As a big fan of Scottish football for a while (I’ve been following Celtic since I was at university!), it has been sad to watch the decline of the game in Scotland over the last couple of decades.
I have been giving further thought as to what could be done to revitalise the game in Scotland and to inject vigour and excitement back into one of the old leagues in the world. Lest we forget, it was a Scottish team (Celtic) that was the first amongst British teams to win the European Cup; the largest attendance for a European game was at the 1970 European Cup Semi-Final at Hampden Park where over 130,000 fans watched the game; and one of the largest attendance for an international fixture was between Scotland and England when almost 150,000 fans watched the game! Scottish football has also provided other moments of magic. Indeed the jinking run made by Archie Gemmill as he scored against Holland in the 1978 World Cup remains one of the best goals ever seen in an international game.
I have a number of suggestions and initiatives which may support raising the global profile of Scottish football and in the process rejuvenate the league and raise the game.
1. Leverage off the tradition and history of Scottish football teams
The story of Celtic – a club established in 1888 by Brother Walfrid with a clear purpose of raising money for charity and alleviating the crippling poverty witnessed in the East End of Glasgow – is one that will resonate significantly across many societies and cultures in many parts of the world. Certainly the Confucian principles under which Celtic was set up will be a big draw in East Asia, if only more people knew more about it.
On the other hand, we have Rangers, another illustrious Glaswegian club with a rich sense of history. Together, Celtic and Rangers, or the Old Firm as they collectively know, form one of the world’s most enduring and exciting rivalries in football. The differences in social ideology, a rivalry that has lasted over a century and the collective successes of both clubs are huge sources of excitement for anyone anywhere in the world, regardless of background or creed.
It will be important for Scottish football teams to draw out their rich and vibrant histories and backgrounds and promote and sell a compelling story to the world! Where Scotland is concerned, there has always been a sense of romance, and perhaps it is this which Scottish football clubs should appeal to.
2. Host an Old Firm derby (or friendly) outside of the UK – possibly in China, Japan, India, Indonesia or in North America
The Old Firm derbies have always evoked a lot of passion and there is a certainly a rich sense of history to the games between Celtic and Rangers. One suggestion is for these derbies to be played outside of the UK in places like China, Japan (where Scottish football is already popular thanks to Japanese superstars like Nakamura), India or Indonesia or perhaps somewhere in North America where there is a strong Scottish diaspora present.
It will be important to invest in the marketing and promotion of the history of the Old Firm, the rivalry and the passion, so that people buy into the history which I’ve alluded to in point #1 above. Global football fans love a sense of history and if they can be educated on the excitement which is the Old Firm derby, it will be extremely popular and it will create an interest in the Scottish game which will result in positive externalities for the whole of Scottish football.
It is important for Scottish football to project and market itself beyond her current shores and capitalising on stories such as that of the Old Firm derbies will be an important part of that process.
3. Greater focus on youth and grassroots development (and innovative approaches around youth development)
Focus must also be paid to effective talent management and retention of youth footballers. The Scottish Football Association certainly has taken a lead in ensuring that the game reaches out at a grassroots level and youngsters across schools are being developed and talent spotted. Certainly this has to continue to ensure that the national team has a steady pipeline of talented football coming through the ranks. There should be further adoption of best practices from other successful youth academies such as the Dutch youth development schemes as well as from clubs such as Barcelona which has a world class development programme under the La Masia academy which has produced world class talent over the years. There has to be a focus on technical development towards individual improvement as well as a focus on unified team excellence.
Highly promising youngsters should also be sent on loan to other youth development programmes at other clubs and even continents to gain further exposure. They must be fully supported to ensure they develop with both footballing and academic skillsets which will support them throughout their lives.
4. Scottish U-21 national team or Celtic, Aberdeen, Rangers U-21 or ‘B’ teams to participate in emerging Asian leagues
Increasingly, we also see youth national teams participate in other leagues. For instance, the Singapore U-23 team participates in the Malaysian League and likewise the Malaysian youth team participates in the Singaporean Premier League. This has led to increased exposure for the younger players and has also helped to lay the foundations for the senior national teams.
One suggestion is for the Scottish U-21 national team or perhaps the U-21 or U-23 teams at the leading Scottish teams to participate in emerging Asian leagues in Asia (potentially Southeast Asia or South Korea, China or Japan). This will give greater exposure for the Scottish youth players whilst also providing them with the opportunity to pit their skills against senior and more experienced professionals. This will raise the quality of the game which will ultimately benefit the Scottish national team. It also will help to act as a strong brand agent for Scottish football and clubs in the countries they are playing in which will in turn drive greater interest for the Scottish game. Raising the visibility of Scottish football will be significantly easier through an initiative such as this.
