x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Conundrum for clubs in Scottish Premier League over crowds

Worry over falling spectator numbers, and TV deal rules out increasing size of the league due to demand for Old Firm games.

Aberdeen's Issac Osbourne, left, and Celtic's Kris Commons battle for the ball in front of empty seats.
Aberdeen's Issac Osbourne, left, and Celtic's Kris Commons battle for the ball in front of empty seats.

Sir Alex Ferguson used to quip that Aberdeen fans were so quiet that you could hear them unwrapping their sweets during a game.

And this was when they were one of the best teams in Europe and their Pittodrie Stadium was full, when Ferguson was manager back in the early 1980s.

The unravelling of a Werther's Original, in those distant glory days, would sound like a sonic boom compared to the "noise" generated today by their average home crowds of 10,156, less than 50 per cent of the ground's capacity.

Aberdeen, as reported by The Guardian in October, are losing £60,000 (Dh346,000) every home game because the cost of hosting a game, including policing, is more than the revenue coming through the gates.

This is Scotland's third largest club with a support who have generally been incredibly loyal, but nobody can escape the harsh reality that Scottish football is running out of spectators almost as quickly as it is running out of money.

Motherwell's exciting young team, who are third in the league and got to last season's Scottish Cup Final, have this season been watched by an average of just 4,827 people every home game.

At a recent live television match on a Saturday lunchtime against Kilmarnock, when Motherwell were in second place, only 4,100 people chose to attend.

And this was viewed as the best game of that weekend.

St Johnstone, who are currently fourth, are closing down one of their stands because it has become too expensive to keep it open. Promoted Dunfermline are doing the same in a move that will save them £20,000 every match.

Even the Old Firm in Glasgow are suffering. Celtic's average home crowd this season is under 45,000, still a big number, but not quite the days when there was a 15,000-strong waiting list for season tickets for their 61,000-capacity stadium.

Rangers, the champions, are in better shape with average home gates of 46,185. But with a massive tax bill hanging over them that money will not stay in the club's coffers too long.

So what is to be done?

Just this week, the Scottish Premier League (SPL) announced an extension to its broadcast deal with Sky and ESPN, which will now run until the end of the 2016/17 season.

The £80 million contract kicks in next summer and is worth £3m more per year than the current £13m-a-year terms.

But even that "good news" is tempered by the fact that Sky have written into their contract that there must be four Old Firm games a season guaranteed, this means the league will not be extended from 12 to 16 or 18 teams, the overwhelming popular choice of supporters.

It could even go down to 10 teams to ensure these four derby matches, by far the biggest fixture on the calendar.

"I think it's really difficult to see this deal as anything other than good news," said Neil Doncaster, the SPL chief executive, speaking to the BBC.

"Let's look at the context. The [English] Football League is 25 per cent down in terms of reported figures for its live deal. Other rights-sellers in the marketplace are suffering similar reductions, whether it be broadcast deals or sponsorship deals."

Supporters are not convinced, and when it became clear the 12-team league was here to stay after the new TV deal, they bombarded radio stations, newspapers and various websites to voice their complaints about the chances of league expansion being all but killed off.

"That [league reconstruction] has always has been impossible," said Doncaster. "There is no room to manoeuvre in terms of expanding. Fourteen might potentially work in terms of having a split league and retaining four Old firm games - maybe.

"But it has never been feasible to have 16, 18 or 20 because you automatically mean going to one home game and one away. We think that will take £20m (Dh115m) per season out of Scottish football in terms of lost gate and TV revenue."

The SPL is on the lookout for a new sponsor as the Clydesdale Bank's long association with the league ends in May.

But the fear, understandably, is what company wants to be associated with a football league that hardly anyone watches. So what happens next? Do the clubs continue to take the TV money in the knowledge gates will continue to fall? Or do they change the league structure and a fortune is lost in broadcasting rights?

That is a quite a dilemma.

Juve still unbeaten

Juventus will look to extend their unbeaten run to 13 matches in tomorrow’s match against Cesena.

Every team other than the Turin side has lost at least two matches this season.

Juve were on the verge of losing for the first time this season, when trailing 3-1 against Napoli on Tuesday, but they hit back to snatch a point in a 3-3 draw. Simone Pepe fired in the equaliser 10 minutes from time.

“I don’t think I’ve ever scored three goals in three games ... I don’t know if I’ve ever scored more either,” Pepe said. “The result felt like a victory to us because of how it came about. We are a very united group and we don’t ever give up.”

Juventus will be without Andrea Pirlo, who is suspended after picking up his fourth booking of the season at Napoli.

Magath’s silent plan

Felix Magath, the Wolfsburg coach, has given his side the silent treatment this week while hoping that their actions against Mainz today will speak louder than any of his words could.

Magath did not open his mouth at all until Thursday and instead he resolved to simply watch his players as they trained on Tuesday and Wednesday to see how they reacted to the 2-0 defeat to Augsburg, who are bottom of the table, last weekend.

Satisfied that they got the message, he broke his silence yesterday to give them just a few pointers for the encounter with Mainz.

“If we can repeat the performance we showed against Hannover [when Wolfsburg won 4-1], then we will beat Mainz,” he said.

“Mainz will try to lead us into making errors to then try and hit us on the counter-attack, and they are going to push us as much as they can.”

No Alonso for Real

Real Madrid’s rise to the top of the Primera Liga has owed much to Xabi Alonso’s sparkling form, but they will have to prove they can survive without the suspended midfield linchpin when they travel to Sporting Gijon today.

The playmaker, a central figure in Spain’s World Cup triumph in South Africa last year, picked up his fifth yellow card last weekend. He will be able to return for the clash against Barcelona at the Bernabeu the following week.

Jose Mourinho’s team have racked up 13 consecutive wins in all competitions. In Gijon, however, they will miss Alonso’s influence in front of 18th-place Gijon’s noisy support.

Alonso brings composure to Real’s relatively young team, who have only managed three wins in the seven games Alonso has missed since Mourinho took the helm.

Ajax stay focused

A recent row between club executives has not affected Ajax’s players, according to Jan Vertonghen, the captain.

Johan Cruyff, the club legend, and Ajax’s other supervisory board members are involved in a feud with the four club chiefs who appointed Louis van Gaal to the top executive job without consulting them.

Legal action has been threatened this week and the club’s members council has asked the five-man board – including Cruyff – to step down.

“All the unrest within the club hasn’t affected the players,” Vertonghen told Voetbal International. “People draw that conclusion too easily.

“It is sometimes briefly mentioned but then we go about the order of the day. It sounds crazy but for the players it is pleasant turmoil. The media has concentrated on the administrative side, which has taken the attention off the sport. This puts the young boys under less pressure.”

Bad feeling at Marseille

Marseille’s resounding win over Paris Saint-Germain last weekend has done little to ease turmoil within the club.

Coach Didier Deschamps admitted publicly for the first time this week that he has no rapport with sporting director Jose Anigo.
Anigo responded by saying their tense relations have existed ever since Deschamps took charge two seasons ago.

“To be honest, the relationship has been the same for two-and-a-half years,” Anigo said on RMC radio. “Everyone does their bit in the interests of the club.”

Deschamps feels his authority has been threatened, and dropped Andre-Pierre Gignac from his squad after the striker insulted him.

Gignac sat out Sunday’s 3-0 win over PSG, but resumed training on Wednesday after apologising to the squad.

ncameron@thenational.ae