Sunday 8 December 2019

Audience not rising to Scotland's early start

Scottish football is not offering fans value for money, says Ewan Murray

Given the shambles of the Scottish Premier League's attempts at reconstruction, it was always wildly optimistic that a premature start to this season would prove beneficial.

Last weekend the picture was again worryingly grim. A supposedly flagship fixture between Hibernian and Celtic attracted a crowd of 12,523; vast expanses of empty seats on a glorious day in Edinburgh offered an ominous snapshot to a live television audience.

Hibs have on-field troubles and the early Sunday kick-off time is historically problematic. Yet elsewhere the signs were hardly positive. Motherwell hosted Inverness at 3.0pm on a sunny Saturday in front of 4,190, Pittodrie housed 10,001 for Aberdeen's visit of St Johnstone and Dunfermline's return to the top flight was witnessed by 5,035.

The danger is that television companies regard this spectacle as hardly worth the effort. This is a league product, after all, which the SPL's chief executive Neil Doncaster so publicly claimed was not fit for purpose amid a botched attempt to revert to a 10-team set-up. The most bewildering aspect of that affair was the widely held theory that the size of Scotland's top flight was so important.

If part of the SPL's thinking in starting the campaign at such an early stage was to re-engage a lost audience, it clearly did not work. And there is no longer a case for criticising those who opt to stay away.

The product is wildly overpriced, with a season ticket culture -- and clubs' desperation to have an influx of revenue via those means -- sufficient to make people decide to spend their money elsewhere. This year neither clubs nor punters seem to have regarded the close season as long enough to leave them ready to start again.

It would be impressive if even one club broke with tradition and attempted a concerted cheap ticket campaign to try to retrieve lost supporters. For smaller clubs season ticket numbers are regressing to such a level that the summer revenue stream is worth putting at risk.

Some would be of a mind to complain about others paying less for a seat at a football match than they had done -- the kind of attitude which is not so prevalent if people benefit from discounted plane tickets or package holidays. The blunt truth is that Scottish football is not even close to offering value for money, with the fear-induced stance of clubs compounding rather than solving the problem. An added complication of a season which begins more than a week before the end of July is that sourcing new players from other countries is not easy. SPL teams must operate for five weeks -- a long enough period to define a season -- before the most serious wheeling and dealing of the transfer window kicks in.

The SPL start date was brought forward to aid Scottish teams in European competition by having them up to speed for qualifying ties. Already Dundee United have been bounced out of the Europa League by Slask Wroclaw and Rangers have left themselves a lot to do in the Champions League by stumbling to a 1-0 home defeat by Malmo. Hearts' 1-1 draw against the average Hungarians of Paksi on Thursday looks terrific in the context of what happened before.

The Old Firm were unhappy with the timing of the campaign's opening fixtures. In this climate no club should be castigated for looking to boost income streams but this weekend and next illustrate what a messy spell this is.

Celtic were given grace to postpone their second SPL game to compete in the Dublin Super Cup. Between their opening league match against Hibs and their next, at Aberdeen, Celtic will have played four friendly matches. Next Saturday Rangers will host Chelsea at Ibrox, again with the SPL continuing around them.

Such matters leave many onlookers scratching their heads. They are right to question the ability of those in charge to change things for the better.


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