The Scottish Premier League and Scottish Football Association have reportedly tried to coerce Scottish Football League clubs to allow Rangers newco into the first division by outlining the sizeable void that would be left in their coffers should Sky rip up or redraw the terms of their TV contract with the SPL.
Like much in football, the Dutch can profess to do it better. Considered the progenitor of total football, the Netherlands have taken the term literally by looking to refine their own model for distribution of TV rights: Eredivisie Live. In 2005, Dutch football was in a situation not too dissimilar to that of the Scottish game at the moment: a bumper contract with the Talpa was rendered void after the broadcaster went under and there were no alluring offers on the table. The way forward looked bleak so the Dutch took a different path.
Eredivisie Live is a subscription-only channel which holds all media rights for the Dutch top-flight clubs, with the channel then made available to all broadcasters across the Netherlands to ensure full coverage. From humble beginnings – Eredivisie Live was originally marketed as a weekend channel showing live matches – the channel has in the last the last four years also subsumed matches in the lower leagues, cup competitions and Europa League coverage, and is broadcast seven days a week. Strides are also being made into other areas of the market such as mobile and radio coverage.
Which is all well and good considering Eredivisie has a surfeit of vibrant matches which punters should be falling over themselves to watch. The Scottish Premier League cannot boast clubs such as PSV Eindhoven and Ajax on the telly but the statistics behind the model should still be a source of intrigue for the governing bodies. From a population similar to that of Scotland, almost 600,000 subscriptions – costing between €14-18 – have been sold since the channel was launched, with live matches commanding approximately one million viewers every weekend.
It should not simply be assumed that such demand would follow from the inception of a similar system in this country but nor should trepidation regarding interest be the sole reason to dismiss it. Figures indicate that Clydesdale Bank Premier League matches reach 645,000 households under the current Sky deal, and the clubs would be free to embrace competing broadcasters to maximise coverage. The catalyst for Eredivisie Live was a contract with Zigo, the largest provider in the Netherlands, which was agreed on the same day the channel was launched. After that, others duly followed.
Other countries have already enquired about the Dutch model, but would it translate to Scotland? "I think so, but you need some guts and entrepreneurship; we strongly believe in this model as we have, in four years, built a subscription base of 600,000 paying customers," said Maarten van Rooijen, who helped build Eredivisie Live and now heads communications.
"You get less dependent on the way the market works. Every three or five years, whatever period that you sell your rights, is exciting when you get a deal but you never know what is going to be three or four years later. By taking it into your own hands, developing a strong brand and building a strong base of subscribers that are loyal to you, then this is a more stable and healthy way of exploiting your rights. We have had a lot of interest in our model from other countries, but so far we are the only ones that are using it. We have faith in how we do it, it just takes guts to get it started . . ."
It also took help from production company Endemol – "They produce all our shows and we needed their expertise; we are football people but we are not TV people," said Van Rooijen – as well as a hefty bank loan. It is still being paid off. That is a detail which may well stymie any enthusiasm among Scottish clubs. Chairmen have tightened their belts and the decision to turn away the immediate income of a traditional television deal in favour of developing their own subscription channel would take immense courage. Remember that stillborn idea about SPL TV?
There were pitfalls to the model which pertain only to the Dutch – basically there are few nationwide broadcasters, with regions of the Netherlands serviced by their own channel, each one requiring individual contracts – but there are also inherent challenges that would have to be faced. The immediate drop in media revenue is daunting and is only exacerbated by responsibility for production costs falling to clubs.
That remains the case even if Eredivisie Live, which gives clubs 80% control of their rights, with Enamol holding the other 20%, shows the potential for rapid growth. "We dropped in media revenues for the first couple of years because when you start a new enterprise, you have to invest," said Van Rooijen. "We started with zero subscriptions, so we had a bank loan which has to be paid back and we are still doing that now. We dropped in the first years from £65m with the Talpa deal to £40m in revenue.
"Obviously the gross revenue is way higher: it is now around 100m. But the net gift to the clubs is still a bit less as we have to make up for the years before. Where it is normal in football that you sell the rights and step back from it, we did otherwise and took it into our own hands. We make a lot of money and have a lot of costs. We are doing well and we have a long-term plan, but the big bucks are not yet coming in. They will in the next three or four years, I think."
A storm is hanging over Scottish football. The Dutch system may just offer a shaft of sunlight.
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