This article is adapted from a chapter in Scotland After the Virus (Luath Press, 2020), edited by Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow.
Only three things matter in football – the players, the manager and the fans,” the legendary Bill Shankly once observed. “Nothing else matters,” he added, with the categorical flourish of a man who knew his mind when it came to the game that had become his life. In terms of the immediacy of the sport he lived and breathed, that may be true. But in reality football in Scotland, as elsewhere, depends upon an infrastructure of support covering everything from governance and regulation through to finance, publicity, health and safety, and much more. The stark reality of Covid-19 is that it has reminded all of us associated with the Beautiful Game that much of this infrastructure is perilously fragile, unevenly spread and tremendously stretched.
So the virus has not just been an unprecedented event in terms of its own multiple impacts on society and on the sporting culture of the nation, it has also served as a further wake-up call regarding the future of our particular game, how it is run, and what it might need to prosper. This is a larger question than simply recovering from the shock of coronavirus. It is a question of facing the long-term and deeply damaging decline that has added to the vulnerability we are experiencing in these additionally perilous and economically enervating times. Given the importance of sport as a whole in Scottish life (with rugby and golf chief among those endeavours ranking up alongside what many of us still regard as ‘the national game’), the issues and challenges faced by football as a result of Covid-19 are by no means singular. But they are, in many respects, distinctive – and distinctly threatening.
A different scale of challenge
As lockdown moved from weeks to months it became increasingly clear that its impact is going to be far worse than anyone could have predicted. The nearest thing we have to compare it to, many suggest, is the two world wars of the last century. Yet in a football context, that is an inappropriate analogy. During those wars, many fans joined the armed forces. Players (men) were also called up. The game was interrupted. Women’s football rose to the limelight briefly, but then was supressed again – only more recently starting to gain the seeds of attention it richly deserves. However, after the break football resumed, buoyed by the post-war resurgence seen in many other areas of life, and fans got something to cheer again.
Indeed, football adapted and adjusted significantly during and after the war years. There was reduced pricing, alternative kick-off times and guest players – such as one Bill Shankly, then a star at Preston North End, playing for Partick Thistle here in Scotland. We even had war time international matches, with huge crowds at packed stadiums. Football did its bit for morale during a period of national trauma. It lost players and fans to the conflict, and suffered from a reduction in revenue. But it mostly emerged from the crisis intact – though the Luftwaffe did manage to put one club – King’s Park FC, the Stirling predecessor to Stirling Albion – out of business, when a stray bomb destroyed their Forthbank home.
It has not taken us long to realise that Coronavirus is, proportionately, threatening to do much more lasting damage to the game’s supporting structures and to some of its clubs – especially the smaller ones – unless a major rescue, recovery and renewal programme can be launched. As the weeks rolled by, with professional and junior clubs losing income and having little idea of when or whether they might be operational again, Scottish football managed to produce its own Covid soap opera – with the end-of-season crisis morphing into a massive league reconstruction debacle. All we had to talk about was interminable football politics and threatened legal action, plus the latest ‘classic match’ reruns for those who supported higher profile teams.
A people-shaped football economy
Economically, Scottish football is hugely lop-sided, and the danger is that this will only get worse. Half of those who support a team in Scotland opt for one or other of two Glasgow teams. The further gulf between a handful of other sides and the rest of the pack gets wider the further down the leagues you look. The billionaire English Premiership is another world, although one which feeds inflation across the whole game. Meanwhile, while mostly existing on a relative pittance, some 60% of total revenue in Scottish football is still derived from the paying customers, the fans. That is why it is essential to understand supporters, and why that knowledge is key for preserving the game and for any chance of building a sustainable football business.
We know that, for the vast majority of fans, their primary football concern is usually what happens at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and in the ensuing couple of hours. What is important is the almost religious ritual of watching their current heroes trying to write another chapter of sporting history for their club. However, over recent years there has been a significant change to that dynamic. A growing number of supporters are wanting and needing to understand how football works financially and practically. When it comes to the inner workings of their club and its place in the game, they appreciate that engaging with its commercial and political dimensions is now essential. It is a two-way process, in fact. Fans need to be understood (as enthusiasts, but also as customers and stakeholders), and they in turn need to understand how a football business works.
