The regulation will not be compromised
Reform of English football governance is proceeding slowly, too slowly perhaps, but it is important to recognise the gains that are being made.
Change is supposed to come in a flurry of excitement and noise, and when it doesn’t people either don’t notice or harbour suspicion about whether it really is change. That’s certainly the case with plans to reform football governance.
The DCMS recently published the results of its consultation into the proposals tabled in the White Paper A sustainable future, reforming club football governance. It’s all pretty steady as-you-go stuff, which adds to the scepticism about whether anything is really going to change. But it’s important to recognise progress when it happens. And progress there is.
One of the key sentences in the latest document comes in Sports Minister Stuart Andrew’s introduction. “Our proposals will see the introduction of a new independent regulator for English football clubs.” That is significant. Football, and especially the Premier League, has fought for years to avoid independent regulation, and even now some die-hard elements are still pushing for the regulator they never wanted anyway to be housed within an existing football institution.
That commitment to independence is reiterated in the body of the report. Here is the wording.
“The government agrees that independence is key to ensuring integrity and impartiality in decision-making. This is why:
i) we are working to ensure that independence, particularly operational independence, is built into legislation around regulatory design and governance structures; and
ii) we are minded to set up a new body to house the Regulator.”
Getting that commitment down in public makes it more difficult to back away from it in future without significant reputational damage. Politicians calculate the odds of success before making public commitments, so the willingness to set out such a clear position on paper suggests that football will, indeed, be getting an independent regulator.
The word is that the Premier League, the last body to concede that independent regulation was going to happen, is not happy with the report. That’s a good sign for those of us who want proper reform, and another indication that the regulator will be genuinely independent.
Again, it is useful to look at the actual words in the report to understand the direction of travel. “Recent industry-led reform is not sufficient to deliver long-term financial sustainability. This is because, as set out in the white paper, the industry does not have the incentives and the governance structures to guarantee the necessary behavioural and structural changes over the longer term, and government pressure is not a lasting solution to these issues.”
There’s going to be an independent regulator.
That is a significant victory, a point I want to emphasise because some of the initial media reaction to the report presented it as a retreat. Sky, for example, reported that what was set down signalled a retreat on sporting sanctions and so Manchester City, for example, were off the hook. Sporting sanctions were never proposed in the White Paper, so they can’t have been retreated from.
Much of the reporting on this whole subject has betrayed an inability, or unwillingness, to understand the detail. That not only fails to recognise what is being achieved, it also undermines confidence in the possibility of change. Which strengthens those who want no change.
I understand the problems. Governance issues are not as sexy as 35-yard free-kicks or transfer gossip or even formations. The pace of change is very slow and this government, especially, does not inspire faith in its ability to get things done properly. But it’s important to get to grips with the detail and not let generalities obscure them.
The intention of the push to reform football that has manifested itself in the White Paper was to improve the dull but vital stuff that will give clubs a better chance of not being run into the ground, and fans a better chance of knowing who owns their clubs and how to influence them. The word sustainable is in the White Paper’s title because one of the game’s overarching problems is the built-in incentive to risk deploying a model that is unsustainable in the long-term in order to get success in the short-term. Or, put more simply, spend beyond your means to get into the Premier League and then hope you stay there. The figures quoted in the report are alarming, but are simply a restatement of what has been staring us all in the face.
Sustainability in governance should also mean an end to the opacity that means that, at too many clubs, the simple question of ‘who owns my club?’ is so hard to answer. If you recognise, as the White Paper and the latest report do, that our football clubs are unique assets with links to community and history, then disguising their true ownership behind shell companies and offshore vehicles and all manner of financial instruments should be prevented.
There are, of course, many more problems in football. But creating a system in which, just like in the real world of business, there are checks and balances in place to ensure the health of the whole industry provides a better foundation from which to deal with them. And that’s probably something understood more keenly by fans of clubs that have gone, or come close to going, out of business than to those at clubs where there are, albeit justifiable, criticisms of strategy and direction.
The proposals now need to be judged on what they are more than what they are not. I’ve said before there was more I would like to have seen in the proposals, especially around supporter input at board level and the embedding of INEDs to redress the power imbalance in boardrooms. But there wasn’t unity of thought among supporters, never mind government, about that and it didn’t happen. Fan engagement is the weakest part of the document, but that hasn’t stopped the Premier League watering it down even more with its lowest-common-denominator Fan Engagement Standard. It’s an area that will need returning to once the basic frameworks of better governance are established, because genuine involvement of all stakeholders is inseparable from good governance.
The report clearly sets down the independent regulator’s strategic purpose as “to ensure that English football is sustainable and resilient for the benefit of fans and the local communities football clubs serve”. To support this objective, it will have a duty to ensure;
• club sustainability;
• systemic sustainability;
• cultural heritage.
