SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster believes the crisis which engulfed Scottish football this year will be nothing compared to what lies ahead next season.
Following the coronavirus outbreak, football was suspended in March and won’t return before June 10 at the earliest.
A controversial vote to bring a premature end to the season has resulted in infighting amongst clubs and potential legal challenges, alongside calls for an independent investigation into the governance of the game.
But Doncaster, who along with SFA counterpart Ian Maxwell heads up a Joint Response Group to tackle issues caused by the pandemic, believes far greater challenges await.
Speaking to STV’s Scotland Tonight, to be broadcast on Thursday at 7.30pm, he issued stark warnings.
“There is going to be huge stress in the coming season,” Doncaster said. “We may all look back at season 2019/2020 as being the season of crisis, but I don’t think that will prove to be the case.
“I think we’ll be looking back and saying season 2020/2021 was where the real problems were.
“Getting the game up and running, starting the season on time, getting clubs through the season – I think that’ll be very challenging. This crisis threatens clubs from the very top through to the pyramid system.
“Never have we faced a crisis of this magnitude. This is something which is unprecedented, which really does threaten the existence of the game in this country.”
The new season is scheduled to start in August, but it’s not yet known when football will return. When the game resumes, Premiership matches are likely to be played behind closed doors.
Doncaster said: “Working backwards, the first stage will be getting players back training, then once they are trained and conditioned, hopefully a date when we recommence games.
“Then separate from that, a date when we can get fans back in the stadiums and that’s clearly the goal. Scottish football is reliant on broadcasting income but far more from money generated coming through the turnstiles.
“We’ve made it very clear to the Scottish Government if we can’t get fans back any time soon, then that causes very, very real threats for all clubs in Scotland. It’s absolutely vital we get fans back inside stadia as soon and as safely as possible.”
The Joint Response Group is discussing a range of issues – from the protection of grassroots football, to potentially creating regional hubs for matches to generate revenue. The safety of everyone is, of course, paramount.
Players will need to be tested for Covid-19 before they take to the pitch again, which will come at a considerable cost.
Doncaster said: “If we just look at the cost of testing alone, which in the English Premier League is reckoned to a be a number of millions of pounds just to complete the season [2019-2020], so you can imagine for the full season in the EPL on that basis, you’re probably talking testing costing in the region of £15-20m.
“It’s huge money and that is clearly is going to be a massive challenge in our context.”
In 2018, the SPFL signed an exclusive TV deal with Sky Sports worth £125m, which is due to kick in from this August. Sky will broadcast 48 live Premiership games a season over the next five campaigns.
In the midst of a pandemic, can this deal now be renegotiated? Could there be a second live TV package or is live streaming an option to watch more top-flight games?
Doncaster said: “There is scope to have a conversation with our broadcast partners and perhaps make games more available to the fans who simply aren’t allowed into stadia.
“I think it’s important those conversations take place quietly. Those conversations are definitely happening. They’ll happen across the rest of the UK. Sky, BT and Amazon all have rights in the English Premier League. In our case, we have an exclusive deal which starts with Sky Sports in August and that’s just with Sky, so perhaps that makes it easier.”
It’s been claimed the SPFL faces a potential liability of £10m to broadcasters and sponsors for ending the campaign prematurely. Also, next season is scheduled to begin without a title sponsor.
Doncaster said: “It’s fair to say the sponsorship industry in general is in a difficult place at the moment. We know how attractive the league sponsorship has been, most recently with Ladbrokes.
“We are certainly in conversation with a number of brands about the possibility of them sponsoring the league.”
The SPFL chief executive refused to be drawn on the civil war within the game.