like Police United and TTM Pichit by denying them revenue against highly supported clubs, creating a Division 1b. Clubs like TOT, who raised their game to beat top half opposition in Thai Port, BEC Terro and Bangkok Glass last season, would be more vulnerable to relegation in a dog fight league.
Football Association Oversight
Clubs can sign whoever they wish. There is no team or individual salary cap, no squad size limit and few restrictions on individual foreign players with EU nationality, including those claiming an EU passport through a parent or grandparent and top players from outside the EU can get UK work permits. The only restriction is that clubs must include three or more under 21 players in a match day squad. An open door policy in Thailand would have swamped the league, particularly with foreign strikers and defenders who often have more physical presence than Thai players. However, allowing only three non Asian players dilutes the talent pool too much at this stage of the League’s development.
Despite their massive internal advantages, the relatively low television revenue stops the Old Firm competing with foreign clubs for transfer fees and wages. In the transfer window that closed last night, Rangers lost their leading scorer Jelavic to Everton but could only offer £500,000 for Norwich’s Grant Holt. The rejected big has prompted Paddy Power to make the Rangers manager favourite for the next sacking. And this is for one of the Big Two…
The idea of the Glasgow giants joining either the English set up or an Atlantic League has advocates who see a more competitive SPL leading to an expansion in the number of league teams, but it is those who pay the piper that play the tune and they demand the status quo.
Last November The SPL extended its Sky and ESPN deal to 2017, but the tail wags the dog in smaller leagues. They secured SPL rights below market value in 2009 after Setanta’s collapse, so extending the contract for £80m (up £15m over five seasons) sounds mutually beneficial.
The options were to keep the12 team format or return to a 10 club setup, but Sky insist on four annual Old Firm games a season or they’re out, so the expanded division is off the table. The SPL would rather decrease the top flight to concentrate revenues narrowly and turn fans away, especially those of First Division teams that find promotion so difficult already. With only one team being promoted, on condition of a 6,000 seater stadium, only Dundee come within 1000 of that average figure. Even current leaders Ross County can’t achieve it so many teams see promotion to the SPL as a double edged sword.
Rangers average 49,000 with Celtic 4,000 back on 45,000. Then the huge drop to third placed Hearts on 13,000 drops to the lowest figure of 4,000 for Saint Johnstone. The league average is 14,000. Clearly Scotland has a relatively low population of 5.2 million, but more Scots per head of population watch their domestic top level league than any other European nation. It is the distribution of attendances that is badly unbalanced. In Spain the lowest club’s average attendance is 13% of the highest, in Germany it is 27%, but in Scotland it is only 8%.
SPL clubs have almost complete freedom to sign players. There are no salary caps, no squad size limit, no restrictions on the overall number of foreign players and few restrictions on individual foreign players: all players with EU nationality, including those able to claim an EU passport through a parent or grandparent, are eligible to play and top players from outside the EU can get UK work permits.
Champions League and UEFA Cup places
Two clubs qualify for the Champions League and two for the Europa League.
Paradoxically Scotland have negotiated a new TV deal for more money, making it less sustainable as it doesn’t address the massive imbalances for the next five years. The annual Glasgow procession will continue whilst first division clubs see promotion as a risk as much as a reward. Scotland should be nervously looking over its shoulder at the upwardly mobile leagues of Poland and Croatia, rather than assuming it is better than Israel and Cyprus.