And it would have secondary duties to have regard to domestic competition, international competitiveness and investment.
There was worry expressed in some quarters that the report indicated some rowing back on one of the key commitments around heritage issues, that fan consent would be required for a club to move its stadium. The report states that clubs should “seek the regulator’s approval for any sale or relocation of the stadium” and goes on to say, “This would primarily be on the basis of financial considerations, with a remit to consider the implications for club heritage and the views of fans”.
The enforced move of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes makes this issue a particularly charged one, as financial considerations were cited as the primary reasons behind approval of the move. But legal and governance figures close to the debate don’t see the current proposal as one that leaves the door open to the kind of controversial move that was inflicted on supporters of Wimbledon FC. They see a financial case as being a necessary but not sufficient condition of approval for any such move, with other factors specified in the original White Paper, and not changed by anything written in the latest report, requiring consideration. So Everton’s move to its new stadium would be approved, but Wimbledon to Milton Keynes would not, they say.
Unexciting it may be, but the report does clearly set down the beginnings of what the regulatory framework will look like. It should be read by anyone who wants to venture an opinion, although anyone who wants to pass judgment on the proposals without reading the detail can probably get a column accepted in The Times.
There is, of course, still a long way to go. There will be trench warfare, for example over the scope of the regulator, as the Premier League, in particular, seeks to limit the scope of the regulator to minimise the effect of its independence. Putting as much as possible beyond the scope of the regulator is probably now the Premier League’s primary objective.
I’m also aware a regulator isn’t the solution to everything, something that anyone with knowledge of the finance, water, gas, electricity or communications industry will tell you. I’m also aware that virtually no one will argue that a regulator should not exist in any of those industries.
It’s nice to think that change could be simple and clean cut, with victory easily defined and claimed. Life rarely works out like that and the proof in football’s case will be in what happens long term.
One of the results of the publication of the White Paper is the establishment of Fan Advisory Boards at Premier League clubs. Overall this is a good thing but, as ever, the devil is in the detail, with structures ranging from quite close to the spirit of the fan-led review (Liverpool FC) to quite far from the spirit of the fan-led review (Tottenham Hotspur FC). Fans are going to have to monitor how these bodies work, or not, and then be prepared to refer them to the regulator if necessary.
To do so, they need to understand what they are, and there are signs that the clarity needed is not there. That isn’t entirely surprising, as the intricacies of governance present volunteers who have other responsibilities with a tough challenge. But it’s something that needs to be got to grips with.
Fan advisory boards are designed to be part of the governance structure of a football club. They are not independent bodies, campaigning groups or a substitute for independent, campaigning fan organisations. In the absence of full, formal shadow boards and mandatory fan directors, they are the closest we have to direct supporter involvement at board level, where it matters.
Having a fan advisory board is an improvement on the kind of grace and favour relationship that existed at too many clubs. Directors viewed agreeing to speak with the fans as granting a favour, perfected the line “we’ve heard what you have to say but we’re going to do what we always intended anyway”, and refused to talk when the fans said something they didn’t like. So a more formal structure, underpinned by the rebalancing of power a statutory framework brings, was clearly needed.
Working with other organised fan groups and looser constituencies such as season ticket holders and club members, a fan advisory board is intended to provide the link between the broad supporter base and the structural running of the club, one of the checks and balances required if reform of the game is to be genuine.
They should more accurately be called Supporter or Shadow Boards – advisory was preferred by those at the clubs who wanted to continue to listen to what fans had to say but do what they always intended to do anyway. But it’s the remit of these boards, rather than what they are called, that is important.
What should be clear is that each fan advisory board is part of the structure of its club, a part of the governance structure. But that doesn’t seem to be clear. A motion submitted to the FSA’s national conference this year called for fan advisory boards to be given affiliate status at the organisation. (An affiliate group is described on the FSA website as one that has “a democratic structure and constitution”.)
This seems to me to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what a fan advisory board is. It is one that potentially pits FABs against independent fan organisations such as Supporters’ Trusts, and which risks undermining the governance gains FABs offer. Why would any company want to give a body that was a member of a separate organisation access to its decisionmaking process? And why, to home in one one specific example, would the FSA want to potentially give one of the executive directors of Tottenham Hotspur – who is, wrongly in my opinion, a co-chair of that club’s FAB – a vote at its national conference?
If the proposal seeks to provide help and support for fan reps who take on the tough job of being a fan rep on a fan advisory board, then the way to do this is for the FSA to provide training – something that could be resourced with part of the levy that will be raised to fund the regulator.
The proposal was remitted to be discussed by the FSA Board, and so it will be interesting to see the minutes when they are published. Hopefully some clarity will be brought to bear.