Neil Doncaster- CEO, Scottish Premier League Share PDF Print E-mail
Profile of the week
Neil Doncaster is the Chief Executive of the Scottish Premier League.
Having started his career as a solicitor, Neil came into the game when providing legal advice in relation to Bristol City and Bolton Wanderers.
In 1997, he joined Norwich City as Company Secretary and, within a few years, became their Chief Executive.  During his twelve year spell at the club, the Canaries received numerous awards for community, business development and innovation as the club re-built its reputation with supporters and consequently, season ticket numbers trebled to 20,000.
He was also elected to the Board of the Football League (2006) and subsequently to that of the Football Association (2008).
In 2009, Neil departed Norwich City to join the SPL, where he administered a growth in income for Scotland’s premier football clubs through a combination of new broadcasting deals and centrally negotiated commercial partnerships.  Currently, he is leading the process to restructure the whole of the game in Scotland.
By Edward Rangsi
You began your career in football as a solicitor, how did you progress from advising to managing football clubs?
I had been with Burges Salmon Solicitors in Bristol for four years. I ended up on secondment at a large PLC in London as an in-house company lawyer and I thought that actually going in-house was the way I wanted to be. Then, I saw an advert for a company secretary in-house lawyer at Norwich City. I went along for the interview and became absolutely bitten by the attraction of working in-house within football and was fortunate enough to be offered the job. I turned up in November 1997 and three weeks later, Delia Smith announced to the board that she had the bought the club.
During your tenure at Norwich City, the club mended its relationship with supporters, which resulted in a huge rise in season ticket sales. What was the key?
I think there are a number of different factors - transparency, accountability, being seen to work for the benefit of supporters, working to fill the stadium through innovative family-friendly promotions and policies. There are a whole numbers of things that contribute to the rise in season tickets sales. But, fundamentally, the values of Delia and her husband were spot-on, as community-minded people and family-minded people. Those values then came through with the policies that the executive team at the club implemented.
It’s important for clubs to sort out businesses into an entity that is sustainable, but the reality remains that most are accustomed to taking hits financially. Is there a business model that clubs can adopt that has them breaking even or better?
I think the Championship division in particular, it’s difficult for such a model to work because the vast majority of clubs in that division are funded by owners who are happy to buy what they perceive to be a better chance of getting promotion to the Premier League and that means if you try run on a break-even basis, even if you are extremely successful at selling season tickets, inevitably the player budget you’ve got available is going to be relatively uncompetitive. So, I’m afraid that increasingly the owner-funded player budget is a fact of life particularly in the Championship.
Are you still in favour of financial fair play and salary caps in the Football League?
Absolutely, financial fair play is certainly something that Brian Mawhinney was a big component of and now Greg Clarke at the Football League. So, I think financial fair play has a big place in football. Certainly, UEFA seem to think so and indeed ourselves up here. I think financial fair play generally does have a big future within football, whether that translates into particular rules such as salary caps, that’s for individual leagues to decide.
You’ve recently expressed the need to keep the whole issue of financial fair play firmly in the spotlight. What impact do you believe the introduction will have on football across Europe?
Well, UEFA are driving financial fair play and I think that’s a very worth objective. We can all disagree about the different methods that are taken to implement fair play and the break-even requirement that UEFA has in place.  It will be very interesting to see how that actually turns out and what impact that has on ambitious clubs who grow using funding that comes from owners. So, I think the jury is out on how that will work in practice.
What are your biggest challenges in developing the Scottish Premier League?
I’m a real optimist in terms of Scottish football. In a very difficult commercial environment, we recently agreed a new five year broadcasting deal with SKY and ESPN, which demonstrates a 24% increase over the previous deal and that ultimately reflects the confidence that there is in Scottish football. So, certainly I’m optimistic about the future. Generally, clubs are run on far more break even basis in Scotland then elsewhere in the UK and ultimately that makes the industry far more sustainable.
Is the English Premier League a help or a hindrance?
Certainly, they’re a world league. In many countries around the world, they’re a more important and more valuable TV product than the domestic competition. They’re a must-have for many countries across the world and being so close to a world league, being on a border with them, sharing a common language, which clearly creates a challenge for Scottish football. But, at the same time, it also creates a readymade market for our very best players and that therefore creates an income stream for our clubs to sell on the best Scottish talent to English clubs.
What can clubs from outside the Glasgow duopoly do to compete without following Rangers into financial ruin?
Well, we saw a club like Motherwell, who recently announced roughly about £500,000 profit for the last year certainly vying for second place in the SPL. The second Champions League spot that the SPL was very much up for grabs and I think it’s a demonstration of what is possible. Equally, what St. Johnstone has achieved this year has surprised a great many and, of course, Dundee United have been strong for a number of years. So, to see all those clubs vying at the top of the SPL demonstrates the strength that does exist within in the league.
How is the search for a new title sponsor progressing? How do you go about such a search?
Much like any company that has a product. You take it to market and you do it in a very deliberate, scientific considered way. We’re very fortunate to have worked alongside a great brand like Clydedale Bank for several years. We’ve got over a year to run of that contract, which doesn’t come to an end until summer 2013, so we still got a lot of time to attract a good sponsor for the league. I’m confident with what the league’s got to offer that we will achieve that.
The SPL have given the green-light for clubs to implement safe-standing. Do you think the concept itself is a step forward or a step back?
There’s no doubt in my mind that safe-standing is a step forward. It’s very much listening to what supporters want. Whenever we’ve spoken to supporters, they’ve told us they want to see a return to safe-standing. It’s difficult to see how standing with a plastic seat at knee level, which obviously happens week in week out across the UK, how that’s more safe than standing in designated safe-standing area. So, I think by working with the authorities and by listening to supporters, hopefully we’ll be able to see a solution implemented in a number of SPL grounds that meets what supporters want.
The notion of safe-standing has worked in Germany and elsewhere in mainland Europe…
Absolutely, I was fortunate enough to be at a Borussia Dortmund game recently and saw itself how much it can add to the theatre and enjoyment of the supporters.
Standing ticket prices are relatively inexpensive for a Bundesliga game, but you’ve warned supporters that it shouldn’t be viewed as a cheap option. Why?
For a start, to convert seating areas to safe-standing areas, there’s clearly an infrastructure cost that would need to be incurred and I think the whole business model in German football is very different from that within Scottish football. In German football, you’ve got a far larger amount of corporate support, which effectively subsidises the standing areas.
In terms of global expansion, the SPL have recently signed a broadcasting deal with FOX. How significant is this?
Well, we’ve sold to a huge number of countries around the world already. To be able to agree a two and a half year deal with FOX in the USA again demonstrates the confidence that exists in the product and the desire for territories around the world to get live Clydesdale Bank Premier League football in their countries.
What other new revenue sources do you foresee?
Well, watch this space. We’ve a number of different initiatives for clubs to look at and vote upon over the coming months, so hopefully we’ll be in a position to announce further deals in the near future.

