SMiSA Committee meet with SPL Chief Executive, Neil Doncaster


On the morning of  Wednesday 12/01/2010 at Hampden Park, SMiSA Chairman Alastair Colquhoun & Webmaster David Tennant met with SPL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster to discuss and debate the proposed SPL reconstruction plans.  The meeting, which lasted over 90 minutes was, we believe, extremely useful and productive in gaining further insight into the plans on a number of fronts, as well as an opportunity of putting the concerns that St. Mirren supporters and indeed that fans of other clubs have about the proposals.

What follows is a detailed report of the meeting for the benefit of all St. Mirren supporters.

To open the meeting, Alastair made it clear that SMiSA understand that:

  • There is no perfect solution that will please all sides on the structure of the league.
  • We, as fans, do not have (and may not be able to be presented) all the financial facts of the current and proposed setups.
  • Clubs will be fearful of truly radical change that differ vastly from the status quo.

However, he also made it clear that while all of these points stand, no business that does not listen to its customers can, or will be successful in the long run.

At this point Mr. Doncaster presented details of the proposed changes, with the following key points to come out of them:

  • It would see the SPL change to a 2 Divisions of 10 teams setup, with clubs playing each other 4 times for a 36 game season with end of season playoffs for promotion/relegation.
  • An end to the fixture imbalances caused by the current top/bottom 6 split.
  • The SPL & SFL would, under these proposals, merge to come under the banner of the SPL.
  • This setup would see clubs in 'SPL2' be in for a combined sum of £3m guaranteed every year.  This is estimated to be worth approximately 5x as much for sides as compared with current SFL 1st Division payments.  This is also, it should be pointed out, approximately double what sides in 11th and 12th place get currently under the 12-team SPL setup, so it would not simply be that existing money spread among 10 sides as has been feared/anticipated.
  • Below 'SPL2', regional football leagues would be established with the remaining 22 league sides as well as the top non-league clubs, to form a pyramid structure to non-league football.
  • The SPL would administer this whole pyramid.
  • Colt teams from SPL clubs to play in the regional leagues.
  • A potential restructuring/rebranding of the SFL (CIS) League Cup.
  • An earlier start to the season, making use of the month of July with a winter break.

Mr. Doncaster cited that it is in his, and the clubs' belief, that 10 team divisions are for Scotland the "Best for the best" in both financial terms and for bringing through young players, in spite of what has been said of this setup being a detriment to the likelihood of young players getting first team action, as well as the reduction of top flight first team places with having less teams at the top division.  It is also Mr. Doncaster's belief that having Colt teams playing against senior sides at a lower level is a better approach than playing youth or reserve team matches as they must learn playing against fully developed professional players.

On the structure of the league, while the increased value of distributions for the second tier was welcomed, as were the prospects of playoffs, an earlier start to the season and a winter break, Alastair expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of radical thinking behind the proposals.  He went on to cite that since the establishment of the 10 and subsequent 12 team league setups, an increasing number of teams have gone into financial hardship, with:

  • Gretna & Airdrieonians going into full liquidation. 
  • Motherwell & Dundee (twice) going into administration.
  • Several clubs including St. Mirren being forced to sell their grounds.
  • Celtic only narrowly avoiding receivership.
  • Hearts & Rangers being owned/operated by banks, with the former having a balance sheet that would be completely unsustainable but for their particular circumstances and the involvement of Mr. Romanov.
  • Several other clubs being externally supported above a sustainable level.

Alastair therefore cited dismay at the lack of a move away from a smaller setup to something more in line with the fans wishes, of a larger division of 16 or 18, potentially seeing playoffs at the top as well as the bottom of the division to determine who would become league champions.  As part of this he cited the sport of Rugby League which has in a short space of time gone from a plodding, slow winter sport watched by old men in poor facilities to a dynamic, exciting, fast summer game which has embraced technology and has seen attendances increase dramatically.

Mr Doncaster's response to this is that in looking at the figures, the financial case for having a setup which reduces the fixture count significantly simply will not and cannot stack up, believing that detailed analysis means it could lose in the order of £10m (varying figures were presented either side of this mark) to the clubs overall through commercial distributions, sponsorship & gate attendance.

It is the SPL's belief that in moving to a setup which reduces the number of 'big tv games' such as the Old Firm & Edinburgh derbies by half, that the value of any tv deal would also be halved, and that gate attendance & sponsorship revenues would also suffer due to the lack of games.  Mr. Doncaster did concede that the specific figures for attendance value could be challenged as fans may be more inclined to buy season tickets for a league where there is no fixture repetition and less games shown on TV, but is confident that the other figures are sound.

