Reform in football; strategic thinking required

“Independent regulation, the genie is out of the bottle and not going back in. The question is not about an independent regulator, it is about what it regulates” – Tracey Crouch, the Chair of the “fan-led review of football governance” speaking on the Ornstein and Chapman podcast from The Athletic on 27th May.

On 22nd April the terms of reference for the fan led review of football were published. The most important from a strategic position in my opinion is:

  • 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;

The findings from the other terms of reference listed below are critical to the future sustainability of football. However, effective remedies can only be implemented, monitored and when necessary imposed by independent regulators with statutory powers arising from legislation.

The other terms of reference are

  • Consider the multiple Owners’ and Directors’ Tests and whether they are fit for purpose, including the addition of further criteria;
  • 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.

Armed with these terms of reference fans, fan groups, owners, directors, administrators of the game, special interest groups and others are currently creating arguments for change and what type of change they desire. Equally on the other side, the few clubs and organisations the current structure favours so heavily, are planning on how to maintain the status quo as much as possible.

It is clear that with the level of self-interest within the game, those with power and influence will present their own (ill-founded) arguments, use existing relationships to lobby government and MPs very hard to minimise the degree of change.

In a sense, those that run football, those that control, influence, derive status and benefit financially from the current rules, regulations and structures will view the fan led review and what arises from it in the same manner a board might view a hostile takeover (hostile in their eyes) of a company. They will see any changes as a reduction in their power and influence and for some, a threat to their financial interests in the game. The prospect of such losses will create a determined response from the incumbents.

Certainly, one of the first defence tactics is to offer something which perhaps looks significant, but in reality changes little. A classic deflection or for the unwary, an appeasement tactic.

Thus, we have clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United offering fan advisory boards, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea offering fan director positions, plus of course, Manchester United offering an, as yet, undefined fan ownership scheme.  This is window dressing and does nothing to bring the changes needed across football. These are classic mitigating tactics to use with government and MPs and also the court of public opinion. They ought be identified and rejected as such, given the prospect for meaningful change driven by the review.

Strategically, the argument is about how to bring in independent regulation. That has to be the first priority of all wanting change, of all wanting a better, more equitable, sustainable game. The question then is what needs to be done to develop the support to create the legislation necessary for an effective independent regulator?

How is that achieved? There are three distinct audiences that need to be addressed and persuaded.

  1. The vast majority of football clubs in the football pyramid including many in the Premier League. The appeal has to be wholly inclusive, starting at grass roots upwards and cover every element and division of the game including both men’s and women’s football.
  2. The general public. Football has huge societal and community influence and value in the UK, particularly England (given this is the focus of the review).  Such is its importance that individually for many, football has the greatest significance outside of family and personal relationships. Individuals and the general public have to be convinced that football at every level is at threat from the unsustainable nature of the current structure, given the inequitable distribution of power and resources.
  3. Politicians – government, members of parliament, regional mayors and local councillors. Those outside of parliament can provide vital support to persuading those in parliament of the need for, and the benefits of an independently regulated football industry. The politicians desire to support the necessary changes will be driven in the main, by the level of demand from (i) and (ii) above.

Those promoting change have to garner the support of fans and everyone with an interest in football at every level. In turn that assists the campaign with politicians (especially in such a populist era). With the support of politicians, parliament can then legislate for change. Legislating for independent regulation of football is the only way of bringing all of the necessary changes to ensure sustainability throughout the game.

Thinking strategically

Firstly as above, gain as much support as possible not only across football but from local communities, their political representatives and ultimately the government for independent regulation powered by legislation.

Why is independent regulation so important?

It’s important because it is the enabler for real change. The change that is necessary but will not be offered voluntarily by clubs and associations. Across football, organisations such as the FSA, Fair Game, individual supporter trusts, other fan groups, academics and interested parties have been doing incredible work on re-engineering football, to make football fairer, more equitable, more sustainable at every level.

The portfolio of ideas and policies are impressive including but not limited to:

  • At club level, protection of individual club’s intellectual property – i.e. all (tangible and intangible) that makes each club unique and valuable to individual fans and their communities.
  • Clubs will be licenced by the independent regulator. The conditions of the licence will include sustainability measure (cost controls, community engagement, academy performance, equality performance etc).
  • At league level, a more equitable distribution of monies across the game including the removal of inequitable measures such as parachute payments. A reduction in the income levels between each division
  • A meaningful “fit and proper” owners test including clear identification of funders and beneficial owners; a global search for convictions, financial misdemeanours. A restraint on leveraged acquisitions (Manchester United and Burnley for example)
  • Meaningful fan representation at board level, supporter trust creation, model articles and power of veto/golden share arrangements.

However, none of this can be achieved across the game without the enabling independent regulation of football. That can only occur through legislation passed through the houses of parliament.

Legislation can only be achieved by politicians seeing the need for, and most importantly, the support for change.

Strategic thinking is required. The opportunity for change has arisen through the greed of the largest clubs and the lack of proper governance throughout the game. The game can only survive sustainably by bringing about change. Football itself will not support sufficient change to make a difference.

Thus, the strategic play is to enforce change through independent regulation. Independent regulation has to be the first objective and most resources have to be used initially in promoting this message and getting the level of popular support to such an extent that politicians cannot fail to take action.

Work on the form of regulation, the drafting of legislation, the power of the regulator etc must continue but in this early period of the fan-led review the call for independent regulation is the key.

Reform in football series



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.