After the Super League fiasco: five reforms that could save the game

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These changes could help to fix football, from fairer distribution of money to giving fans more power

The  Guardian-David Conn

The fiasco of the botched European Super League plot has rebounded so overwhelmingly against football’s richest clubs that it has profoundly strengthened the case for reform that supporters’ groups have been making for a generation. The timing for the fateful decision by the Premier League’s “big six” to participate was itself very ill-judged, as the government’s patience with big-money football has become increasingly strained through the pandemic.

The “fan-led review”, promised in the Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto but delayed since the election, has been launched in response and the money-grab motivating the failed breakaway has clarified the issues it must address: football’s extreme financial inequality and the excessive power of a few clubs at the top. The terms of reference issued by the government signal the review will indeed examine the game’s finances, ownership and whether it now needs independent regulation.

A lesson from history: the European Super League battle is not over

The Premier League itself is now so publicly split between the six and the other 14 who stood up so adamantly against the breakaway that it will struggle to present a united response to the government’s review. The league did that successfully in response to many previous inquiries, dazzling governments with the global reach of the English game and the clubs’ admirable community work, and fending off those who argued for fundamental reform.

In the past year, however, after both Conservative and Labour politicians were already bewildered at the collapses of Bury and Wigan despite football’s greatest boom, the pandemic has spotlit the glaring financial inequalities very starkly. While the big clubs are apparently obsessing about their own losses and a desire for more control of future broadcasting revenues, including from streaming their matches to their global fanbases, ministers grew intensely frustrated at the Premier League’s delay in agreeing a Covid-19 rescue fund for EFL clubs that were seriously struggling. Then, with the return of normal life finally in sight after the pandemic’s horror and sacrifice, the rich clubs unleashed their Super League money-grab instead of a plan, as Uefa said, to rebuild the sport together.

 

As well as spectacularly highlighting English football’s faultlines, all this has shone a light on the possible solutions – particularly the less corporate German model, given the non-participation of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the Super League. With Boris Johnson having threatened a “legislative bomb” to stop the breakaway, a feeling is growing that – surprising as it is under a Conservative government – the combination of circumstances has produced a historic opportunity for genuine change. The Football Supporters’ Association, whose recommendations have often been indulged but not implemented, is now a central participant in the fan-led review.

Ideas for reforming the game in its post-1992 Premier League era of mega-commercialisation have always been based on the yearning to protect its sporting heart and communal soul, and never very complicated for the famously simple, beautiful game. Shaped for today’s circumstances, just a few overarching proposals could fulfil that function and are likely to be considered by the fan-led review and its chair, the former sports minister Tracey Crouch. These five changes are ideas whose time may finally have come.

Fairer distribution of money

One of the most exasperating elements of the Super League plan to almost everybody else was the repeated sense from Real Madrid, Liverpool, Arsenal and the other richest clubs in Europe that somehow the system isn’t working for them. While they nurse their losses from the Covid-19 shutdown and were wowed by projections from the merchant bank, JP Morgan, of how much money they could be making, the rest of the game argues the distribution needs to flow the other way – more equally.

When a sport becomes so grossly unequal, dominated on and off the field by billionaire-owned corporations, it is betraying its heritage, as the fans’ outcry against the Super League has shown. Distribution of money is an essential component of competitive sport; the sharing of gate receipts by home and away clubs was agreed at the Football League’s very founding in 1888. The US sports in which the owners of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal own “franchises” distribute TV and commercial revenues very equally, to ensure relatively even teams create genuine competition.

The 1992 Premier League breakaway broke the system of shared money through the Football League’s four divisions, with shared gate receipts having been abolished in 1983, and concentrated wealth at the biggest clubs. However the Premier League presents its distributions to the rest of the game it has amounted to approximately 7% of its TV income in total, and there is revulsion at clubs going bust lower down, and grassroots facilities still wanting, with so much money at the top.

‘Golden share’ in clubs for supporters

A potential English version of the German clubs’ structure, now suddenly admired across Europe, where majority control is held by a supporters’ association even at the wealthiest, dominant clubs, Bayern and Dortmund. The “50%+1 rule” ensuring supporter control in Germany does not always mean fans own a majority of shares, but they have a controlling stake when key decisions are made.

During English football’s dash for cash, many local club owners made multimillions selling their shares to overseas investors, free of historic Football Association rules that had restrained the personal gains that could be made from owning clubs. The football corporations now dominating the Premier League, wholly owned by investors, are an outcome of this deregulation.

As fans cannot afford to buy meaningful stakes in these club-corporations, an idea is a “golden share” structure, in which a properly constituted supporters association would have voting control over defined significant decisions. These would include any fundamental changes at their own club but can also include wider issues, including resisting any talk of breakaways.

 

Supporter representatives on club boards

This was actively floated in this week’s fallout by Julian Knight, Conservative chair of the culture, media and sport select committee. He and fellow MPs have been schooled in football’s brutal realities by their inquiry into the 2019 wreck of Bury after 125 years of Football League membership, and their fury at the Premier League’s delay in agreeing a Covid-19 rescue fund. That has embedded a view that the clubs themselves need proper involvement of supporters to ground them in collective responsibility.

Work remains to be done to develop a proposal, including how a supporter representative would be appointed, presumably involving some democratic election. Clubs may resist it but improved liaison with supporter groups currently has limited impact on boards’ decision-making, and clearly fans were not consulted before six clubs hurtled into the Super League dead end.

 

Strengthened and continual ‘fit and proper persons’ test

The existing “fit and proper persons test” for owners and directors is itself an illustration of the football authorities being pushed by campaigners into reform for their own good. The Premier League resisted introducing such a test for years, arguing it could be illegal, until the Football League finally introduced some rules in June 2004 and the Premier League followed in August of that year.

‘Suffer consequences’: Uefa to discuss punishments for Super League rebels

The current rule, which bars people who are insolvent or have unspent convictions, is a bare minimum safeguard. It needs widening to consider wider modern issues and more broadly to encourage owners who will be good custodians. A further idea is for the test to be ongoing, so that owners sign up to abiding by all agreed rules, structures and governance. If they consider breaching them – for example, by forming a breakaway Super League – they risk falling foul of the rule and being banned at least as directors of their own clubs.

An independent regulator

After so many years in which this idea has been floated but resisted by the FA and leagues, independent regulation is coming to seem like a reform whose time has come. The sense has hardened that while the game is flourishing more than ever but harbouring structural faults it cannot any longer regulate itself. The FA should have this role as the governing body but it has been sorely weakened by Premier League resistance and become largely absent from the biggest questions of money and power.

An independent regulator could work by formally holding the game to abiding by its reformed structures, including the more equal sharing of money – and to agreed standards on fighting racism and other fundamental issues. These could also include the game’s “consumer” issues, including making tickets and televised matches more affordable after the years of hyper-inflated prices.

It may seem far-fetched that a Conservative government could consider regulation in this way, but Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, recognised this week that football is a part of national heritage that needs protecting. Inadvertently, the richest clubs, with their extreme actions, have spectacularly made the case for this themselves.

 

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