Football: the people's game?
Rarely have I been to an event attended by so many MPs as the Supporters Direct meeting in Westminster yesterday. And rarely have those MPs agreed so much with one another, across party lines. The event was to mark the launch of two reports, both of which argue for fans to be given a proper stake in the running of football clubs.
It was impossible to leave the event without the impression that English football is currently a poorly run game. Damian Collins MP spoke lucidly about his Football Financial Transparency Bill, which is currently before the House of Commons. Collins wants to change the Football Creditors rule, which ensures that when clubs go into administration, they must pay debts to footballers and other clubs in full before other creditors.
This was the arrangement that saw (millionaire) footballers and other clubs receive hundreds of thousands of pounds when Leeds United went into administration, while other creditors received 1p in the pound, meaning the West Yorkshire Ambulance Service only received a fraction of the £8,997 they were owed. As Collins pointed out, that isn’t just morally troubling, it sets no incentive for clubs to exercise due diligence on one another when they buy and sell players. The system isn’t set up to police itself.
Collins also cited Leeds United to support his second point, that clubs need to be more open about their ownership structure – Leeds fans did not even knew who owned Leeds United for an extended period, with information emerging gradually through a Jersey court case. This lack of transparency is best understood as part of a wider problem – the way in which fans so rarely have a voice in the decisions that affect them.
More than any other industry I can think of, football is ripe for taking its ‘customers’ for granted. I have supported Arsenal since I was five – I am not going to switch clubs like I switch coffee shops or supermarkets. The idea that clubs will automatically act in the best interests of fans just doesn’t stack up.
As the game globalises, there is a growing incentive for clubs to disregard the local areas and traditions that they are part of. So of course the Tottenham Hotspur owners wanted to move out of the area that they have been based in for more than a century, because it would help increase revenue. And of course the people running the Cardiff City FC marketing department saw nothing wrong with the ‘Bluebirds’, playing in red this season as part of a ‘whimsical’ rebrand that disregarded a century of heritage.
There are alternatives. In Germany for example, where clubs make bigger profits and invest more in developing young players, fans own at least 51 per cent of most clubs, ensuring that they are involved in decisions about priorities and strategy for their clubs.
In the UK we have some of these examples – Penny Mordaunt MP spoke passionately about the campaign she has been part of to help Portsmouth fans buy out their club – but these are exceptions rather than the rule. Often, change is running in the other direction: Manchester United fans, for example, were in the position where they could be forced to sell shares to new owners that many of them didn’t want.
Clive Efford MP, the Shadow Minister for Sport, addressed the meeting and called for radicalism to tame the influence of ‘predatory capitalist’ owners. Penny Mordaunt MP described the Portsmouth FC campaign as a ‘Big Society’ initiative. Politically, the fascinating thing is that this where the two agendas meet in the middle: where notions of ‘corporate social responsibility’ become ingrained in the way businesses work through dispersing power and even ownership more widely.
This doesn’t mean there are no hard decisions to be made– about the wages of players, the cost of tickets, or whether people can sit or stand at games – but it does at least mean that all sides at least have to listen to one another and work out a compromise. That is something worth aiming for – and not just in football. Here’s hoping the ‘people’s game’ is at the vanguard.