Neil Doncaster: Q&A with SPFL chief executive

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Interview - SPFL chief executive
  • Doncaster on sponsorship
  • On Barry Hearn's criticism
  • On the Rangers situation

How will you look back on 2014 in Scottish football?

"It's been an interesting year, that's for sure. On the cup front, St Johnstone's success in the Scottish Cup, after 125 years, Aberdeen's triumph in the League Cup, their first cup in nearly 20 years, certainly made the headlines in Perth and Aberdeen.

"The reintroduction of the play-offs, seeing Hamilton Accies come back from a 2-0 deficit against Hibernian, so certainly lots of points of interest and lots of excitement, and lots of drama, and that's what Scottish football has long been renowned for."

It has had its challenges, though.

"Absolutely. The financial situation for businesses generally, not just clubs, I think continues to create pressures. We've seen very welcome financial investment from the likes of QTS coming in, Petrofac Training Services, and the work continues in relation to the title sponsors.

Aberdeen captain Russell Anderson with Scottish League Cup trophy
The League Cup, held here by Aberdeen captain Russell Anderson, found sponsorship with QTS

"I think we have made good progress commercially - and we're expecting to distribute to clubs more money this year than last year - and hopefully to exceed our own expectations in terms of fee payments to clubs."

Is it enough?

"It's never enough. Clubs always want more money from the league. They always want the league to maximise the commercial opportunities to clubs from participation in the league.

"Our role is to deliver as best we can and I believe we're doing that. Certainly with QTS and Petrofac Training Services coming on board in the past year, they are notable successes that have helped us exceed our targets financially for the current year."

You would concede, though, that Scottish football should have a main sponsor.

"Of course, and the work continues to find the right sponsor at the right value. It's very easy to give any property away. We appreciate the real value there is in the title sponsorship.

"It is a big prize for any company to have in their locker and from our point of view we need to get the identity of that company right, get the brand right, get the fit right and get the money right. That work continues."

In terms of the negotiations surrounding that, what have been the problems this time as opposed to previous sponsorship deals or negotiations?

"Any big sponsorship deal takes a long time to put together.

Stefan Scepovic and Jamie Reckord
Scotland's league set-up is still looking for a sponsor

"For so much of the time that we've been marketing this property, there's been a huge amount of uncertainty hanging over the Scottish game, initially from the merger when the Scottish Football League and the Scottish Premier League came together in the summer of 2013.

"Up until that point, we couldn't go out to any potential sponsor and tell them what they would be sponsoring. It was only come the merger last summer that we were finally able to nail down what it was we wanted to attract finance for.

"That's certainly been an issue and the continuing uncertainty generally within the game hasn't helped either."

You would have expected to have a sponsor by now, though - the summer was a long time ago.

"We're certainly delighted that Petrofac Training Services have come forward, we're delighted that QTS have now come forward and the Scottish League Cup is sponsored for the rest of the season. Work continues, but we're certainly pleased with the progress that's been made."

How much is the uncertainty at Rangers hindering the attraction of a sponsor?

"It's certainly dominating the headlines. It's almost a daily occurrence that there's another story around the club.

"I think a period of stability for everybody in the game would help us all and what commercial partners want more than anything is to understand what the environment will be going forward. That stability would surely help."

Promoter Barry Hearn came up here and pretty much called Scottish football a shambles. Why do you think he said that?

"I think he was absolutely right to talk about the need to talk the game up and I think some of us talk the game down more than we should.

Barry Hearn
Hearn was critical of aspects of Scottish football

"It's vital for everyone within the game - clubs, the league, the association, the media - to help talk the game up as best we can.

"Barry is perhaps a great example of someone who talks his industries, his businesses, better than anyone. It's incumbent on all of us within the game in Scotland to do the same up here."

There has been a call for alcohol to be reintroduced in Scottish grounds. Could we see that in the near future?

"What we need to do is to focus on enhancing the experience of fans coming to games. It's essential that we maximise the enjoyment of fans who come to games. Some of that we can do at the league level, some of it is down to clubs.

"Clubs are making real efforts in terms of pricing. The average cost of a family of four to attend any game in Scotland is less than £50 and that's real value however you look at it.

"I think there are other issues. If you look at the German model, safe standing, alcohol being available at games, which can enhance that experience as well. We have to be open-minded, we should be looking at the ways other leagues, such as the German league, do run their game and perhaps a pilot for the reintroduction of alcohol.

Borussia Dortmund fans
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"Looking at ways in which the authorities can help us achieve safe standing within the top tier of the Scottish game - those can only help."

So you would say as chief executive of the Scottish Professional Football League that you would like to see a pilot for safe standing and alcohol introduced in the near future?

"In terms of safe standing, we have changed our rules. Standing is now allowed in the top tier of the Scottish game, but the reason why we haven't seen it yet is because any club that wishes to introduce it needs to agree a change to their safety certificate with the local authority.

"To date, that's not been able to be achieved, so we do need assistance with moving that change forward and ensuring that those fans who want to stand, and there are a number that do, are able to do so at Scottish grounds."

And alcohol?

"It's important that we look at the feasibility of a pilot with the authorities - the government, Police Scotland - to ensure that any change that occurs, because this is a sensitive area, is brought in in the right way and achieves positivity for the game in Scotland."

How concerned should the league be about what's currently on-going at Rangers?

"It's very difficult for a league to get too concerned with the individual affairs of any one member club.

"We have a rule book, which is agreed by all member clubs. Any club within the league has to play by those rules and our job as a league is to apply them, so that's what we do.

Rangers player Dean Shiels
Rangers continue to make headlines on and off the park

"Any commercial partner we work with wants as much stability in the game as possible. The more stability we can have at all 42 member clubs, the better.

"In terms of the question about old club, new club, that was settled very much by the Lord Nimmo Smith commission that was put together by the SPL to look at EBT payments at that time.

"The decision, very clearly from the commission, was that the club is the same, the club continues, albeit it is owned by a new company, but the club is the same."

So the official take from the SPFL is that Rangers Football Club continues, it's the same club?

"Yes, it's the same club, absolutely."

People have extreme views on this, so what's the difference between a club and a company?

"The member club is the entity that participates in our league and we have 42 member clubs.

"Those clubs may be owned by a company, sometimes it's a Private Limited Company, sometimes it's a PLC, but ultimately, the company is a legal entity in its own right, which owns a member club that participates in the league."

So, once and for all, the league is putting this to bed, it's the same club?

"It was put to bed by the Lord Nimmo Smith commission some while ago - it's the same club."

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