19 June 2009

It's not Santana, or Sultana, or Banana; it's screwed

I note that the English Premier League has opted to withdraw Setanta's rights to 46 matches for the coming season, on the grounds that the broadcaster has failed to make an expected £30million to the League before today's deadline.

This shouldn't be a surprise: Setanta couldn't find £3million for the SPL a few weeks ago, and attempts to find a buyer have failed. Significantly, we now know that the sticking point appears to have been Setanta's £50million unpaid tax bill.

Credit is due to the Premier League for acting: they had a contract with Setanta; Setanta has failed to meet its obligations in that contract by stumping up the cash; the contract was broken; the rights are no longer theirs.

It's in stark contrast to the SPL; they did the right thing in making sure that the money that would have gone to the clubs got there, even if it came from SPL funds, but we do have to ask why the SPL is sticking with this failing organisation.

It would surely be tempting for Sky to get back into the Scottish market in a serious fashion, and reports from SPL grounds on Soccer Saturday would be welcome. Similarly, the BBC might fancy getting a big draw to accompany their English Championship acquisition, particularly now Formula 1 looks like it's about to go belly up, the rights that Auntie picked up there might not be quite so useful, so the SPL might go some measure to a replacement. Sky did have the rights once upon a time, before ten of the SPL clubs took leave of their senses and decided that an SPL TV channel was the way forward. They consequently ended up with no broadcast agreement, a League at war with itself and an emergency deal with the BBC. Which is why they may also wish to step into the breach.

So what happened? Simple: Setanta had a solid subscriber base in Scotland, and with expats, thanks to the captive audience they had. If you wanted to watch an SPL match, you needed Setanta. That's how Sky did so well: they created the captive audience for the EPL which the European Commission has since objected to. They were also, in theory, a good channel for the diehard footie fans: Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and Eredivisie matches were an extra selling point. Then came the jewel in the crown: the extra EPL games.


The SPL is a draw in Scotland, and among Scottish expats. However, the (ancedotal) evidence I've put together is that most of my neighbours here in England wouldn't pay to watch an SPL game. in fact, barring Old Firm matches, wouldn't overly fancy watching a game if you paid them. Now, sometimes, they're missing out on something special, but equally, there are many occasions where you can't blame them. Further, the extra games from other leagues are a point of interest, but none of those in the Setanta portfolio are particularly big draws. The one that people are especially interested in is La Liga - doubtless more so with the strength of Barcelona and the potential return of the 'Galactico' signing policy at Real Madrid - and Setanta do not have the rights to this. One also worth watching is Serie A, particularly with clubs' plans to form a Premier League-esque breakaway known as Lega Calcio Serie A. Again, this is not offered by Setanta. Then there's the Premier League package. Sadly, it's the bottom of the barrel games. On a weekend when Sky might offer Chelsea v. Liverpool and Man United v. Arsenal, Setanta might put up Portsmouth v. Sunderland. Oh dear.

In short, the package they offered didn't really do much to attract many more subscribers than they already had. And, having outbid Sky for one of the EPL packages, they paid too much for what they had.

And even if it had offered more tempting games, viewers had to put up with the crap camera work (one camera, with a lens that went unwiped when it got wet) and a signal so weak that it cut out with even the lightest of drizzle. Whatever you thought of the matches, everyone agreed that the coverage was shite.

The EPL will live without this: they'll find a buyer for the 46 matches, and despite rumblings about West Ham's new owners, the clubs aren't in any major financial trouble. Besides, there's always the Sky package.

For the SPL, however, it's panic stations: there are hints that three SPL clubs could be badly hit without a TV deal (given Kilmarnock's dire prophecies about the threat of relegation, they're probably one of them) and with no additional exposure, would be unattractive for sponsors. That's two important income streams wiped out. Never mind the armchair fan, it's the ones who go to the games who could be screwed when their club is so badly hit. If Setanta is at risk of collapse - and it's now obvious that that is the case - a new deal, any deal, needs to be worked on ASAP.

Unless, of course, someone is mad enough to buy Setanta, and take on an annual loss of £100million.

Has anyone got Mike Ashley's phone number?

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