Hot Take Sunday: Are We a Step Closer to Effective Regulation?

by | Jul 25, 2021

The devil, of course, will likely be in the detail, but there has been cause for cautious optimism that the governance of football in this country will finally get at least part of the reform that it so desperately needs following the comments of Tracey Crouch, the chair of the government’s fan-led review into the governance of the game in this country, this week. This is, to a point, a considerable surprise. Since the very moment that this review was announced, there has been considerable conjecture that what would come out of it would be a watered-down set of measures designed to pacify increasingly tetchy fans while maintaining the status quo in terms of the running of the game. Expectations, it’s reasonable to say, have not been especially high.

The more apocalyptic predictions of what might have happened from all of this have, however, not yet come to pass. It’s possible, of course, that everything that we’ve seen so far has been mere window dresssing, but if we are to take people’s comments at face value, then the fact of the matter is that it certainly seems as though the views of fans have been taken on board, and that fears of a complete whitewash seem to have been somewhat overstated. It’s difficult to believe – and there’s still good reason to believe that what emerges from it all will not be the panacea that some continue to hope for – but for now, there remains no substantive reason to believe that change is not going to come. Crouch’s letter of recommendations to culture secretary Oliver Dowden can be seen here (PDF). In it, she outlines a fundamental argument that has been made increasingly throughout the game, over the last few years:

If it was not already sufficiently clear before the start of the Review the evidence has been clear that  football clubs are not ordinary businesses. They play a critical social, civic and cultural role in their local communities. They need to be protected – sometimes from their owners who are, after all, simply the current custodians of a community asset. Equally, although clubs are not ordinary businesses, they should not be immune from the ordinary financial controls, checks, balances and behaviours that are good practice in any multi-million-pound company but too often can be absent across the game.

The mere recognition of this is progress in itself. The culure of the game in this country over the last thirty years or longer has been the selective adoption of the most extreme form of wild west capitalism as and when it suits. The rules of the free market have applied when it has been beneficial to do so, but a form of exceptionalism has been applied when it has suited clubs and their owners.

One glaring example of this might be insolvency. Outside of professional football, declaring insolvency is often considered a desperate last throw of the dice which will result in a business changing forever, if it even can be rescued in the first place. Within football, though, it has often felt as though administration has been used as a tactical move to wipe debts and carry on very much as before. Few people whose sole experience of insolvency has been their football club entering into administration will even be aware of the extent to which this is in actuality a near-death experience.

Football’s internal economy is unlike that of any other business. The frenzied rush for a place among the gilded twenty that is the Premier League has led to a collective madness that defies all logic. As of 2020, the average wage in the Championship was six times the average wage in League One, with almost all clubs spending more on wages alone than they bring in through all available revenue streams. It’s a culture that has been threatening to explode for years, and it’s a minor miracle that we haven’t lost more professional clubs than we have over the two decades since the ITV Digital collapse. If you wanted visual evidence of the extent to which football is a business unlike any other, then you need look no further than the vast number of football clubs which have come through administration and continued very much as they did before.

The tug of war between the game’s soul and its obsession with money may also be seen in its relationship with gambling. The dangers of gambling culture have been signposted for years, and everybody knows that there is a problem. As recently as April, following a recommendation from a House of Lords committee that gambling operators should no longer be allowed to advertise on the shirts of sports teams or any other part of their kit from 2023, Premier League clubs met to discuss whether clubs should be banned from having their shirts advertising betting companies. No concrete action has been taken, though, and while a couple of clubs have moved away from gambling companies as main sponsors, a majority have not.

Furthermore, when watching matches on the television, we remain assaulted by near-blanket gambling advertising. For a generation of viewers, Ray Winstone is now more indelibly associated with his floating head appearing at half-time during Premier League matches than for his many appearances on the big and small screen. The EFL itself remains sponsored by the gambling arm of its broadcasting partner. Exactly half of Premier League football clubs have gambling companies as their main shirt sponsors. Gambling doesn’t even fall under the remit of this report, but Crouch still advised that a separate review into gambling “hears the concerns of football supporters on this issue, and that they have an opportunity to submit evidence to that review.”

Were the changes recommended by Crouch in her initial report to be adopted, the game would start to look very different. The report recommends the establishment of an independent regulator to oversee a new club licensing system, as well as legislation to make supporter engagement mandatory, wide-ranging reform of existing football authorities, improving equality and diversity in the game, and providing democratic supporter groups with a ‘golden share’ in their clubs which would provide fans the power of veto over certain issues. These reforms would also be coupled with changes to the game’s financial redistribution, with a recommendation that parachute payments should be ended and replaced with a more equitable form of distribution from the Premier League, as well as “the removal of barriers to revenue generation in lower divisions, such as allowing clubs to operate all weather pitches in League 2.”

Perhaps most importantly of all, though, is the thread that runs through the entire consultation that football clubs are more than mere businesses, and that they deserve greater protection as a result:

When this is multiplied by poor financial controls, reckless behaviour by owners and an unwillingness of the authorities to intervene the results are clear – as can be seen from the recent fates of Bury and Macclesfield. Historic and much loved clubs going under. Loyal fans bereft and communities decimated.

It is almost startling to hear this from somebody in a position to do something about it, when we are so used to platitudes from those in positions of power. The pas de deux has become a very familiar one. Lengthy articles detailing the decline and fall of a football club, flags attached to railings, interviews with crestfallen fans who’ve just found out that a huge part of their everyday life has been torn from them forever by circumstances they could never have controlled, and crocodile tears for a limited period of time before the circus rumbles on.

We all know that professional football can’t reform itself. It had three decades to figure out a way of taking the vast riches provided by its rebirth in the 1990s and decided to give almost all of it to the biggest clubs. The biggest of the biggest clubs then plotted to join a breakaway European Super League with a group of financially incontinent European clubs whose only solution to their financial woes was to give them more money. After a couple of weeks worth of faux humility, they were back doing exactly what they always do, oovering up the best players from other clubs, whether those other clubs want to sell them or not. And this, of course, came after Project Big Picture, a slightly smaller scale attempted landgrab which wanted to place the entire control of the club game in this country in the hands of the Premier League’s self-determined ‘elite’. Every story that comes about these days on the subject of the way in which they conduct themselves confirms that they are not to be trusted.

There is a lot more to be said on this subject. A lot more. It’s right that we should be cautious when reviewing every step of this entire review process, because the feeling remains that this is the only chance that we may ever get to actually get meaningful reform of the game in this country through. But the relatively positive reaction that the preliminary findings and recommendations have received have hinted, not only at the extent to which fans themselves understand the urgent need for these changes, but also no absence of will on the part of those in charge of it to try and whitewash it all away, yet. There will be greater pushback to come, but for now there are grounds for some degree of optimism that, after thirty years during which football has repeatedly proved itself incapable of managing itself for the benefit of everybody, these matters might finally be placed into the hands of people who do. There’s a long way to go, but cautious optimism seems to be the order of the day.