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Football finance expert at our Management School, Kieran Maguire, shares his thoughts on the White Paper ‘A sustainable future – reforming club football governance’ published on Thursday 23 February:
In August 2019 Bury Football Club, founded in 1885, twice winners of the FA Cup, semi-finalists of the League Cup, were expelled from the English Football League (‘EFL’) by fellow members of the ‘football family’ in a vote following financial concerns about the club.
The club had been acquired from owner Stewart Day the previous December for £1 by businessman Steve Dale, who soon thereafter stopped paying many suppliers, staff and tax authorities. Bury Football Club have not played a football match since being expelled and went into administration in November 2020. Both Day and Dale were declared bankrupt in December 2022.
As a trading company, the loss of jobs and economic impact of Bury’s demise was noticeable but modest. As a local cultural asset, the loss of Bury in terms of identity, history and heritage was far greater. A football club to a community is far greater than 90 minutes entertainment on a Saturday afternoon. It is shared joy, despair and memories linking families, friends and acquaintances, and this was the greatest loss for fans.
The response to Bury’s destruction was far greater than would be normally associated with a company with a £4 million a year turnover. Intense media and political commentary followed, and fans of other clubs wondered how close were their beloved football institutions to being ‘the next Bury’.
During Covid there were attempts to concentrate power, decision making and money in the hands of a small group of clubs domestically via Project Big Picture, and a similar exercise on an international basis with the European Super League. Both these creations were relatively quickly jettisoned following opposition from the majority of clubs, owners and fans, but were indicative of a disconnect between owners of a few clubs, wanting a de-risked and profitable investment, and the remainder of the game.
The UK Government therefore tasked former sports minister Tracey Crouch MP to head a fan led review into football governance. The recommendations of the report have formed the basis of a White Paper that has this week been confirmed by the Secretary for State for Culture, Media and Sport Lucy Frazer.
The main consequence for the football industry, should the White Paper become legislation, is the creation of an Independent Regulator for football. The regulator has been recommended due to failures of the present system of self-regulation, which has failed to address some of the structural, financial and governance issues within the industry.
The regulator would be in charge of a licencing system, with clubs having to abide by the rules in order to retain their licence.
There is a common misconception that at the elite level of the game it is very profitable. However, the Premier League consists of owners with a variety of objectives. Some club owners are financially/profit orientated, but others, especially those clubs connected to ultra high net worth individuals and sovereign wealth funds, targeting on field success instead.
The 2021 UEFA Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester City involved the two clubs with the biggest financial losses in Premier League history, totalling £1.6 billion between them.
The Premier League is a spectacular success, with revenues increasing by 2,600% since its inception in 1992. This has however created significant revenue gaps, between clubs in the same division (the ‘Big Six’ earn on average £300m a year more than the other clubs in the Premier League) and between divisions, the side finishing bottom of the Premier League earns over £90m more in broadcast income than the club that wins the Championship.
In the EFL itself there are also gaps, with clubs in the second tier Championship taking 80% of the broadcast deal, leaving the other two divisions with relatively little.
Dictating a solution to these issues is an area the proposed regulator wants to avoid, and has encouraged the Premier League and EFL to reach an agreement, but there has been little progress to date. If negotiation and then arbitration fail to reach a solution, expect a game theory based solution, where both parties submit their proposed distribution models and the regulator chooses the one it considers to be the best.
Rogue owners need to be discouraged, but that should not be at the cost of discouraging investment from a variety of sources, even from those with differing objectives, financial or sporting success based.
The White Paper proposals will have a slightly more stringent Owners and Directors Test than presently exists, but this will not involve any issues relating to moral, ethical or cultural concerns, unless the source of the potential owner’s wealth is called into question.
Owners will not be able to sign up their club to a new competition, such as Super League, without the approval of the regulator. They could of course choose to resign from the Premier League and do so, but this is highly unlikely in practice given the success of the domestic game.
Football fans have a fierce sense of identity to their clubs. The White Paper proposals include better relations between clubs and fans, with clubs perhaps adopting the ‘Golden Share’ model presently seen at clubs such as Brentford. This would give fans a veto power over issues such as stadium moves, home shirt colour, club badge and so on which are part of the history and heritage of individual clubs. Worries that Liverpool might be playing in green and purple stripes at Anfield in the future can therefore be laid to rest.
Download Kieran’s The Price of Football podcast on Apple and Android devices at: http://priceoffootball.com/podcast/
Follow Kieran on twitter @KieranMaguire
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