Fans to the rescue?
In the context of Covid, this understanding translated into some remarkable gestures – such as the £25,000 voluntarily raised in a matter of weeks by fans of Dumbarton, located in an area of the central belt enduring some of the worst economic indicators in Scotland. As the chairman of the club acknowledged, this money has helped it to stay afloat.
The concern going forward for the game as whole is that, given the health crisis and accompanying financial meltdown, the impact this will have on football supporters attending games could be severe. We know that over 50% of revenue is directly generated by gate and season ticket admissions in our lower leagues, and 43% in the Premiership. Any downward pressure on those numbers could be critical to the financial viability of football. Expecting numbers to hold up is at best optimistic, and probably not realistic. The eventual return of spectators, under conditions of social distancing or otherwise, remains a great unknown at present. If the fall is significant, clubs could very well go out of business.
Given that there will be shrinkage, or at the very worst a collapse, in the sponsorship market, and that the Sky television deal will certainly need to be redrawn, Scottish football will need every fan it can find moving forward. Yet as we know football supporters are no ordinary customers. While their unique loyalty has often allowed clubs literally to ‘bank’ upon on their continued support, finding new customers and the next generation remains the biggest challenge all clubs face. Being a football fan takes years of inculturation to the ways of your club. That means finding new supporters to fill sudden or dramatic gaps in season ticket sales is virtually impossible.
Radical thinking might be the order of the day, but that is not something we have seen in the game. Even a small and possibly temporary reconstruction of the leagues was recently defeated by the votes of our professional clubs themselves, opting for a narrow view of their own immediate interests over a larger understanding of the ecology needed to ensure that the whole edifice of which they are part can survive and offer support to its constituent parts. A lack of faith (worse, real anger and frustration) at the governance failings of the football authorities is a major contributory factor to loss of nerve when it comes to facing change. In this context, and given the customary talking down of Scottish football in the media, converting Facebook and Twitter likes to visitors to a stadium will be an almighty challenge.
Much more than small change is needed
Is there light at the end of the tunnel? It is very hard to tell at this stage. On an uneven playing field, some clubs will have the adaptability and infrastructure to change, while others may well not. Two external donors have donated funds amounting to several million pounds in ameliorative funding, with an emphasis on community engagement as a key to survival. However, this is effectively for project spending affected by Coronavirus, not for core costs. Yet it is core cost where the pinch is felt most for smaller clubs – and which could turn out to be a matter of life or death (a subject on which Bill Shankly also pontificated).
Above all, the pandemic highlights the desperate need for root and branch reform in Scottish football, starting at the top and prioritising the grassroots. Vastly improved governance, accountability and transparency, commercial acumen, positive PR, investment in youth and in the women’s game, community ownership (and other collaborative forms of ownership), more adaptable structures, income generation, serious community partnerships, genuine engagement and representation of supporters as major stakeholders, a serious plan for the national team, a fans’ parliament, the commitment of the Scottish Parliament to the future of the game – these are among the ground-breaking changes we need to negotiate. They are a key part of the agenda of the Scottish Football Supporters Association, the growing fans union that came into being in 2015 with the forthright affirmation, ‘We Believe in Scottish Football’.
Survival first, then flourishing, is the usual order of things when you are planning to turn an industry around – including a cultural one, like a major national sport. In reality, Scottish football may not be able to do the former without the latter any more. It could be do or die. Are we up to the task? Is Scotland and Scottish sport more widely capable of making the huge transition required? The gauntlet has been thrown down by the circumstances of Covid-19 and all it has revealed about where the game is right now. Who will pick it up?
Simon Barrow and Paul Goodwin, Transforming Scottish Football: A Fans’ Manifesto (Scottish Football Supporters Association, 2015).
Henry McLeish, Scottish Football: Requiem or Renaissance? (Luath Press, 2018).