Neil Doncaster FP

Neil Doncaster is the Chief Executive of the Scottish Premier League.

Having started his career as a solicitor, Neil came into the game when providing legal advice in relation to Bristol City and Bolton Wanderers. In 1997, he joined Norwich City as Company Secretary and, within a few years, became their Chief Executive. During his twelve year spell at the club, the Canaries received numerous awards for community, business development and innovation as the club re-built its reputation with supporters and consequently, season ticket numbers trebled to 20,000.

He was also elected to the Board of the Football League (2006) and subsequently to that of the Football Association (2008).  

In 2009, Neil departed Norwich City to join the SPL, where he administered a growth in income for Scotland’s premier football clubs through a combination of new broadcasting deals and centrally negotiated commercial partnerships.

Currently, he is leading the process to restructure the whole of the game in Scotland.

By Edward Rangsi

 

You began your career in football as a solicitor, how did you progress from advising to managing football clubs?

I had been with Burges Salmon Solicitors in Bristol for four years. I ended up on secondment at a large PLC in London as an in-house company lawyer and I thought that actually going in-house was the way I wanted to be. Then, I saw an advert for a company secretary in-house lawyer at Norwich City. I went along for the interview and became absolutely bitten by the attraction of working in-house within football and was fortunate enough to be offered the job. I turned up in November 1997 and three weeks later, Delia Smith announced to the board that she had the bought the club. 

 

During your tenure at Norwich City, the club mended its relationship with supporters, which resulted in a huge rise in season ticket sales. What was the key?

I think there are a number of different factors - transparency, accountability, being seen to work for the benefit of supporters, working to fill the stadium through innovative family-friendly promotions and policies. There are a whole numbers of things that contribute to the rise in season tickets sales. But, fundamentally, the values of Delia and her husband were spot-on, as community-minded people and family-minded people. Those values then came through with the policies that the executive team at the club implemented. 

 

It’s important for clubs to sort out businesses into an entity that is sustainable, but the reality remains that most are accustomed to taking hits financially. Is there a business model that clubs can adopt that has them breaking even or better?

I think the Championship division in particular, it’s difficult for such a model to work because the vast majority of clubs in that division are funded by owners who are happy to buy what they perceive to be a better chance of getting promotion to the Premier League and that means if you try run on a break-even basis, even if you are extremely successful at selling season tickets, inevitably the player budget you’ve got available is going to be relatively uncompetitive. So, I’m afraid that increasingly the owner-funded player budget is a fact of life particularly in the Championship.  

 

Are you still in favour of financial fair play and salary caps in the Football League?

Absolutely, financial fair play is certainly something that Brian Mawhinney was a big component of and now Greg Clarke at the Football League. So, I think financial fair play has a big place in football. Certainly, UEFA seem to think so and indeed ourselves up here. I think financial fair play generally does have a big future within football, whether that translates into particular rules such as salary caps, that’s for individual leagues to decide. 

 

What impact do you believe the introduction of financial fair play will have on football across Europe? 

Well, UEFA are driving financial fair play and I think that’s a very worth objective. We can all disagree about the different methods that are taken to implement fair play and the break-even requirement that UEFA has in place.  It will be very interesting to see how that actually turns out and what impact that has on ambitious clubs who grow using funding that comes from owners. So, I think the jury is out on how that will work in practice.

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