One of the main problems with Celtic and Rangers leaving the SPL or any of the other major teams leaving their respective leagues, whether to the EPL or to a multi country Atlantic League, is the impact on the origin leagues that lose their best and most attractive teams. While teams playing in the league of a different country has been around for many years (Welsh teams in England, Berwick Rangers in Scotland, Monaco in France, Wellington Phoenix from New Zealand in the Australian A League) none of these involve top teams leaving and impacting on existing leagues.
An alternative to the EPL and multi country Atlantic League proposal which would be more achievable and more acceptable to FIFA, UEFA, Scottish Premier League and Scottish FA is to expand the existing Scottish Premier League to include newly created teams from Northern Ireland and Eire. The combined population of the new Atlantic League countries would be near 11.5 million.
The concept is start with the introduction of two nearly formed teams, one Belfast based team (say we called them Belfast United a name in recognition of the peace process) and one Dublin based team (call them the Dublin Rovers) and accept them into the renamed SPL – the new Atlantic League. This would follow a season where the two last placed teams are not replaced with promoted teams. Once the two Irish teams are firmly established two further Irish teams would be invited into the Atlantic League with two further Scottish teams not being replaced. Rather than simply relegated and displace existing Scottish teams some Scottish teams should look at merging to providing financially stronger and more popular Scottish teams (Hamilton and Motherwell, Dundee United and Dundee for example). Ultimately 4 Irish teams and 8 Scottish teams would form a 12 team league playing each other 4 times a season for a 36 game season.
The attraction of the league is that Scottish clubs, especially Celtic and to a lesser degree Rangers already have existing fan bases in the Northern Ireland the Eire. This means that there would be 4 visits a years from Celtic and Rangers to each club providing quality opposition guaranteeing full houses. TV right subscription would also be popular across Eire and Northern Ireland. These games of course would not be friendlies but competitive matches increasing the level of interest. In this sense these games would have higher inherent interest than in games like Celtic v Rosenberg where there would be little to no away support.
The advantage to Irish football would tremendous. Football standards in Ireland are improving with Eire teams having the highest rise in co-efficient points in recent years (though admittedly from a low base). Irish leagues are limited by low support bases, low attendances, poor stadia and lack of top draw attractions. The Atlantic League would provide a higher quality competitive football for home based players. Irish players play in at high levels both within Scotland and England at present but have no opportunity to play for clubs in their own countries. The Atlantic League would further increase the popularity of football in Ireland and provide youngsters with home based footballing heroes. There would also be a flow on to stronger national teams for Scotland, Eire and Northern Ireland from involvement in a stronger, more competitive league.
The existing Irish leagues would be able to continue as they are now though they would be in a secondary position to the new league. Though this should be seen in the context of the overall benefit to football in Ireland and in Australia newly formed teams going into expanded national or international leagues (rugby union) have good relations with pre existing local leagues with joint support for youth player development. There are also examples where local leagues through the particular Commission running the local league own the license of the newly formed teams.
The establishment of new teams for the purpose of expanding a national league has been done very successfully in Australia in a number of football codes (soccer, Australian football, rugby league and rugby union) and if key principles were followed then there are no reasons why it shouldn’t work in terms of expanding the Scottish Premier League into a Scottish – Irish Atlantic League. These key principles for establishing new teams I have set out as follows:
– Professional and strong financial support management
– Wide support base drawn including from across existing local league teams support bases and absences of any previous narrow loyalties
– Strong marketing and excellent media presence to establish a strong support base and community identity
– Support from government (in terms of good stadia) and expanding national leagues in terms of player recruitment, marketing etc
– Strong community and junior player development strategies
– Support and involvement of local leagues
– Use of quality stadia where attendances have generally been far superior to previous attendances seen in the local leagues
The reasons why creating new Irish teams would be most favourable are numerous. The new teams would need to have high levels of professional financial acumen, marketing and management. They have wider fan bases unencumbered previous allegiances. It would be difficult to take existing teams from the existing leagues with their existing narrow support base and expect other fans from other clubs to forget their previous allegiances. Existing clubs would also find it difficult to attract the necessary financial capacity to expand to be major players in a different league particularly as any financial backers would want control which existing club owners or managers would be reluctant to give over.
The new and large Irish teams would not only draw support from Ireland but from across the Irish diasporas in Britain, Australia and the US. The opportunity also exist to promote the league (and TV rights) by having a Atlantic Challenge Cup with the top teams from the USA playing the top teams from the Atlantic League for a sizable prize money in a pre season or mid season tournament.
Essentially the proposal for an Atlantic league as proposed above is (most importantly) achievable and while not providing Celtic and Rangers with the financial clout from entry into the English Premier League would provide a great improvement on their existing existence in the SPL.
Overall the benefits are:
– Increased media exposure and TV rights income
– A more competitive and interesting league
– Providing Eire and Northern Ireland with the opportunity to have 4 major financially strong and well supported clubs playing in a much stronger league, and
– Improved football standards providing for improved national sides for Scotland, Eire and Northern Ireland