The Scottish Premiership is not a league without its detractors. Whether this be due to the one sided (two sided before Rangers’ implosion) nature leading to an overly predictable end result; or the number of meaningless games for clubs safe from relegation at an early stage but without the staying power and/or stamina to challenge for the title; or indeed the complication of having the top/bottom six split for the final weeks of the season.
League reconstruction has often been discussed and different league formats outlined, dismissed and voted on. This has included discussions on increasing or decreasing the number of teams, splitting into the top or bottom six or introducing relegation playoffs to add further interest and offer an opportunity for additional turnover in terms of variety of teams participating.
But could the Scottish Professional Football league (SPFL) learn something from Latin America and introduce a league system widely used in that part of the world? This would be the “Apertura and Clausura” format, translated as “Opening and Closing”, widely used in the Americas.
The basic premise is that throughout the nominal August-May (orthodox) season, two mini-seasons take place. An Apertura in the first half and a Clausura after a winter break (or summer break in South America). Both the Apertura and Clausura would have a champion, with a playoff between both champions (if not the same team) to determine the overall winner, or indeed a wider NFL style playoff system to determine a champion. Such a format, or variations thereof are in place in countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica and Chile. Slight variations to formats exist like the number of teams in the championship playoff picture, the presence of a playoff for an overall winner and then the method by which relegation is determined – this can be complicated and relies on averages over a number of seasons.
The advantages of this format include a shorter season, breeding incessant competition and ensuring that a far greater proportion of matches are meaningful and competitive. There are fine margins, dropped points can derail a championship push or push teams towards the bottom. The pressing need for points accumulation and limited room for error mean that teams push harder for wins and are less likely to settle for draws. The shorter seasons also mean that there are climaxes every four or five months, with championship deciders taking place on a frequent basis. What is also evidenced is that the shorter format gives smaller clubs a fighting chance to compete for championships – a good run of form can catapult a team up the league. There are also more one off games against the bigger teams which can turn into “six-pointers” and in turn lead to a variety of winners or limit teams dominating to the same extent. Smaller squads are also perhaps not exposed to the same extent as happens through longer seasons where bigger squads can provide greater consistency, dealing with injuries and fatigue to a greater extent.
There are however disadvantages and drawbacks to this format, some of which overlap with the advantages listed above. The incessant competition and need for success, coupled with shorter seasons breeds short-termism at boardroom level with a run of bad results leading to exponentially increased pressure on managers and players. In turn this also reduces the willingness to take risks, meaning that youngsters are often overlooked in favour of the steady hand of a more experienced player within a side. This is evidenced in the leagues which utilise the format. There is also the disparity with the wider European season, including European competition which in turn feeds into International Tournaments. A knock on effect could be that exerting so much effort into an Apertura season could mean that for midweek Continental games players could become fatigued or burnt out more frequently.
In Scotland, the orthodox long season is used. Over the past few years Celtic have had the title sewn up by March or April with competition from the likes of Aberdeen burning out early in the new year as squad size and the lack of ability to refresh in the January transfer window hits, alongside the longer term accumulation of dropped points when compared to Celtic who drop points less frequently. As a result much of the excitement and focus towards the end of the season (aside than for Celtic fans) relates to the scrap for relegation and potentially positional placing allowing for qualification for European competition.
Looking at the main advantages of the split season as outlined above therefore, an argument could be made that this would be a viable and refreshing revamp to the Scottish season. The shorter Apertura and Clausura seasons would certainly increase the competition, allowing the likes of Aberdeen, Rangers, Hibs or Hearts to mount a serious challenge – looking back over the mid season point from previous years, there are relatively few points between teams and it is generally well into the new year before Celtic have pulled away. So it is a viable argument to suggest that there could be alternative winners relatively quickly with this new format given the shorter season.
The introduction of more one off, or bigger, meaningful games would also lead to further interest as can be seen over recent years in Cup competitions. A number of so called smaller clubs, including Hibs, Hearts, St Johnstone, Aberdeen and Inverness have all won cup competitions which shows that focus on a single short term competition and only needing to beat the biggest teams on one off occasions increases the variety of winners and spread of success amongst clubs. Overall therefore, looking at the advantages, there is a strong case for this format within Scottish Football in the interests of increasing competition.
From a scheduling perspective, the season is already relatively naturally split in half either side of Christmas – even with a Winter break scheduled in January in recent years. The transfer windows in summer and winter also fit in with this idea, meaning that teams could refresh between mini-seasons. Winners and indeed sides finishing bottom of both Apertura and Clausura seasons would play off for the championship itself and also relegation places. In the event that there were the same winners or bottom sides then this would just involve a minor adjustment to other playoff competitions between the runners up and third placed teams from both mini seasons for European spots and similarly the bottom sides for relegation. Effectively, at most there would be a couple more showpiece games at the end of the long season to decide a championship, European places or relegation.
As above however, there are disadvantages to this format which would also likely be seen within Scottish Football. There is already a problem with short-termism in terms of manager turnover and lack of opportunity for young players. A further reduction in patience or room for mistakes may exacerbate these existing issues. The number of players on short term or loan contracts would also likely increase – signing for a mini-season “push” at a title or to avoid relegation, leading to a disconnect between fans and team as players are not given a chance or signed to become embedded in the culture of the club.
Furthermore, the widening of competition and associated reduction in success levels for some of the bigger teams – who have an associated bigger influence over proceedings – is unlikely to go down well and be accepted, self preservation will always rule in these situations as has been seen in previous restructuring discussions.
Weighing the above up, while there are risks to added short term thinking and lack of flexibility for youngsters in this format, it is not considered that this would be significantly worse than the current situation, particularly once things bedded down. There is a situation at the moment where a run of six, seven or eight defeats can lead to a manager sacking – this wouldn’t change to any great extent. Even if a team were certain of finishing bottom in the Apertura then a change of manager and some signings within the winter break (as would happen now) would give the team a fighting chance of staying up, albeit via a playoff after a more positive showing in the Clausura.
Furthermore youngsters are only really given a chance when they are exceptional talents or indeed good enough for the first team. Budgetary constraints limit the ability for Scottish sides to pay large transfer fees and so the impact on youth players would not be overly significant, most clubs are forced to promote from within in any case.
Overall therefore, there would be an increase in competition, wider variety of successful teams and more high profile, meaningful games. In turn this would lead to greater fan interest, greater attendance at games from fans wishing to see their club win a championship and also greater exposure to the land of milk and honey that is TV broadcasting and subsequent revenues.
As such, there is a compelling case for the SPFL to take their lead from our Latin American primos and switch up to an Apertura and Clausura season – it may just be the innovative solution the league system needs.