On the 22 April 2021, the terms of reference were produced for the “Fan Led Review of Football”. For ease and reference I have copied them below:
- 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.
Three months later, and on the day of the Parliamentary summer recess, Tracey Crouch MP has written to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, a letter containing preliminary findings and recommendations.
The letter can be read here
Clarity on what independent regulation means
The letter, findings and recommendations contain some good ideas, particularly the acknowledgement of the need for independent regulation. The fact that football is no longer (if it ever was) capable of regulating itself. However it does not address as suggested within the terms of reference how and the extent it would “oversee the sport’s regulations and compliance” nor “its relationship with the regulatory powers of The FA and other football bodies”.
This is key to the reform process and needs to be established up front before getting into the generally good policy proposals thereafter.
There is a need to be very specific about the degree of control the regulator has, how that control is administered and implemented including specifically the constraints the regulator then places upon the organisations such as the Premier League, EFL, FA and others, let alone the clubs, their shareholders and directors. It needs to demonstrate very clearly that there is a separation of regulatory power (held by the independent regulator) and the existing organisations who then perform an administrative and promotional role within football as well as the clubs. The regulator licences the Premier League and other bodies to promote and administer their competitions but the power of regulation sits solely with the regulator. I firmly believe that separation has to be made clear.
Similarly, the review does not address the governance model of the Premier League whereby the competition (currently self regulated) is owned and managed by its participants. Yet the same review recognises the need for the removal of club directors from the EFL board and suggests a minimum percentage of non-executive directors for the FA (both welcome proposals). But, where is the consistency? where does the review address the imbalance of power and influence of the Premier League generally and of the Super League six specifically? This has to be addressed first and foremost, otherwise the policy ideas thereafter will never be implemented fully or effectively.
The review has to change the power base within football. It has, by effective regulation, to remove the power from those that have frankly abused it for too long at all levels of the game. I see no point in not making that point absolutely clear and unequivocal. Otherwise, what are parliamentarians going to be voting for?
Finance, regulation and governance
To a large extent my thoughts are covered above and in the previous articles I have written – the regulatory framework is the key to the many finance and governance proposals that the review will no doubt have received from many interested parties, including numerous fan groups and individual fans as well as industry experts and academics.
There is an acknowledgement that current financial regulations are not fit for purpose, plus the under-representation of fans in football governance, the acknowledgement of both welcome.
Given the initial terms of reference included the suitability of the Owners’ and Directors’ Tests I would have expected some comment on this – perhaps this is to be included in the independent regulator proposals.
Protecting Heritage Assets
The acknowledgement that football clubs are valuable community assets playing a critical social, civic and cultural role is very welcome. It is this and various aspects of identity that makes football clubs so special and important to fans.
The letter specifies the need for protection by “golden share” type arrangements in respect of reserved items such as badges, colour, location and competitions. Again this is welcome but from a personal perspective I would like to see more work on creating individual IP for each club held by a supporters trust and licenced for use to the investor/commercial owners of each club. Ownership of the “IP” is significantly different from blocking powers and should be explored further in my opinion.
Fan Engagement and Transparency
There needs to be minimum standards of transparency at club, competition and football authority levels. Whilst no one expects anyone to lose competitive advantage by losing the rights to commercial confidentiality clearly much needs to be done in providing minimum standards of information and data including the timing and frequency of publication.
Expressing a personal opinion, I am disappointed more clarity has not been given to fan representation at board level including how those fans would be elected and by whom. I suspect the reluctance of some to commit to this through poor experiences in the past reflect a lack of structure to previous proposals rather than the idea in principle. If we are ever to get owners, investors and directors to realise that they are custodians of assets owned by communities (even if not economically) the principle of having fans involved in board level discussions and decisions has to be accepted and provided for.
Navigating financial gaps
I welcome the acknowledgement of genuine financial reform, especially through good governance. The letter states the Review will make recommendations on cost controls and financial management across the pyramid. This good especially if enforced and administered by the independent regulator as a condition of being a licensee.
On the basis the correct cost controls are in place properly regulated and administered then reform of income distribution throughout the pyramid can be truly effective in growing the game from the base. Whatever redistribution policies are brought forward though, they can only be effective with the correct cost controls, financial management and reporting in place.
Investing in Football, Growing women’s football, protecting the welfare of young players
The need for greater investment and fairer distributions of revenue are clear. However, what also must be made clear is that Government itself must see the value of investing tax payer money in grass roots in particular. It must recognise the societal and health, as well as financial benefits of getting more people (especially children) to play more football, have more and better facilities plus better coaching and support. This is a clear omission within the review, so far.
In my opinion there should be no distinction as to the importance of funding either men or women’s football particularly at grass roots level. I think the review should push in the strongest way possible to further develop the women’s game and agree with the call for a dedicated review.
Again, it goes without saying the need for proper regulation of junior football, and is something that should be included in the independent regulatory framework so that all football organisations have similar minimum standards regarding the welfare of young players.
The Review has had a tremendous response from all those with an interest in football. There have been a tremendous number of excellent ideas already generated and that has to be welcomed.
However the context of the Review has to be remembered. It was ultimately brought about by the actions of six clubs who attempted, for their own purposes, to destroy the game of football in England as we know it. Those clubs are owned by oligarchs, proxies for state bodies and multi-billionaires. Their actions have forced football to react in order to protect its future beyond the narrow interests of those clubs. It thus requires a very significant, far reaching and powerful response backed by legislation and the creation of a sufficiently powerful regulator to ensure the future of the game we love. It is for this reason that the primary aim of the Review must be an effective independent regulator removing all regulatory power from those organisations who only seek their own financial, political and perhaps soft-power advantage. Without it the excellent policy ideas have no hope of succeeding.
Reform in Football series can be found here