Inspiration from a different league

Instead of borrowing bad ideas from next door we should look further afield for ways to improve and preserve the Scottish game.

By Duncan McKay

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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The SPFL are doing a good job digitally but they have two full-time members of staff delivering for 42 clubs. MLS, with 23 teams, has a digital staff of 120 and growing.

The SPFL are doing a good job digitally but they have two full-time members of staff delivering for 42 clubs. MLS, with 23 teams, has a digital staff of 120 and growing.

as a pioneering place for football. That reputation has gone. We now appear to the outside world as irrelevant and often parochial. And I say that as someone who loves Scottish football.

Nowadays, Scotland is less an innovator and more an imitator, and often a bad one at that. Our constant need to compare ourselves to England has resulted in some frankly bewildering decisions. Who on earth, in the era of search engine optimisation, thought it would be a good idea to call our leagues the same as those in England?

What would happen if instead of borrowing bad ideas from next door we looked a bit further for inspiration? What have other sports leagues throughout the world been doing and how might they apply in a Scottish football context?

I don’t for a second believe that any of these ideas will come to fruition but I’d be hopeful that it would spark ideas and conversations. It’s a big world out there – let’s see what we can emulate and adapt for ourselves.

Heritage
Since 2003, the National Hockey League (NHL) have taken regular season matches out of arenas and put them in outdoor stadiums. It’s a novelty for fans to watch their sport in a different environment and one that has proven wildly popular: the last Winter Classic between Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers drew 41,821 fans to a baseball stadium on New Year’s Day. Some matches have attracted attendances of over 100,000. The success of these series of matches (Winter Classic, Heritage Classic and Stadium Series) is the attraction of seeing your sport in a different environment as well as being as a throwback to the founding of the game. Whilst Scottish football doesn’t have the variety of sporting facilities to copy the NHL, why couldn’t the SFA honour the 150th anniversary of the first game of international football by hosting a commemorative match versus England at the West of Scotland Cricket Club, site of the first ever match between the two? Undoubtedly there would be logistical issues and a limited capacity, but the spectacle would be fantastic and of interest throughout the world.

We are ideally placed to take advantage of Scotland’s footballing heritage. Yet we rarely do. For a country that loves football as much as we do, there is little evidence of it for those millions of people who visit our country every year. Football is absent from most of our high streets and city centres despite being one of the most popular activities across the country. We don’t have to embellish our history, as some sports do. Our history is authentic. Contrast this with baseball where they have embraced heritage wholeheartedly. The game that markets itself as America’s pastime is full of myths. Even Cooperstown, home of the game’s Hall of Fame, is a constructed reality. The league embraces its history, good and bad. For decades, black players were forbidden from playing in the league. It is a subject of shame, but MLB uses the former transgressions of its owners as a teachable moment. Every April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day where the league acknowledges the debut of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the league. Wouldn’t it be great if Scotland did the same on the weekend closest to March 12 to commemorate Andrew Watson, the first black Scottish player? Not only could we celebrate an innovator we could use it as an opportunity to teach fans about the challenges that black players in the past and present day have to encounter.

MLB’s embracing of heritage is something every club in Scotland could take advantage of. Why not have a ‘Founders’ Day’ on which clubs celebrate their formation? Each fixture that weekend could see the club take to the field wearing the same colours as they did in their first fixture. More generous clubs could extend the experience by charging the same admittance price as for their first fixture.

Presentation
There’s no doubt that modern life is changing the nature of shared experiences. In an era where almost everything tangible we could possibly want can be ordered through your phone, people are valuing live, shared experiences much more. Music lovers spend as much attending music festivals as they used to spend on holidays. People want to be at live events and then share the fact they are at there on social media. They want to project an image of success and happiness even if it’s not quite that in reality. They want to be associated with success and if something looks successful it can become self-fulfilling. If you’d asked in 1990 which league was likely to be more popular in 10 years time, the top division in Italy or England, there wold have been little hesitation. Serie A was streets ahead in terms of quality, stadia and star power. Yet Serie A didn’t project that to the rest of the world. Grounds could look sparsely attended on television despite being quite full. The English Premier League took full advantage of the upturn in support following Italia ’90 and, crucially, put the cameras where the fans were. Scottish football could learn from this. Too often the seats closest to the pitch are empty giving the impression to viewers that this is something that isn’t important. It’s a bad look for the game. The SPFL should be encouraging clubs to fill those spaces by reducing ticket prices for those seats or they should be paying to move the cameras.

Every weekend there are things that happen across Scottish football that deserve a bigger audience. Often things from Scottish football that get attention in traditional media outlets have gone viral via social media. So often that social media content has been created by fans. This isn’t a slight against those creative, passionate fans but why should they be getting to disseminate those incidents and not the clubs? Often it’s because the clubs don’t put the resources into creating content. That’s changing at some Premiership clubs but not across the entire league. The SPFL are doing a good job digitally but they have two full-time members of staff delivering for 42 clubs. MLS, with 23 teams, has a digital staff of 120 and growing. The future for Scottish football will be embracing new technology to tell stories about the game, present and past. We’ll only be able to do that by investing in creative talent on and off the park.

Media relations
At the start of every season in the Allsvenskan (Sweden’s top division) the media pack sent to journalists from the league contains the mobile phone number of every first team player. Such a move in Scotland would be unthinkable. The relationship between the clubs, players, fans and the media are seen as too adversarial. I would argue this needs to change. I’m not for a second suggesting we’ll get to a situation as with American sports where the team dressing room is open pre and post match to all reporters and every player is made available to speak, but the ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude doesn’t help in promoting the game to fans and crucially, to new fans. The media landscape has changed dramatically over the last 2 years and it looks like the next 20 will be just as turbulent. A resetting of the relationship between clubs and journalists would be helpful. Fans like to see positive press coverage of their team; we all know that independent validation is worth more than club-produced material. The sooner clubs and the media realise they exist in a symbiotic relationship the better.

Fan engagement
The past few years have seen a number of clubs in Scotland improve the way they engage with fans, but across the SPFL it remains patchy. One of the ways this could be improved is for the league to put the fans first – not just as a rhetorical device, but in reality. That could include a fans’ charter whereby televised games are announced in plenty of time to allow travelling fans to make plans. I think we’d all like to see the SPFL emulate the Bundesliga experience whereby travel via public transport is included in your matchday ticket. It might be pie in the sky thinking to get ScotRail to be more flexible, but the risk of not sticking up for fans could be much greater.

Another route the SPFL could take to help fans (and clubs) is to explore centralised ticketing. Already adopted by the GAA and MLB, it would allow smaller clubs the ability to offer pre-game ticket sales, which would help avoid the scourge of the weather having an influence over walk-up sales at grounds. But more crucially, centralising ticket sales would allow the SPFL to own the data about Scottish football fans. By understanding fan purchasing behaviour across the 42 clubs there would be a chance to develop best practices for clubs on ticketing processes. Vitally, it would give the SPFL a great advantage when it comes to future commercial deals as there would be a greater understanding of its own customer base.

As I said at the outset, I’m not convinced that those in charge of clubs or in the corridors of power at Hampden will take any notice, nor are there any guarantees that any of the above would be successful but they are the sort of conversations Scottish football needs to be having to ensure the game is alive and kicking for the next generation and beyond to enjoy.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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