Alan Pattullo: Celtic v Rangers is not the crown jewels, we must discuss free-to-air coverage of the game that undoubtedly is

It was interesting hearing Neil Doncaster refer to the Old Firm fixture as Scottish football’s “crown jewels” last week. If the chief executive of the SPFL paused to reflect on this for a moment, he might realise it was a misguided phrase to use.

Scotland's John McGinn in action against Israel's Eli Dasa during the recent Euro 2020 play-off semi-final between Scotland and Israel at Hampden Park (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Scotland's John McGinn in action against Israel's Eli Dasa during the recent Euro 2020 play-off semi-final between Scotland and Israel at Hampden Park (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Crown jewels is the term used to describe those sporting occasions that are forbidden by law to be shown exclusively on pay-TV. These include the Scottish Cup final, Wimbledon finals and the Grand National.

Doncaster wanted to imply that the Old Firm game is too precious to give away free. In the context of sport, however, crown jewels normally applies to events which are too precious to be hidden away behind paywalls. A game on which Scotland’s major finals destiny rests after such a long exile surely counts as one of these.

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Hence a campaign that has been started by those behind the Hampden Collection, a Scottish football heritage group, to press for next month’s winner-takes-all clash play-off final against Serbia to be shown live free-to-air. As it stands, the game is due is to be televised, like all Scotland matches, by Sky Sports in a deal worth in excess of £15 million a year to the Scottish Football Association. No subscription, no see.

Which is fair enough. Kind of. Well, no actually, many claim it’s not, especially mid-pandemic, when rules restricting travel – no supporters will be in Belgrade – and bans on going to bars have been imposed and are likely to still be in place come 12 November.

Of course, we are familiar with this football-for-everyone argument, since it was proposed by no higher office than that of First Minister a few days ago. Nicola Sturgeon called for the football authorities and broadcasters to somehow devise a plan at a few hours’ notice to ensure television coverage of the first Old Firm derby of the season on Saturday was accessible to everyone for free. Doncaster was appalled by the suggestion and quickly directed people to the monetary value of the deal Sky Sports struck to have exclusive rights to cover Scottish league football – and, specifically, the fixture which continues to be the game’s chief bargaining tool, the Old Firm derby.

So it didn’t happen. Of course, it didn’t. But Barry Kirk, head of communications at the Hampden Collection, has sought to underline the very special nature of next month’s game as well as the very special Covid-19 related circumstances. “We believe everyone should have the opportunity to watch our national team play our national game, in our most crucial match, live on television,” he said.

It does indeed seem an absurd situation where if England manage to re-arrange a friendly for 12 November after New Zealand pulled out of a planned Wembley clash then it will be shown live on terrestrial television in Scotland while Scotland’s own hugely significant clash in Serbia the same night is only on Sky Sports.

"Unless we fork out a hefty subscription fee or a payment via pay per view channels, we will be unable to watch it live,” Kirk said, with reference to the Serbia match. “We believe this is ridiculous. We have started #OorLadsOorTelly campaign to try and right this ludicrous situation.”

It’s something we are likely to hear more about in the coming weeks. It would be no surprise if politicians become involved once more.

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