As both the election campaign and another football season draws to what promises to be an exciting climax, how would the “beautiful game” be affected by a change in government? Whilst the Blues of Chelsea have all but pipped the Reds of Arsenal and Manchester United to the Premier League title, the various political parties are facing off to win the adoration of not just their own followers but also those that are still undecided on who they are going to back. Will either side keep to its promises and will the public and ultimately the courts, acting as referee, be able to make a clear decision as to which policies will prevail.
The most significant proposal that would have a direct impact on football has come from the Labour Party. In their recent manifesto Labour promised that, if elected, they would introduce new legislation to:
- enable accredited supporters trusts to appoint and remove at least two of the Directors of a football club and to purchase shares when the club changes hands; and
- ensure that the Premier League delivers on its promise to invest five per cent of its domestic and international television rights income into funding the grassroots.
The Liberal Democrats have also expressed an interest in giving “football fans a greater say in how their clubs are run by encouraging the reform of football governance rules”.
Whilst the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos contains no detailed wording of the legislation required, requiring private companies to cede control of some of their board positions would be an unprecedented step in both a sporting and business context, as well as having its own legal hurdles to overcome.
Supporter control of football clubs is something that is already enshrined in other legal jurisdictions. In Germany, for example, there is the "50 + 1" rule which ensures the majority shareholding in the company which operates the football club lies in the hands of an accredited supporters’ trust rather than in the hands of external ‘investors’. 50% +1 is the minimum required level that must be retained by the supporters but, in theory, they can own anything up to 100% of the shares to the club. This prevents any unwanted commercial interests gaining control of the club. An example of this in illustration would be Germany’s most famous club Bayern Munich. Audi and Adidas each reportedly own a 9% stake, whilst the rest of the club is controlled by the supporters. Indeed, even the President of a Bundesliga club is accountable to and can be voted out by those supporters.
From recent campaigns in English football, most notably against Mike Ashley’s involvement at Newcastle United and the Glaziers’ in Manchester United, football fans have long bemoaned the lack of control they have over their beloved clubs. Unsurprisingly, The Football Supporters Federation have welcomed these proposals and suggested that such a move would ensure that fans are given a “voice in the boardroom” in respect of decisions relating to “ticket prices, ownership, diversity and safe standing”.
Further proposals have also been mooted that would force new buyers of clubs to offer at least 10% of the shares to the fans. However, if this were to be introduced, not only would this be difficult to police, it would also be subject to legal challenge on a variety of grounds and may ultimately have an impact on making English football a less attractive place for those with deep pockets to come to invest. This may mean that clubs will not have the same resources to attract the best players and entertain those fans.
Graham Shear, Partner and Head of the Sports Group at BLP says that “detailed legislation will be needed to put any of these types of policy into practice. Whilst in theory, increased fan engagement and participation is a good thing for a club to aim for, from a practical perspective it is going to be tough – especially as the Premier League and the FA, as Regulators, have their own regimes, which govern who can be involved in running football clubs.
Marcus Pearl, Partner and part of the Sports Group at BLP added “the fit and proper test has come under greater scrutiny in recent times, as fans have questioned whether their club’s owners deserve to have passed that test. However, the changes being proposed here would make it harder to ensure that the clubs are being operated by experienced individuals, who are ultimately responsible for the well-being of the playing and non-playing staff’s livelihoods”.
The last Labour government secured a commitment from the Premier League that 5% of all domestic TV income should be invested in the grassroots part of the game. Since then, revenues from the sale of TV rights have soared by over 160% but many critics have accused the Premier League of not doing enough to honour its obligations to ensure the next generation of players and the grassroots of the game are given sufficient backing.
Whilst the international TV rights are yet to be finalised for the screening of Premier League matches for the period 2016 to 2019, if elected, Labour plan to channel 5% of this income (on top of the domestic contribution) into the game which they say could unlock £400 million of extra funding.
Henry Bain, part of the Sports Group at BLP says that “once again any government will struggle to implement statutory changes as to how revenues are split. Clubs would argue that their support for community projects is second to none. Any changes that would leave the clubs out of pocket, may have unintended consequences, such as a reduction in the quality of playing staff that can be attracted and possibly even higher ticket prices for fans.”
The Conservatives have also been keen to get on the sporting act and their manifesto contains a commitment to “support new sports in the UK, in particular through greater links with the US National Football League”, as well as a commitment to introduce more community pitches for sport. The Conservatives have also been keen to point out their support for the UK holding major sporting events, such as the Tour de France and the Champions League Final, as a catalyst for boosting the economy, as well as peoples’ interests in staying healthy.
Whilst many people appear to be keen for more of a say in how their clubs are run and how the vast sums of money in the game are spent, it remains to be seen how any changes would be made especially as attempts to control how private companies run their businesses or indeed, how much TV revenue should be distributed, may end up coming under scrutiny in the courts and ultimately costing the fans more through higher ticket prices. One thing is for certain, supporters have shown their willingness to mobilise, boycott and demonstrate in numbers and club owners know that they face competition on and off the field to keep their fans happy.