Reform in football; Submitting views to the DCMS for the fan led review

As mentioned throughout the Reform in Football series, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are seeking engagement with fans, fan groups and other interested parties in relation to the fan-led review of football governance. In the words of the review paper “The review will be expected to engage extensively with fans to ensure any recommendations are led by fans’ experience and interests.”

That’s currently happening with Tracey Crouch, the Chair of the review, meeting many organisations, supporter trusts and interest groups. The more engaged clubs are also taking on board fan opinions. At Everton, the Fans Forum is collating the thoughts of fans to present to the club. Ideally they should present the views and ideas direct to the review also. The Fans Forum have an email address chair@evertonsfanforum.com for submitting ideas and views.

The fan led review panel have their own email address also: footballgovernancereview@dcms.gov.uk

So, what ideas should be submitted to the review panel?

Clearly many people will have their own ideas as to what changes need to be made to football. Many I would imagine have different ideas to myself, but having attended several working parties in the last few weeks there is a general consensus building around three main themes at least.

(i) The need for independent regulation of football.

“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.

Strong words from Tracey Crouch but I think it is worth presenting the case, nevertheless.

Self regulation has failed. Despite more than a quarter of a century of unbroken income growth (up to the onset of Covid-19) football is in a deeply parlous state. Financially all areas of football have problems, albeit for different reasons. Grass roots is starved of resources and facilities once provided by local authorities, women’s football is seriously under-resourced. The pyramid of leagues have significant problems brought about by inequitable distributions such as parachute payments plus huge income gaps between leagues creating an arms race for promotion, threatening the sustainability of clubs throughout the pyramid.

Self-regulation has failed to failed to protect clubs  and their supporters from rogue owners with numerous examples over many years. The fabled “owner’s and directors’ test” is not fit for purpose.

Regulation at club level is poor. Equally, regulation at league and association level is well below the standards required in terms of the regulations themselves, the monitoring and ultimately the investigatory and disciplinary processes too. The “agreed” punishment (plus the investigation and shocking disclosure levels) of the Super League 6 is the ultimate example of a failed regulatory process.

It is my view that the review panel recommend a wholly independent regulator backed by legislation. The independent regulator should in my opinion be responsible for the whole of the English game. Whilst created by politicians through legislation, it is no-one’s intent for politicians to run football. The politicians are required to create the legislation and oversee the appointment of senior individuals to the new football regulator (Of-ball anyone?) Independent can be defined as the regulator not having individuals or financial interests in any of football’s participants, operators or commercial partners. It would remove the regulation of the game (not the rules of football, VAR etc) from the leagues and most importantly the clubs.

Importantly, the regulator would also be a resource for clubs to use (or enforced upon clubs who refuse assistance) in the early stages of difficulties. The Dutch football regulator (KNVB) for example, grades clubs as exceptional, adequate or inadequate. Clubs graded as adequate receive recommendations for improvement, clubs graded inadequate have solutions imposed upon them.

All participants in football would require a licence from the regulator in order to participate.  In short we require an independent regulator who provides licences for operators within football (associations, leagues and clubs) and as above, ensure adherence to the licence conditions. The independent regulator would regulate and monitor in line with the licence conditions. When required it would also investigate, adjudicate and administer punishments as necessary.

(ii) the need for better governance

All of the organisations across football can improve on their governance. Governance is the system by which entities are directed and controlled. It is concerned with the structure and processes for decision making, accountability, control and behaviour.

The regulations would provide direction on issues relating to financial regulation; corporate structures, funding models, full disclosure of owner identities; stakeholder involvement; ensuring ethical values and integrity were principal objectives, requiring professionalism, accountability, transparency and compliance from all within the game.

One of the key benefits of better governance, apart from a fairer and more sustainable game is better standards. This makes football more investable. It would, over the medium term, attract higher quality investors and more capital, with greater alignment to the interests of the game overall. The current owners who don’t wish for such improvements would be forced to adapt or leave the game.

Critically better governance requires independent regulation, monitoring and ultimately power of sanctions by the regulator. Better governance will not evolve of its own volition.

(iii) the need to protect the interest of fans & benefit from their engagement

Let’s start with protection. The football clubs and all that makes them unique to their fans, the tangible and intangible assets, or IP as I have referred to, require protecting. Club names, colours, badges, mottos, culture, association with their local community, location and stadium are some of the identifying factors that makes each club unique and special to their fans. This has to be protected in perpetuity and in the proposed new environment, the IP for each club is owned by a properly constituted supporter’s trust. Any changes to the assets identified within the IP would be subject to the approval of the members of the supporters trust – they would not be subject to the whim of the economic owners (shareholders) of the club. The owners of each club would be permitted through licencing to use the clubs’ identity (IP) in its normal operations and commercial activities. Thus, for the owner, there is no confiscation of assets or loss of financial interests.

Fan involvement and representation is critical moving forwards. I am advocating for each club to have a supporter’s trust, ideally with model articles of association providing a structure for democratic representation and power with the club. The final details have to be worked out but under an IP licencing system as above, the supporter’s trust would hold  and maintain the power to determine the key IP assets of the club.

Additionally, the supporter’s trust would have representation at board level within their club. Separately, the supporters trust would place an obligation upon the majority shareholders for regular (6 monthly perhaps?) meetings with the supporter’s trust. Aside from areas of commercial sensitivity and commerciality the objective must be for as much transparency and communication to the wider fan base as possible. It is important to distinguish between board representation and the right to meet the majority shareholder(s) and to ensure both happen and communication is as open as possible.

Submitting to the DCMS

As mentioned earlier the DCMS are welcoming submissions from fans. I would encourage everyone to use the opportunity to submit your own views or if you agree with the views I have expressed in these articles stress the need for independent regulation, better governance, the protection of the interests of fans and the rights of fans to engage and be represented.

This is a unique set of circumstances with the real prospect of significant change to our game, the game that we love,  the game that needs to be saved from itself. No one should miss the opportunity to contribute by emailing the DCMS, your MP or local politicians.

Reform in football series

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