Football’s Franchise Future

Tuesday night was thoroughly depressing.

I hate seeing Celtic lose, don’t we all, but that hiding we got from a team clearly superior to us was more than just losing. And I don’t mean “we didn’t just lose, we got hammered”, I mean what it represents for football in general.

As with several other clubs throughout Europe, we don’t currently fit anywhere. On Saturday, we’re going for 55 domestic games unbeaten. We’re currently eight short of matching our own Scottish record for a century ago, and showing very little sign of slipping up there. Even when we do make mistakes at the back, we’re more than capable of scoring enough at the other end to counteract it.

That’s not the fault of the other teams. The resources in Scottish football, historically, have always been weighted towards the two best supported teams in the country. But in the last few decades, money has become more and more important in the game and that’s never more clear than the fact that it’s been 32 years since a team outside of those two won the league.

The other teams in Scotland always stand a chance of winning any one game, and therefore a chance of winning a cup competition, but playing league games over the course of a season tends to be too much of an ask for that level of consistency.

Mind you, Celtic are the proof that it is possible to overhaul these gaps.

Through the 1990s when Rangers were the dominant force by some distance, Celtic slowly got their act together and became consistent enough to beat the other teams in Scotland. By the turn of the millennium, and the peak of spending in Scotland, we’d reached the point where any slip up at all was a disaster. Leagues were either decided in the four games between the two, or if that was well matched they were decided on the very few slip ups made by Celtic and Rangers against the other teams.

Look at the results from 2002/03 and you’ll see Celtic and Rangers only dropped seventeen points each. Celtic won two of the derbies to Rangers one, with the other being a draw. Match for match against the other ten teams in the league were the same results, except for a single defeat at Tynecastle which Celtic suffered and Rangers didn’t – cancelling out the derby win in Celtic’s favour. Hence the title was decided on goal difference.

If any team in Scotland wants to catch this current Celtic team, that’s how to do it. Consistently beat the other ten teams in the league, and then hope for a bit of luck in the four games against Celtic. It’s possible, and certainly Aberdeen have been getting progressively better at the first part with each passing season, but we all know it’s a difficult ask – especially if Celtic do what we did last season and go unbeaten! Aberdeen might have been thirty points behind, but they actually had their best points total as well!

Mind you, Aberdeen’s not the best chance of stopping us. When it comes to available resources, we know there’s another team in the league with the potential to do it – without being a financial basket case. That team can’t come close to our financial power at the moment, but as I’ve said already they wouldn’t really have to. It’s pretty similar to the 1990s actually.

It’s the only chance anyone has of catching Celtic financially at the moment. Win the league, and get access to the Champions League money we’ve had this season and last. Doing that would prevent us getting it as well, so the difference would be enough because it’s such a large chunk of the turnover. Although we do our best to try and mitigate that.

Credit where it’s due, in terms of business, Celtic are maximising their revenue is every way possible at the moment. We have three new kits every year, we’ve put season tickets back up to their pre-2012 prices, we’ve charged premium rates for our top games, and most importantly we’re qualifying for the Champions League group stages which is where the biggest chunk of our turnover comes from when we do it.

But where is it really getting us? We’re miles in front of the rest of Scotland as it is and it doesn’t matter what we do, we can’t compete financially with a team like Paris Saint-Germain who were assembled for two thirds of a billion pounds no matter what our ticket prices are.

The only way to compete with the biggest clubs in Europe is to play in a favourable league and then get a ridiculous injection of money to go with it. You won’t get the latter without playing in the former, and since Scotland is a backwater part of the world in football terms, we can forget that ever happening.

Fortunately.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had any interest in playing in England. They have no interest in us being there either. More importantly, the idea of being the plaything of some oligarch is absolutely abhorrent. Celtic is what it is because of the story around it.

For a club founded to feed the poor of Glasgow’s east end, it already doesn’t sit well with me that people paid in excess of £50 a ticket to see us get hammered by Paris Saint-Germain.

We may have sold out Celtic Park, therefore justifying those ticket prices on supply and demand grounds, but that’s eroding our soul. How much of that maximised revenue is coming out of the pockets of your regular Celtic supporters? The kits, the tickets, it all adds up to ever increasing and far from insignificant sums of money.

The fact that the team are great to watch at the moment certainly makes it even harder to say things like “actually I just can’t afford to go to this game”

But what are we hoping for from all of this? The hope that we’ll finish third in the group and drop into the Europa League after Christmas? I’ve heard many people claim we could go on and win that tournament. Is that likely though? Manchester United are the current holders, Sevilla won the three before that, and before them it was Chelsea and Atletico Madrid. That’s Champions League quality that I’ve already pointed out we can’t compete with.

You can look to the fact that Ajax made the final all you want, United beat them when they got there. We’ve done losing in the final of that tournament already, and as much as I enjoyed the road to Seville I’d rather not get to a similar final only to be disappointed again thanks very much.

Well, I’d still enjoy the road there as I did last time, but you know what I mean.

Realistically, we’d certainly need a favourable draw to make the final as two-legged ties make it much harder to pull off shocks, and then hope we pulled off the shock in the final as well.

This disparity in football has been building for quarter of a century now. The advent of the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League has driven football to a level where money is the most important thing and not the fans. Being a well backed team used to mean you had a big support and that was often enough to drive you on. Now well backed just means you’ve got financial clout.

We’ve seen the suffering caused by that shift in this country already. Teams, desperate to compete at that level, burning bigger and bigger sums of money in an forlong effort to keep up until finally they can burn no more and it kills them. It’s sent too many into administration, some of which never escaped that.

As far as I can see, football is rapidly heading for the US model of sport where all that’s left is a closed shop of the most expensive franchise clubs. Baseball would be the perfect example of what seems to be shaping up here now. Major League Baseball is made up of 30 teams, with minor leagues below that who have affiliations to MLB. The big hitters send their players to the minor leagues to recuperate from injury and learn their trade.

Sound familiar? I sometimes wonder if we’re Manchester City’s affiliate these days.

We nearly got it from next season, but a compromise was reached instead. Next year we’ll see 16 of the 32 teams in the Champions League made up from the top four in the top four leagues. No qualification process for them, they get straight into the group stages, while at the other end of the scale the Scottish champions – like so many other champions – will face four rounds just to reach that same point.

Where they’ll undoubtedly get pumped by the big money teams again.

How do we get out of this? Well that’s the biggest problem – I’m not sure we do. We’re too far down the road to turn the game around now. Our best hope is that we somehow get dragged into the closed shop along with the other clubs who don’t want to completely lose the soul of football and so look to things like “which teams have the best fans and atmosphere”.

I hate being reduced to that, but there’s part of me that thinks it at least serves a purpose. A constant reminder that football really is nothing without the fans.

But I don’t see that happening. Even with Peter Lawwell on the ECA board, the closed shop will come and we’ll be left on the outside looking in. At best we’ll form a second tier with the other teams in a similar position to ourselves. The clubs seemingly too big for their countries but too small for Europe’s elite.

But who would play in that? What players could you hope to attract to that second rate market? And what of those who don’t even make the second tier?

The more you look at where football is heading, the more you have to wonder why bother. If you want to watch football, you can arguably get better value elsewhere. You can certainly get far cheaper options. If you want to carry out the charitable ethos on which Celtic was founded, yes it’s nice to have a figurehead like the club to do that, but there are other ways and means to go about it too.

But that all seems a bit of a waste. Nearly 130 years on from its founding, Celtic means so much to so many far beyond the actual game of football. It’s friendships, social circles, a source of pride in many ways beyond what happens on the park. That has its own value, one that can’t be measured in money or even trophies.

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

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