The Scottish Premier League clubs and their counterparts in the Scottish Football League are due to hold votes later this month on proposals to merge the two bodies, introduce a fairer wealth distribution model and alter the structure of Scottish football. Yet there still remains a lack of clarity.
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Right now, no club is even sure exactly what they will be voting on. There is still time to finalise the plans, but that requires dealing with contentious issues. Herald Sport revealed last week that a rule book had been drawn up for the Scottish Professional Football League, but different models to the 12-12-18 set-up continue to be discussed, although the former remains the most likely to be taken forward to any vote.
Some SFL clubs are keen on a 12-12-10-10 structure, but that is a minor negotiation. In truth, the chairmen need to decide if they wish to accept an awkward and unpopular format – with the 12-12 splitting into 8-8-8 midway through the season – in return for initiatives they do want for the game, such as the wealth distribution and more play-offs between the leagues. Money is everything, though.
At the heart of league reconstruction is a need to establish financial stability. The price of relegation from the top tier is debilitating, exposing any clubs with underlying problems – Dunfermline Athletic, for example – to too high a risk, and more healthy clubs, such as Falkirk, to a level of cost-cutting that leaves them relying on a squad of youth prospects.
Yet there are also immediate financial concerns for some top-flight sides. Hearts' circumstances are unique, since the regime of Vladimir Romanov has relied on borrowing heavily from his Lithuanian bank. However, Herald Sport understands that at least two SPL clubs have asked their banks about the consequences of a reduced television deal next season, which might leave them vulnerable.
It was announced last summer that Sky had signed a five-year contract, but it is understood that a clause exists allowing the broadcaster to renegotiate terms based on viewing figures and value for money. With no Old Firm games to sell, clubs may have to adjust their budgets downwards. Without a merger between the two leagues, Rangers' media rights will also be a complication since they will belong to the SFL. Discussions are ongoing, but as of last Saturday, Herald Sport understands that David Longmuir, the SFL chief executive, had still not seen a copy of the SPL's contract with Sky, despite requesting it in January.
There is little likelihood of Sky departing Scottish football. They did come close to doing so last summer only for talks at the highest level to lead to a belated agreement. Sky had been considering bidding for the rights to show France's Ligue 1 in the UK, but those were subsequently bought by ESPN and Sky needs Scottish football to help fill its schedule.
There is no mechanism to return Rangers directly to the top flight but some SPL clubs are open in private about their need to accelerate the process. A 12-12-18 model could result in Rangers following the precedent set by Stranraer, if they win the third division, and so be promoted up to the second tier. This would not restore Old Firm games next season, but Rangers would likely then be in the middle eight post-split and so be facing top-flight sides.
A failure to reach an agreement with the SFL, however, would require the SPL to establish SPL2, and invite teams to join. On that basis, the negotiating power returns to Rangers, who will still be operating under a registration embargo. There are commercial benefits for the Ibrox side in moving up the leagues but competitive disadvantages since only free agents can be signed from September 1, and a marked reluctance among the supporters for the club to be fast-tracked.
Consensus has been hard to establish. Ross County, for instance, are not happy with the 12-12-18 proposal and St Mirren are also not keen. Financial concerns will dictate decisions, though, and Herald Sport also understands that one other SPL club has considered maintaining a small core of full-time professionals but otherwise employing part-time players.
Clubs will also barter over the governance of the unified league. Because the SPL is an incorporated company, it will change its name to the Scottish Professional Football League and the SFL will go out of business. However, many SFL clubs are wary about the new league being run along similar lines to the SPL, in particular the presence of the chief executive Neil Doncaster, who was a divisive figure last summer. It also needs to be clarified which clubs will have a seat on the board, which reintroduces the question of whether or not the interests of part-time community clubs are complimentary to those of full-time teams operating on a different financial plane. It was the tension between those two states that led to the SPL breakaway in the first place.
There are other questions. Why have leading football figures not been consulted on the best model? Many within the game believe two top leagues of 10 are all that Scottish football can accommodate, with the rest of the clubs being small, community organisations. The status of league reconstruction is not yet in disarray, but there are several significant difficulties to overcome. A deal can still be struck, though, since so many clubs need change for its financial windfalls. Brinksmanship will occur along the way and a summer as turbulent as last year's cannot be ruled out.
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