He went on to say that while he accepted absolutely that Rugby League was a great example of how change can make a very positive difference to a sport, playoffs at the top end of the SPL, as in Rugby League where 'winning the league' means to automatically get into the playoff final would not be voted through by the clubs because:

  • It may harm the UEFA coefficient to determine the number/quality of European places due to the fact that while in RL there are several strong clubs, in Scotland there are only 2 who make a substantial impact on gaining European coefficient points (and that in comparison to other countries of a similar size to us this fact sees us punching above our weight).
  • UEFA may also object to the champions being determined in this manner and revoke European competition places as there are restrictions on who can be eligible for Champions League places.

Mr. Doncaster did present one area where playoffs at the top end of the league may be acceptable, and that that would be for the final European place, citing Holland as an example for that.  However going against that is the fact that the Scottish Cup winners get a place, and not knowing who will get that, OR how many places Scotland is eligible for due to the falling coefficient rating, this cannot in reality be looked at for the foreseeable future.

To compensate for the lack of games and revenue for clubs, analysis was done on an 'SPL Cup', which under their plans could be played over a seeded "Wimbledon" style format.  It is thought that this could generate in the region of £7m, but that this is not enough to compensate for the financial loss generated elsewhere.

The conversation at this point moved towards the issue of a full summer calendar versus the earlier start to the season plus winter break.

Mr. Doncaster said that in Europe there are only 4 countries that adopt a summer calendar - Russia, Norway, Sweden & Ireland.  Of those:

  • Russia are reverting back to a winter calendar
  • Norway & Sweden play a much shorter season, which may not be acceptable here
  • Ireland are experiencing a downturn in crowds having adopted it, so it is believed that it's not working there.

He also said that it would be impossible to go up against the World Cup or European Championships in those years, deeming it to be "financial suicide" and while it would be possible to have a summer break, the calendar would be extremely tight.  As part of this he revealed that even moving the start date of the season to July (likely the week after the end of the World Cup/Euros) is difficult for the authorities here, as UEFA do not permit top flight league matches to go against European matches played at that period, so the often anticipated summer midweek games are, for the large part, sadly impossible.

David expressed dismay at that situation but accepted the difficulty given that it is a UEFA directive rather than a situation peculiar to Scotland.  Mr. Doncaster went on to say at this point that he believed that the change to the start of the season would be more palatable to clubs as part of a package of measures rather than simply a standalone one.  When questioned as to why that might be he cited the 'lucrative pre-season tournaments' which Rangers & Celtic in particular would not be able to compete in, and while a winter break with potential middle/far east ties would compensate somewhat, it would still be a loss for them.

Alastair went on to reiterate that he was dismayed at the lack of outside the box thinking over the proposals believing that they simply 'rearranged the deck chairs' and that any time something genuinely innovative is proposed barriers seem to get erected.  Mr. Doncaster said he appreciated that frustration while reiterating his prior points before talk then turned to the suggestion of a 14-team top flight.

Mr. Doncaster accepted this suggestion as a different case than a 10-team league one, and that it is proving more popular with the public, seen as, as it is, an extension of the top flight rather than a reduction, while retaining the same value for TV as well as providing an equitable fixture card for the two groups of 6 and 8 sides, with the in-built nature of compensation for a lower placed finish with more home games to result. 

Indeed Mr. Doncaster is happy to concede that out of the three possible solutions of a 10, 12 and 14 top flight it does have significant advantages in some key respects.

Turning to the subject of Colt teams however, both David & Alastair expressed concern over them on a number of issues:

  • The likelihood of a club such as St. Mirren having them being small compared to a side such as Rangers or Celtic, and this at a time when St. Mirren Youth Development struggles to attract and keep young players to and at St. Mirren versus the Old Firm sides.
  • The competitive disadvantage of a side NOT having a Colt team being too great and reinforcing the culture of haves and have-nots.
  • The possibility that ONLY Rangers and Celtic would be able to support these Colt teams.
  • The inevitable consequence of less players leaving (either on loan or permanently) from the Old Firm clubs to find first team football to develop and advance their careers.
  • The possible risk to sporting integrity if a player could move freely back and forth between playing for a Colt side and a parent club.
  • The lack of will from lower league sides to play against these Colt teams.
  • The lack of crowd appeal that these Colt sides may have from a point of view of attendance figures.

Mr. Doncaster was very cognisant of these concerns and said, when questioned, that under these proposals players would only have single registration to either the colt side or the parent side, so preventing freedom of movement outwith the normal channels of transfer windows and loan deals.  This is by way of contrast to other leagues such as the German league, where players do have dual registrations and are able to move more freely between the sides.  He is also determined to ensure that clubs who lose out on a young player to a larger club are properly compensated for that, to prevent big clubs hoovering up players from other smaller sides.

