Today’s reform proposals by the Scottish Football League (SFL) got me thinking about the current state of the game in Alba.
So let’s say that we all agree that Rangers did a terrible wrong (most people probably agree with this, but Rangers fans may demur). The “punishment” was relegation to Division Three of the SFL. How is the offender getting along? Judged by attendances, quite splendidly. Sitting atop the division, average attendance is up by 2.7% this season.
Rangers’ fellow bottom-feeders are also enjoying the company of their infamous rival. Last season average attendance per game in the division was 500, and this season they look set to treble that. Not all the teams have hosted Rangers yet, but when they have it has been a sellout- a pity that some clubs only have a capacity of 2000! Financially this is a remarkable windfall gain.
But what about the Scottish Premier League (SPL) clubs that cast Rangers into the outer darkness? Taking the ten teams who were in the SPL last season and projecting forward their attendances from current levels, there will be a 10% decline this year. Celtic, by far the biggest club with attendance 4-5 times the average of the remainder, is down 10%. Some clubs, such as top of the table Hibernian, are up this year, and the situation may change by the end of the season.
But on current evidence, the victims of the punishment appear mostly to be the punishers themselves. I have no data, but I would suspect that ticket prices are down, and it is also said that Sky reduced the value it paid for SPL rights because of Rangers’ demotion.
Does that mean the clubs were wrong to punish Rangers in this way? If the intention was to make Rangers fans suffer, then quite possibly. It may be that Rangers fans feel humiliated playing in Division Three, but it’s equally possible they’re enjoying the change. If it was to cripple Rangers financially, then I also think it may backfire. They can feasibly win promotion back to the SPL over three seasons with a far less expensive team than they would have needed had they remained in the SPL, while selling more tickets. True, they are missing out on SPL broadcast income and European football, but wages are the biggest problem for most clubs, and they must feel quite comfortable financially. When (if?) they return in four years, they could be sitting on a war-chest that will buy them another era of dominance.
Of course, it’s fine to say that the punishment of wrong-doing is morally necessary, I am just wondering if there are not smarter ways to punish. For example, awarding a percentage of the gate to visitors while keeping them in the SPL would have maintained interest in the SPL while punishing the club financially. I’m sure there are many variants on this theme that could have been made to work. As several critics pointed in the summer, the danger is that the punishment of Rangers may end up driving some innocent SPL clubs into insolvency, and that does seem like a perverse kind of justice.