Who really owns Scottish football?

By Simon Barrow
January 25, 2011

Modern football isn't just sport, it's big business these days - well, big business for some, and small business, survival or worse for many others (the majority, in fact). So the question of who owns and shapes the game in Scotland is central to the current debates about league restructuring and future development.

The major running is being made by the Scottish Premier League (SPL), which in theory represents twelve clubs, but in practice is bound by the wishes of Celtic and Rangers; by television money (which is really only interested in the hugely dominant 'Old Firm'), and by an ideology that continually places limited commercial interests well above supporter ones or wider community concerns about the renewal of the game from the grassroots up.

Indeed the SPL is currently proposing a scheme which would reduce the top division to just ten teams, incorporate another ten who currently belong to the separate Scottish Football League (SFL) into a 12-team SPL2, and create an 'iron curtain' between this and the rest by regionalising everyone else and using the 'lower leagues' as a training ground for a few rich clubs' 'colt' or 'B' sides.

This is a disastrous recipe for the majority. It effectively kicks nearly half of the current 42 full- and part-time sides out of the professional game, will do nothing to encourage football below the elite (effectively strangling it further) and is very unlikely to revive the SPL either.

Former Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish was supposed to produce independent recommendations about the future of the whole of Scottish football. But he too has been caught up in the power-play slipstream. The second part of his much anticipated report was delayed while the SPL strategy group machinated, and - surprise, surprise! - he came up with most of the same headline ideas as his mates down the corridor (literally), while allowing newly-imported English SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster and his associates to front the 'brave new world' and stave off dissenters.

This is a pity, because there are good ideas in the first part of McLeish about grassroots development (albeit with no money, or insufficient money, attached), and many of the 103 recommendations in the second part are also important. The real problems with the proposed 'reconstruction', however, are: lack of transparency (the data and assumptions behind what is being put forward are thin or shrouded in supposedly commercial secrecy), the stranglehold of putative TV contracts, the lack of on-field competitiveness produced by the wholesale dominance of the two big Glasgow clubs in finance and football for the last 25 years, the marginalisation of fans (who still produce the lion's share of revenue, incidentally), a multi-institution governance mess, an unsustainable economic model, recession, and the unfeasible desire by highly-placed people in the game that Scottish football should compete directly with the European and world powers that have massively larger populations and GDPs.

All these problems can and should be tackled, but the issue is: on whose terms and conditions? And on what timetable, with what structure for consultation and decision making? These two questions are intimately related. Good decisions require adequate time and a proper, workable procedure. Rushing it at the behest of Sky and others scuppers that.

Equally, football is a hugely important cultural and social feature of Scottish life, with more people attending live matches per head of the population than pretty much anywhere in Europe - in spite of a much smaller base than England, say. This would suggest that supporters and communities should be the main stakeholders and drivers. That is the view of Supporters Direct, the organisation that links together a whole network of emerging and growing 'supporters trusts' - provident (cooperative) societies who are seeking to bring fans together and work with clubs for a different direction and ethos. Some now have directors through their shares and the aspiration of many is that their football clubs should be community-owned.

The Bundesliga in Germany provides an example of how football can be run in a different way. Simply crying "unrealistic" to anything that doesn't immediately appease the 'Old Firm' of Celtic and Rangers, the TV franchises and a top-down commercial model isn't on. It reflects a dangerously limited grasp of reality, an impoverished vision of sport as part of the common good, and a reckless willingness to waste the most precious asset of all - the tens of thousands of people who play, watch and assist the game week-in and week-out.

But all is not lost. In spite of the spin, the SPL proposals are a political and financial quagmire. Viewed from anything other than a myopically narrow perspective they are not a credible, sustainable plan for the future of Scottish football as a whole. Decent alternatives have to be developed and considered. The SFL, which seems to be in denial about the fact that another legal and commercial body (the SPL) is currently trying to restructure its asset as if it already owned it, needs to connect with fan groups, players and communities to look at how the game below the elite level can move forward.

I should declare an interest. I'm a member of the board of a fans' trust and a long-term advocate of the supporter participation and ownership. It may not be the case that ownership is everything, but it is undoubtedly a key factor. If all professional clubs were required to have a minimum 25 per cent fan share and move towards 51 per cent in 15 years (say) this would change the game radically - both on and (increasingly) off the park.


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He has been a supporter of Dumbarton FC for 42 years. He writes on football at Only Just Offside and the Sonstrust website. More on Supporters Direct here.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.