He went on to say that he believed that those in charge of a club like St. Mirren would, in these circumstances, "Bust a gut" to have a Colt side and that the cost to establish and maintain them would not be any greater than maintaining a regular youth side, and that therefore the competitive advantage, which he acknowledged, of having such a team would be well worth what it would cost.  In light of this fact, he is confident that many more sides than only the Old Firm clubs would have them, and indeed presenting the envisaged structure of league football through the levels, made reference to 10 or more Colt sides playing in regional football.  David expressed some reservation and scepticism towards these claims, but Mr. Doncaster is confident that there will be far more than just the 2 Old Firm sides having Colt teams, should they be approved.

It should also be stressed, for the facts, that these Colt sides would not be eligible to promotion to 'SPL2' under these proposals, but would 'float' between the regional divisions and would not be eligible for any competitive distributions, unlike the senior clubs.  Mr. Doncaster cited that in countries where these Colt teams do play, they rarely achieve high league positions and would therefore not be a risk to lower league sides in a competitive sense, though whether or not that would be true in Scotland is of course, open to question and debate.

Mr. Doncaster went on to say that in his belief, while he acknowledges the number of loan deals from the Old Firm to other clubs may be reduced by this, it could make for greater demand of smaller clubs getting players from other SPL sides, such as St. Mirren.  However it is of course questionable how many players a club such as ours can afford to loan to other sides as compared with the Glasgow giants and also leaves the potential financial impact of a lower league side playing against a colt side as compared to a rival senior club unanswered.

After this, David went on to question Mr. Doncaster on the proposals in a number of areas, as well as present him with the advance findings of the survey of the St. Mirren support as publicised by this website launched on the official website as they backed up the findings of the Supporters Direct survey of 5000 trust members which found 88% disapproval with the 10 & 10 proposals. 

On hearing these figures which (as of Monday) showed almost unanimous dissatisfaction with the proposals of St. Mirren fans canvassed on their opinions of the 2x 10-team league setup, as well as statements from St. Mirren fans on the proposals, Mr. Doncaster accepted that the proposals are not the popular option for the clubs and said he believed that there are 3 workable options - the status quo of 12, plus the 10 and 14 team options for the top flight and that the clubs will have a big decision to make when the vote does come on them.

On the questions that David asked Mr. Doncaster, the key points to take from his answers which have not been covered previously in this summary are:

  • The percentage spread of commercial/tv revenues requires an 11-1 vote to change. Therefore it is extremely unlikely to see any substantive change (ie other than a pro-rata one) to the distribution of revenues at top flight level, and therefore it is unlikely that the Old Firm's significantly larger share of revenues than the rest of the division will be changed.
  • There has been extensive consultation to the SFL between Mr. Doncaster and their Chief Executive, David Longmuir throughout the progress of the SPL's steering group and its consultation period, though there has not been major consultation to the individual SFL clubs likely to be part of 'SPL2' as it is believed that the SPL needs to determine a full set of proposals first before taking it to the SFL for their consideration.
  • When asked about the reasons that the SPL steering group decided against pursuing a 14 team-league structure as opposed to the proposed setup, he admitted that he was surprised but was bound by the will of the clubs to fight for what they had suggested. 
  • Mr. Doncaster is happy that if the SFL clubs suggest a different, larger setup for 'SPL2' than a second 10, to go along with such a proposal.
  • When asked if the 2x10 setup were to be voted through, if there would be any prospect of moving to a larger league structure at a later date when the financial considerations make it possible/necessary, Mr. Doncaster confirmed that that would be the plan and that a timeline would be outlined in some detail.
  • While the SFL Challenge Cup is not part of the SPL's remit at present, it would become part of it under these proposals and Mr Doncaster believes it is a worthy competition that he would wish to see retained despite the changes to the league structure, drawing comparisons between it and the Johnstone's Paint Trophy south of the border.

To close the meeting, both Alastair & David, and Mr. Doncaster thanked the other party for the meeting, feeling that it had covered a lot of ground and given a valuable insight into the other's point of view, even if it is likely that the opinions may remain divided over the best way to proceed for the benefit of Scottish Football as a whole.

In conclusion, while there are certainly many key points of disagreement between the views of the St. Mirren support both as a whole and at an individual level, and the proposed SPL plans there is no doubt that the intention is there on all sides to seek for a better future, though whether or not these, or any other proposals are the best way forward are of course, left up to the view of the reader.  As said at the beginning, it is a given that there is no perfect solution, rather the best is all that can be looked for.

Finally, SMiSA would like to thank all at the SPL, particularly Neil Doncaster, for agreeing to the meeting as a willingness to be open and discuss with fans their proposals, extensively and in considerable detail, can only do them credit whatever the thoughts may be on the plans.  We would also like to thank Karin Irvine for agreeing to provide us with an advanced set of the figures in the fans survey as they provided all with good background information and allowed us at SMiSA to put points made by supporters directly to the SPL's Chief Executive.