System failure

wsc303MPs want the way football is governed to change, but the game’s authorities are happy to protect their own financial interests over the needs of fans, writes Andy Green

Every political party’s manifesto at the 2010 general election contained commitments to reform the game. The coalition agreement included a clear promise that: “We will encourage the reform of football governance rules to support the co-operative ownership of football clubs by supporters.” Sports Minister Hugh Robertson, with some justification, called football “the worst governed sport in this country, without a shadow of a doubt”.

Last year the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee took time out from hunting down the Murdoch family to conduct an incredibly thorough inquiry into football governance. The committee called 39 witnesses over eight sessions and considered 92 written submissions that ran to 229 pages of evidence. The common theme running through most of this evidence – although not from the Premier League itself – was that, despite the huge sums flowing into the top of the game, financial problems remain rife at all levels. Fans are paying too much and most clubs are losing money.

The committee was clear that change needed to come and that the FA is the only body that could take on the job of regulating the English game. The recommendation was that the FA should take up its role as the national custodian of the sport, reform its decision-making processes and set up a new and rigorous licensing system for clubs. They came down hard on leveraged buyouts, demanding greater supporter involvement, the regulation of debt levels and other radical changes.
Three months after the committee published its report, the government responded with a series of recommendations. Most of these echo the committee’s calls for change. As for the football “authorities” themselves? They have effectively stuck two fingers up to the calls for reform.

The official “response” of the FA, Premier League and Football League that dribbled out on a quiet Friday afternoon in early March marks a new low point. It shows that the main protagonists have no intention of implementing financial reform. They have no interest in giving supporters a bigger say in their clubs and no understanding of the problems everyone else can see.

The FA, the one body in the position to make the necessary changes, have formally bowed out of deciding much beyond who to appoint as England coach and captain, and new ways to screw up the FA Cup. The “response” contains an extraordinary table in which certain issues are described as being “outside the scope of the FA”. These no-go zones left to the clubs and leagues include such unimportant areas as: “Club and League commercial and financial matters; club business and operating issues; stadium and customer/fan issues; club/league relationship with other competition organisers eg UEFA; club ticket prices; club distributions and parachute payments.”

The areas the FA claim to be beyond their jurisdiction are where the problems in the game are to be found. The difficulties lie in ticket pricing (hello Arsenal); how fans relate to their clubs (let’s leave that to Ken Bates); how club finances are regulated (those lovely Glazers); and how extraordinary TV wealth is distributed (here’s 10p for a cup of tea, League Two). To opt out of having any say in such matters is not just going against the advice of the select committee and government, it is the absolute opposite of their recommendations.

The clubs and leagues, under whose management things have gone wrong, are in charge. Ticket prices have risen by up to 900 per cent on the watch of the Premier League, compared to inflation of 77 per cent. Portsmouth’s financial collapse happened on the watch of the Premier League. And such “fit and proper” persons as Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Carson Yeung and Thaksin Shinawatra have been allowed to buy clubs.

Leaving the regulation of ownership and finances to the clubs and leagues is not only neglecting to reform the game, it is putting down in writing the institutional weaknesses that have caused the problems we see today. The Premier League cannot regulate its clubs because it is a private company whose shareholders are the clubs. It is like abolishing the Financial Services Authority and giving the regulation of banks to a company controlled by Barclays, Lloyds and RBS.

If the FA’s submission to the clubs and leagues was not bad enough, the “authorities” have also chosen to ignore the wishes of the select committee and government on the subject of supporter ownership. The government suggested that all clubs should have to recognise and engage with their official supporters’ trust as a condition of getting a licence. They proposed that clubs should hold open annual meetings. This suggestion received no response. Just as there is no response to the government’s request that football consider how to get supporters onto club boards.

The committee and government both want Supporters Direct – the body that advises supporters’ trusts – to be funded properly by the moneybags of the English game. The response of the “authorities” is that Supporters Direct should “primarily rely on funding raised from their membership or their own initiatives”.

In many ways, this wilful ignoring of well-researched, thoughtful suggestions for change is not a surprising reaction from football’s governing class. Under Dave Richards and Richard Scudamore, cash has become the only metric of success. Everything that happens to fans and their clubs is justified by the billions brought in by the “World’s Greatest League”. But their view is not shared by most fans or most people who care about English football. It is clearly not the view of our government and MPs.

The football authorities have decided they can laugh off these views in 16 pages of obfuscation, evasion and management speak. Now it is down to the government to tell them this is not good enough and that they should think again or have change imposed upon them. Over to you, Hugh.

From WSC 303 May 2012