Premiership clubs and cash hold the key to Hearts' league reconstruction hopes
Premiership approval of Ann Budge's league reconstruction plan is its biggest hurdle. Nothing happens in Scottish football without top-flight consent and Budge's proposal for three leagues of 14 teams will be no different.
Championship, League One and League Two clubs have digested the Hearts owner's document since receiving it on Tuesday. However, their opinions will matter little should Premiership chairmen decide it is not for them. They are due to discuss the matter via video conference on Monday at the request of the Scottish Professional Football League.
A 14-14-14 structure for two seasons has been suggested by Budge in an official paper aimed at helping the game survive the coronavirus crisis – and preventing relegation for Hearts Partick Thistle and Stranraer. It includes the option to add Highland League and Lowland League sides for a 14-14-16 system if desired.
As always, money is key. Any change to the current financial distribution model, or any attempt to add teams to the existing 42 within the SPFL, needs backed by 11 out of 12 Premiership clubs. Hearts must vote as part of the Championship following their demotion.
A monetary change is almost certain to be required to convert the top division to 14. Currently, the first two places in the Championship earn £562,500 and £475,000 respectively in total prize money across the campaign. The bottom two Premiership sides get £1,187,500 and £1,125,000 respectively – so that gap of more than 50 per cent would likely need altered just as the new £160million Sky Sports deal kicks in.
A proposal which did not affect prize money or the number of teams in the SPFL would only require nine Premiership teams to vote it through. Either way, Budge would additionally need eight Championship chairmen and 15 across League One and League Two to support her plan.
All four divisions know the top-flight voters hold all the aces. "We've had a lot of talk about league reconstruction over the years and nothing ever seems to come of it. You need 11 out of 12 Premiership teams to agree to it, so I don't really think too much about it until you get over that hurdle. That's the biggest obstacle to changing the top league to 14 teams," said Billy Hewitson, the Queen of the South chairman.
"I'm quite happy to look at any proposal as long as it's set up in a competitive way. Making the leagues bigger in the past was always likely to mean the middle area of the table has nothing to play for near the end of the season. We need our leagues to be competitive and I'm open to suggestions.
"However, as I said, unless the Premiership clubs agree to it, there really isn't much point thinking about it. They hold the key. Getting 11 out of 12 clubs to agree is a big ask.
"Ann's plan has some good points. Especially with everything so unknown due to coronavirus, there needs to be a way forward. The season ahead won't be normal. It probably won't get started at the right time. Anything that helps clubs get over that, I'm happy to look at.
"I think most Championship teams would agree to the plan if they felt it was a benefit, and I don't see why they wouldn't. I'm not a mind-reader but I think there would be a fair chance if it got past the first hurdle. The distribution model would be key to that."
The Hearts document promotes the 14-14-14 system for two years followed by a review in summer 2022. There would then be a vote on whether clubs wanted to remain with three tiers or revert to the current 12-10-10-10 set-up.
"I'm not sure you could go back because if you're going to three leagues of 14, I would assume you are going to run it for a number of years to give it a chance to work," said Hewitson.
"I think the way to make it competitive is to increase the number of clubs playing for play-off places. That would give teams in the middle of the league something to play for and aim for. Ultimately, we need to play football to move forward."
That very issue is a bone of contention in itself with fans unlikely to be permitted inside stadiums until late this year at the earliest. Queen of the South say they would be unable to play matches without income from crowds, and several other Championship clubs feel likewise.
That leaves a huge question mark over whether Scotland's second tier could be left dormant if the Premiership kicks-off behind closed doors in August as intended.
"The problem with sitting idle is: How do you pay your players?," asked Hewitson. "You need to sign 20-odd players for a year but you don't know where your next revenue stream will come from. We don't know what the league distribution model will look like. It's a huge gamble for anybody relying on attendances for income.
"Unless that can happen, I don't see how it's possible to play. A football club is a business at the end of the day and needs to balance its books. I don't know how you balance them until we get back to normal."
Government intervention to give the lower leagues some form of financial support would help. "There needs to be some help to get by this period. We need to get back playing football and I do know that, but you have to look at the risk to a club in doing that.
"With social distancing coming in when fans are allowed back into stadiums, the cost of that will be immense. I'm at a loss as to how we are going to do that.
"There is no point bringing in a whole load of young kids to play in the Championship. You want to keep the level of quality up. It's supposed to be a full-time professional league.
"Your biggest outgoing cost is your wages so if you cut the wages, the quality of player you get will suffer. People might just go and get jobs and play part-time so you could kill the full-time league.
"The easiest solution I can see would be to get someone to underwrite part of the season, then come up with a financial solution which helps. That's easier said than done, of course."
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