How Many Teams Should Be in the SPL?

I know my question has been defeated already as the SPL no longer exists (I should have written SPFL, Premier Division), but that’s the nature of the game.

Anyway, I was talking to my colleague about this and other pressing issues at work at lunchtime today and thought it was worth a punt, particularly in this era of there being perennial talk on league restructuring.

I had a look at the European Leagues as the stand and the populations of their respective countries, and the below is a graph of population against number of clubs. Several leagues in Europe contain some kind of mid-season split (like the current SPL), and I have marked them separately.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 20.18.28The countries plotted here are all those in UEFA jurisdiction (including the ones that aren’t really in Europe: I’m looking at you, Israel and Kazakhstan) with the exception of Liechtenstein (which has no national league). You’ll notice an outlier with a low population and 15 clubs: this is San Marino, all of whose clubs participate in a national league with no promotion or relegation.

As you might expect, countries with a high population have a lot of teams in their top division (20 in Spain, France, Italy, and England) and countries with a low population have few teams (8 in Gibraltar, Andorra, and Armenia), and the trendline shows a steady increase (the regression coefficient is 0.6, which implies a reasonable degree of relation).

But why would it necessarily be bad if a small country had 20 teams in its top flight, or vice versa? There are multiple reasons for this (usually, it involves money, as clubs would generally prefer that they shared out their meagre TV rights earnings with fewer other clubs), but an important one is competitiveness.

The percentage of footballers who are genuinely talented is quite low (as there’s no direct way of measuring it, it’s hard to tell, but it roughly follows a power law distribution). In a large country, like Germany, where football is exceptionally popular, there will be a lot of talented footballers who can play the game very well at a high level. Hence, there will be enough good German footballers to make a competitive Bundesliga, where anyone can beat anyone else on their day. Assuming the distribution of footballing skill is the same, there will be 1000 talented German footballers for every talented Andorran. Less extreme, there will be 16 talented Germans for 1 talented Scot.

We also know that cream rises to the top, so the relatively few talented footballers there are will end up at the top clubs (or sold out of the league). All this means that the talent pool within a league gets quite shallow quite quickly as you go down the table,  and this is magnified in smaller countries. Hence, a large league in a small country would result in those clubs around the bottom getting hammered by those at the top on a regular basis, which is no fun for anyone (although Derby County (in England) and SSV Ulm (Germany) showed this can happen even to clubs in the big leagues!), least of all a league wishing to market itself to abroad.

Scotland finds itself in the middle of the population of the graph, with 12 clubs (it’s obscured by a row of reds on that number; 12 is a popular number), between 16-club Norway and 12-club Finland, Slovakia, and Denmark. There’s nothing like the wisdom of crowds, and it would suggest that 12 perhaps is a good number after all (although it’s a bit irksome, as I’ll explain later).

There are arguments for more clubs: for example, 1.65% of Scots attend top flight football games on match days, the second highest proportion in Europe (after Cyprus, though there’s a note of caution that that stat relates to a season when there was a much larger club in the top flight), so it would appear that there’s a much larger appetite for football in Scotland than the other countries mentioned above. So why not expand the SPL to include some more fans in the top flight?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way: most of those fans are watching Rangers or Celtic. Celtic Park holds 60 000 people, which is over 1% of Scotland’s population, so a full house at an Old Firm game accounts for most of this. Remove them, and the statistic drops to about 0.85%, just above Denmark’s (whose biggest club, FC Copenhagen, takes an average gate of 16 000, 0.29% of the population). This would suggest that interest below the top isn’t as great as first imagined. Remarkably, the distribution of fans of clubs also appears to follow a power law distribution: the big clubs at the top take most of the fans, meaning the smaller clubs don’t draw as many. This is especially skewed in Scotland where Rangers and Celtic dominate. This must also be taken into consideration: is there really sufficient interest in the fan base to increase the number? Increasing to 14 presents organisational difficulties: the league would have to take on an even more curious split to get enough games in. Norway has fewer people and 16 clubs, but football is tremendously popular nationwide there, and the clubs all have decent attendance, and all this despite Rosenborg’s dominance in recent (ish) years. At current pricing structures, it’s hard to imagine a mid-table game in the SPL being anywhere near as popular.

Could we decrease the number to 10?

As I mentioned before, 12 is an irksome number (though, not so much as 14) : mostly because it leads to unfair scheduling. You can’t play every other team home and away twice (for 22 games is not enough) or four times (44 games is too many, more than any top-flight team in Europe plays). In Denmark, Finland, and Slovakia, they play each other 3 times, meaning that not every team has the same number of games home and away. The SPL (and the Irish League) resolves this with a split: except sometimes this leads to teams finishing in the section they weren’t “supposed” to and being forced to play the same team three times away (or at home) in the same season, though they do get the home and away games evened out over the season. Many leagues use a split method to get over the difficulty. Some, such as Wales, split after 22 games and then play each other twice for a total of 32 games.

Decreasing to 10 means that it’s more fair, each team plays each other home and away twice, for a total of 36 games- though this is fewer than before (meaning less gate revenue), and you’re losing fan potential (however small it may be). Switzerland and Austria, despite being bigger population-wise (and with larger neighbours nearby to boot) cope well with this structure, although the Swiss Super League has fallen into a Champions League funding-induced Basel dominance in recent years. Football is not as popular in these countries, however, so this perhaps makes sense.

My conclusion is that perhaps the SPL should stick with 12 clubs, and that it is doing the right thing by offering a playoff place for the 11th place club. However, it may want to take stock of attendances in future (particularly with Rangers being where they are) to determine if it should consider expanding.

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