Regulation of English football could improve global game

28 May 2021 5 min. read
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Calls for the introduction of independent football regulation in England continue to grow in the wake of the failed European Super League launched by the sport’s richest clubs. A new whitepaper has explored which best practices such a watchdog might learn from, as well as the positive impacts it could have on the global game.

Football has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Having been exported to every corner of the world by the British working class, the beautiful game has become increasingly corporatised over the last century, as capital came to realise it had immense promise as a business arena.

Fans travelling to watch their team contest a Champions League final can now face paying the equivalent of four years of rent for the privilege, while the mass televisual billboard the spectacle of elite sport provides means that FIFA was able to cash in on broadcast rights for the 2018 World Cup, to the tune of $3 billion.

Regulation of English football could improve global game

At the same time, the immense wealth that the top level of football has been exposed to has also had a notable impact on how it functions as a ‘meritocracy.’ With billionaire owners now treating football clubs as expensive play-things, opportunities to leverage huge amounts of debt for private equity funds, or as a means to clean up ugly public reputations, football ownership has long been a bone of contention among fans and politicians alike.

The situation reached fever pitch earlier in 2021, however, with the shock announcement that Europe’s wealthiest teams intended to form a breakaway tournament to rival Uefa’s Champions League.

The plan for the so-called European Super League involved all of the Premier League‘s supposed ‘Big Six’ – even as two of them struggled to ignominious seventh and eighth-place finishes – prompting outrage from fans of those clubs, and the rest of the English footballing pyramid. The proposals would have allowed football’s wealthiest teams to play continental football without having to qualify through their performance in their domestic leagues, while funnelling huge piles of participatory pay into their organisations, further cementing the gap between the sport’s haves and have-nots.

The now-defunct fell apart as swiftly as it was formed due to the ire this provoked, but while the European Super League now seems to be dead in the water, its short life has prompted a number of conversations about the long-term governance of football in England. Alongside renewed efforts to oust controversial majority owners with protests having been held at the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal, a growing number of fans, pundits and political figures have joined the clamour for more stringent industrial regulation.

In May, for example, Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Lineker were among the names to have joined forces alongside several fan groups, penning an open letter to the government calling for independent regulation to be brought into football. Meanwhile, former Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, has already launched a review into ownership of football clubs in England.

Now, professional services firm Campbell Tickell has published a set of recommendations for how regulation might help English football advance in practice. Penned by two Campbell Tickell Partners – Spurs-supporting Greg Campbell, and Liverpool-supporting Radojka Miljevic – the research takes into account the recommended best practice of relevant bodies such as the OECD and the Financial Conduct Authority, before setting out a number of key principles they believed would be required for independent regulation to operate effectively.

Statutory powers

The document stated, “In our view, self-regulation in English football has not worked. We have experienced too many continuing examples of inadequate and poor practice, to the detriment of the sport, and to the detriment of individual clubs – especially those in the lower divisions – the players and staff, and above all the fan base and local communities. Fans commit to support their clubs on a continuing, long-term basis. They deserve better… Our contention is that independent regulation is equally appropriate in football... Our argument would be that a regulator should have a purview over the Premier League and the Football League, the Women’s Super League and the Women’s Championship.”

Among other recommendations, such as independence to avoid conflict of interest, Campbell Tickell argued that such an entity would need to be a statutory body in order to have sufficient impact and agility. This would mean it would have effective powers of sanction and intervention, and the ability to make binding industrial laws. Meanwhile, it would also need authority and funding sufficient to provide for the appointment of an Executive Team and support staff, and specialist advisors, such as legal advisors, to take forward the work of the regulatory authority.

With regards to which areas the regulator should adopt a set of standards, the document said it should look to govern the behaviour and operations of clubs pertaining to a number of different criteria. These ranged from health and safety and complaints handling to hot potatoes such as transfer fees, the role of players’ agents, governance, financial viability and club ownership.

The paper noted that it is presently “hard to find a sporting or other relevant sector that compares directly with football,” if only because of the financial scale of the industry in the UK, as well as in Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Those countries largely also have self-regulatory models in place.

While German football is distinct in this regard due to its ‘50+1’ rule, which prevents commercial investors from owning more than 49% of a club, and enables clubs and fans to hold a majority of their own voting rights, this is still distinct from an independent regulator. This is something which means England could be a leader internationally, acting as “a pathfinder and a catalyst for positive change in other countries too,” if it were to implement independent regulation.

More details? Download the full report 'English football regulation: The problem and the potential solution'.