5. Scottish football teams to engage international student societies in leading Scottish universities
I became a fan of Scottish football and Celtic when I was at university and it has remained an enduring and lasting relationship. I have remained a Celtic fan and have attended games where possible and also spent (considerable!) amounts on kits and souvenirs. I have also been a passionate advocate of Scottish football to friends around the world.
I do believe that if Scottish football clubs appeal to particularly the international student societies at the leading Scottish Universities such as Glasgow University, Uni of Strathclyde, Uni of Edinburgh, etc and provide heavily discounted or free tickets to students at universities, it will create a greater interest and participation by the international students of Scottish universities. These students will also return home to spread the word of the excitement of Scottish football and will become active ambassadors who will promote Scottish clubs and football and this will increase the visibility of the league and teams in Scotland.
Building an interest in the game at a local grassroot level is important and building it at an international level will require active global ambassadors and what better ambassadors than a young person from beyond Scottish shores whose imagination and passion has been captured.
6. Capitalise on Scotland’s greater international profile (off a very successful Commonwealth Games and the increased publicity as a result of the Independence Referendum)
Over the last year, Scotland has gained even more extensive international prominence in the eyes of the world. A hugely successful Commonwealth Games has helped to project Glasgow and Scotland in a very positive manner to viewers from around the world. Likewise, the very exciting Independence Referendum (please see a separate article here around the positive impact the referendum has had here) has also catapulted Scotland into the centre of world affairs. Scottish football should leverage from the positive goodwill accrued and use it to project her achievements and the history and gain further traction in the international arena.
7. Negotiate separate deals with Asian TV broadcasters
Scottish football should also consider negotiating separate deals with national broadcasting companies in Asia, going beyond the current SKY/BT Sport models. One possible way of doing this is rather than selling entire football packages, the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) should consider a weekly 1-hour highlights programme which they edit (where the best of the week’s footballing content is captured) and sold to national TV companies across Asia and Europe which will create further excitement about Scottish football and also creates an additional revenue stream which benefits all the teams in the Scottish leagues.
If some of the other points here are implemented and there is a greater interest in Scottish football, it will allow for the SPFL to have a stronger hand in negotiating contracts and TV deals.
8. Twinning programme with other European clubs
Scottish football teams should consider formal twinning arrangements with clubs across Europe. For instance, Celtic could consider twinning with Barcelona, Abderdeen with Roma, Rangers with Juventus (given similar histories in their rise from lower leagues following demotion), etc.
The twinning arrangements could consider exchange of youth players, sharing of marketing, development of junior teams, charity matches and the sharing of best practices. This will allow for Scottish football clubs to implement and adopt global best practices in team and club management. The twinning arrangement could also extend to fans (where fans attend games of their twin clubs) and create greater camaraderie and friendship across borders.
This will lead to a greater level of dialogue and cross-cultural interactions which benefit not just the football teams but also the people behind the various teams. The exchange of youth players also aids in the player development which ultimately benefits both the Scottish clubs as well as the national team. It also improves the scouting network of Scottish teams which will again improve the quality and standard of players within the Scottish leagues.
9. Recommendation for an annual British Cup (featuring the top teams from the Home nations)
This idea may have been mooted before but it may be worth revisiting. There could be an end of season tournament each year where the top two teams from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland along with the respective FA Cup finalists taking part in a knockout tournament. Potentially this could see Manchester City, Liverpool, Celtic, Motherwell, Cliftonville, Linfield, The New Saints and Broughton all taking part in a knockout tournament (with each team playing each other only once at a stadium decided by a draw), leading to a semi-finals and then a final where the British Champions are crowned. This has significant potential for a global audience and will spur interest and support from not only the respective countries taking part, but also raise publicity for the lesser known clubs and unearth heroes who were hitherto unknown!
10. International and localised branding and marketing
Finally, in addition to some of the points highlighted above, once Scottish football and clubs have decided on target markets they are keen to extend their reach in, they should consider local language websites, collateral and more active publicity and branding campaigns in these countries. They should also consider adapting to different pricing structures for the sales of kit and collateral items to reach out to a larger target audience. They could do this through the kit partners (such as Nike, Reebok, etc) initially and then subsequently also consider setting up their own shops. These will have the effect of driving further revenue streams and also more importantly drive greater awareness and build brand recognition in the countries they are in.
The above suggestions could potentially go someway towards addressing some of the more pressing needs of Scottish football today. The suggestions individually may not have the desired impact, but collectively could reinforce Scottish football further and create the impetus required to grow and develop further.
I do fundamentally believe that Scottish football can punch beyond its weight and be a real force in European and world football. Ambition reinforced with vision and urgency will allow Scottish football to achieve its aims and collective goals.