Premier League

Reform in football, Part I

The public announcements of the formation of a European Super League, the fact that six of the miscreants were the largest of the English clubs, merrily plotting whilst pretending business as normal within the usual day to day structure and administration of the Premier League has awoken professional football from its money fuelled, abusive relationship-based, inadequate governance and management coma.

Perhaps, the argument in mitigation for this to happen is that attention was focused elsewhere with the impact of the pandemic, the up-coming round of media rights negotiations and tenders, but actually I think that is being too kind to all of them.

The writing was on the wall, we even had a dress-rehearsal with Project Big Picture. We’ve had what has been described as a toxic culture of the six bullying the fourteen for many years. The chipping away of sporting integrity and commercial equality, all with the threat of leaving if not satisfied hanging over every discussion. An abusive relationship with the strong preying on the weak whilst selling an unified image around the world to commercial partners and broadcasters.

Now the cat is out of the bag and subsequent to Sunday’s partially associated activities at Old Trafford, there’s political, power and financial capital to be won in rescuing the country’s most popular sport and cultural entity (indeed identity). It is however, those that are the primary enablers (Government, the governing bodies and the clubs), that are being asked to, or who are taking it upon themselves, to find solutions. It’s seldom the case that the problem creators provide the best solutions.

The Government Response

On 22nd April 2021 the Government announced the terms of reference for “the fan-led review of football governance”.

The independent review’s aim will be to explore ways of improving the governance, ownership and financial sustainability of clubs in English football, building on the strengths of the football pyramid.

As such the review will:

  • Consider the multiple Owners’ and Directors’ Tests and whether they are fit for purpose, including the addition of further criteria;
  • Assess calls for the creation of a single, independent football regulator to oversee the sport’s regulations and compliance, and its relationship with the regulatory powers of The FA and other football bodies;
  • Examine the effectiveness of measures to improve club engagement with supporters, such as structured dialogue, that were introduced on the back of the Expert Working Group;
  • Investigate ways league administrators could better scrutinise clubs’ finances on a regular basis;
  • Examine the flow of money through the football pyramid, including solidarity and parachute payments, and broadcasting revenue;
  • Explore governance structures in other countries, including ownership models, and whether any aspects could be beneficially translated to the English league system;
  • Look at interventions to protect club identity, including geographical location and historical features (e.g. club badges);
  • Examine the relationship between club interests, league systems and their place within the overall football pyramid.

The Football Association and Premier League response

One would have thought that the above combined with the media and fan reaction to the actions of the six and the proposed Super League a few days earlier would have produced a considerable leadership response from both organisations. However, it was not until the postponement of the Manchester United game due to fan protests that both organisations produced what appear to be hastily compiled responses – on a bank holiday and in the middle of a self-imposed social media embargo.

Belatedly, the Premier League conceded that the previous two weeks had “challenged the foundations and resolve of English football.”

“The actions of a few clubs cannot be allowed to create such division and disruption. We are determined to establish the truth of what happened and hold those clubs accountable for their decisions and actions. We and The FA are pursuing these objectives quickly and appropriately, consulting with fans and government.

The Premier League, supported by The FA, is taking the following actions to protect our game, our clubs and their fans from further disruption and uncertainty.

Additional rules and regulation to ensure the principles of the Premier League and open competition are protected, a new Owners’ Charter that all club owners will be required to sign up to, committing them to the core principles of the Premier League, (while) breaches of these rules and the Charter will be subject to significant sanctions.

And we are enlisting the support of government to bring in appropriate legislation to protect football’s open pyramid, principles of sporting merit and the integrity of the football community.”

The Football Association stated “Since we became aware of the European Super League our priority and focus has been on preventing it from happening, both now and in the future. Throughout this period, we have been in ongoing discussions with the Government, the Premier League and UEFA.

In particular, we have been discussing legislation with Government that would allow us to prevent any similar threat in the future so that we can protect the English football pyramid. Last week, we started an official inquiry into the formation of the European Super League and the involvement of the six English clubs.

We wrote to all of the clubs to formally request all relevant information and evidence regarding their participation. Once we have the required information, we will consider what appropriate steps to take.”

The task of the Football Association and the Premier League is twofold – the enquiry, investigation, findings and suitable punishments relating to the six and the Super League and what should be entirely separate (although influenced by the recent events) a full and complete review and re-shaping of the Premier League ownership and management model with an entirely new governance structure at League and individual club levels.

The two cannot be confused with each other. The question is do both organisations have the structures, the authority and the people to execute these two very separate but vital strands of work?

If not, how is it handled?

Power struggle?

On the one hand the Government is alerted to an opportunity to “save” the beautiful game from itself. The review and the probable imposition of independent regulators, in itself, demonstrates that from the outside the game is seen as incapable of self-management. On the other hand those in charge of the beautiful game scramble to make it appear that not only were they in charge all along, running a good ship, they are now capable of (i) resolving multiple issues which the actions of the six have laid bare for all to see and (ii) creating a suitable governance structure (albeit never having done so before in all the time they have had available to them)

It is the classic power struggle sadly and potentially dangerously, played out between those who think they know better than the current incumbents and the incumbents who have proved incapable of managing a collective enterprise under the most benign of macro -conditions not withstanding the naked greed and self interest of their largest members.

The Fans

Then we have the fans, the people who paradoxically and tragically are the most invested of the participants and until Sunday at least (albeit based on the grievances of fans and the owners of one club), almost totally without power or influence. However that power, the power to disrupt and protest, can play little part in investigating the actions of the six and doesn’t resolve the governance issues of the game. If sustained or expanded to other clubs it would most likely leave future fan participation in the governance of the game less likely or effective. Potentially it provides a common enemy for the Government led reviewers and the incumbents to rally against.

It is critical that fans, organised groups and individuals, plus representative bodies form part of the governance (and structural) reviews and solutions for the future. Individual grievances between fans and their owners whilst adding to the body of debate cannot come in the way of the collective need.

This is a huge topic, there are many ideas on reforming the Premier League, the Football Association, the ownership, management and governance of the Premier League, the ownership of football clubs, their governance, fan ownership and participation in decision making. Just as with the Football Shorts series a year ago, I will examine and give my own thoughts as to what should be done.

I wanted to set the scene as I see it, thanks for reading.

Part II Governance

Part III Alternative structures to protect fan interests

Reform in football series

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