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Saving the beautiful game – manifesto for change

21/10/2020

At a glance

We are delighted to announce that Corporate Partner Greg Scott has been involved in a campaign launched Thursday 15th October to fundamentally overhaul the governance of football in England. Greg has been involved in a number of sports matters throughout his career and is proud to have joined the team in this important initiative. For too long the inequality within football has failed the people who matter most; the game’s loyal fans. A new regulator would put supporters back at the heart of #OurBeautifulGame and reform it for the better. Read more from Greg below.

Last Thursday 15th October saw the launch of a campaign, which I am privileged to have been involved in, to fundamentally overhaul the governance of football in England. Our manifesto (www.ourbeautifulgame.co.uk), which, among other things, calls for the creation of a genuinely independent regulator to sit atop football’s pyramid and to create a principled and transparent licencing regime, will, I hope, make a meaningful and lasting contribution to the debate which is currently raging about how best to protect the football  ecosystem in this country. Whilst our campaign does not seek to address the disastrous consequences (particularly for lower league clubs) of recent COVID restrictions, the piecemeal and often fractious response to this crisis from various stakeholders and the fact that some of the biggest clubs felt able to break ranks with their own self-serving proposals, only emphasises the need for football in this country to speak with one voice.

When my client, David Bernstein, approached me back in May of this year, to become involved in this campaign, I had no idea where this would lead. As a lifelong Gooner and as a corporate lawyer who has acted for and sold Premiership clubs, I was most definitely interested. I had even been through the Premier League’s new owner approvals process when acting on the sale of West Bromwich Albion in 2016 but I must confess that I had little understanding of the way in which football was governed by the FA and the various Leagues or the degree to which the huge revenues being generated at the top level were leading to conflicts of interest and an inflationary spiral throughout the league hierarchy. My interest was further piqued when David (a man who knows a thing or three about football, having been Chairman of Man City, Wembley Stadium and the FA!) told me who else he planned to bring on board. As a workaday lawyer, I felt slightly humbled to be sharing a platform with so many over-achievers from the world of sport, politics (both local and national), finance and media. The fact that we were able to start with the germ of an idea, to give football a brighter, sustainable future and mould that into the detailed proposals which we have now developed, is testament to David’s passion for the cause and his leadership skills.

So why is change needed, I hear you ask? Isn’t football awash with money anyway? Well, yes…and no. The Premier League had been very adroit at securing increasingly eye watering sums for its constituent members who spend it on similarly eye watering sums for new players. But when you realise that some lower league clubs have slipped into insolvency for debts that are less than the weekly wages of just one top Premier League player, you begin to appreciate the vast discrepancies in wealth. COVID has of course exacerbated this vast gap in wealth – lower league clubs rely on gate receipts for a far higher proportion of their overall revenues – but COVID didn’t cause it – the distress was already growing and claiming casualties. Moreover, as our report shows, relatively little of the wealth generated by the Premier League trickles down to lower leagues and a large proportion of what does is in the form of parachute payments to newly relegated clubs, creating a very un-level playing field in the championship and forcing other Championship clubs to spend unsustainable amounts on player wages in an effort to keep up.

Ok, you say (grudgingly) but why should football be a special case? Don’t all businesses have to stand on their own two feet? In what other sector do bigger businesses give money to their smaller competitors? To answer this, we have to recognise that football clubs are more than just businesses. They are community hubs, often, they are the community hub, a focus for local pride, achievement and identity; pioneers of community-based charitable initiatives. We also need to see football as an ecosystem – cut the roots and the tree withers and dies. We seek a fairer system of governance which, whilst recognising and supporting the success of the Premier League and its “best of breed” clubs, allows long-term decisions to be made to support the game at the grass roots, women’s football and football for the disabled whilst also prioritising BAME participation in the boardroom and at managerial level as well as on the pitch. Also, how about giving long-suffering fans a little more respect and engagement with the clubs that they so passionately support.

The status quo cannot continue – if we do nothing, we will end up with a pay-per-view super league at the top and financial ruin for a great many other clubs. The recent “Project Big Picture” proposals from Liverpool and Manchester United exposed the direction of travel if someone doesn’t get a grip. The FA has failed to significantly reform despite several decades of political pressure to do so and has been backed into a corner by the “soft power” of the Premier League.

So what do we propose and hope to achieve? We will campaign for a Private Members’ Bill in Parliament to enact legislation for a new, independent regulator. Who runs that regulator and the detailed principles to which it will be beholden, are a matter for Parliament but we hope that this will share revenues according to principles which everyone can sign up to as being for the good of the game, long-term. We hope and expect that the regulator will:

  • Decide on a fair, transparent and accountable basis for distributing funds to the wider game, funded by a levy on the Premier League;
  • Be independent of the current structure of the game;
  • Set-up a comprehensive licencing system for the professional game;
  • Investigate and seek to remedy current causes of financial stress such as parachute payments;
  • Implement governance reforms at the FA to reflect the diversity of English football today and recognise the value that fully engaged supporters can bring to the game.

If you would like to be part of the debate, I would love to hear your views.

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