A New Independent Regulator to Protect the Forgotten Value of English Football/Soccer
This week saw the UK Parliament in London meet to approve and finalise a white paper proposing the formation of an independent regulator for English football following a fan-led review. The English FA has approved of the intentions and strategy of the implementation of such a party. Many top ministers and advisers have commented on the benefits that the regulator will bring and advocate for it as a necessary amendment to protect the most important principles and history of English football.
In this blog we will endeavour to answer some important questions around the independent regulator and to provide a concise summary which explains everything you need to know including, why it is supposedly needed, what it will actually look like and explore the possible ramifications and consequences it will have for the rest of European football.
Why is an independent regulator needed?
Since the inception of the English Premier League in 1992, 54 clubs have been put into administration, some of which were unable to be saved and eventually folded completely. Most recently, significant clubs such as Derby County, Bury, and Macclesfield have faced particularly difficult periods and the latter two have had to completely reform. They are not alone, either. During the COVID-19 period, clubs in the Premier League and Championship (second tier) recorded a combined net debt of almost £6billion in the 2020/21 season, several teams failed to pay player and staff wages on time and many well-known clubs had a sense of vulnerability about them in a volatile financial landscape. The high numbers of administration amongst EFL clubs has often been attributed to financial mismanagement and a lack of careful commandeering of the clubs by owners, who are accused of mishandling the responsibilities they hold in caring for the club.
It is a shared feeling amongst the football fan population in the UK that there has been a growing disconnect between the clubs and the fans. Most people would agree that without the fans, football anywhere in the world would be nothing and hence, the government has decided to consider an independent regulator to shift the power to the fans to some extent.
The fan-led review into the state of English football was conducted last year and this further emphasised the ill-feeling towards the direction in which the beautiful game was moving. Modern football in England is said to prioritise the commercialisation of the sport, attracting incredibly wealthy investors to own clubs and sponsors to bring more money into the game. Clubs have become more ‘commodities’ rather than integral parts of local communities.
Part of the reason for the fan-led review was the European Super League controversy which involved some of the biggest clubs in England; Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur were all a part of the first plans for the ESL. This heightened fears that the fundamental foundations of English football were under threat and it took a bold and widespread protest from fans across the country to condemn the proposal. The fans objected heavily to the idea and it was enough for the owners of these clubs to reverse their decision of joining the ESL but it was an early warning sign that indicated that something was needed to protect English football from wider dangers.
Importantly, it is not just the financial situation of the clubs and the competitions they play in that are said to have become alienated from the fans, there are other key components and decisions that makeup a club that now seem to be disconnected from the fans and drastic changes can be made arbitrarily. This includes things like changing the names of the club, their crest and their kit colours; a further danger to the historic traditions of English clubs.
What will the regulator actually do?
There are many objectives that the independent regulator will aim to fulfil. Arguably the most important of these is to bring some extent of power back to the fans and to reposition them as the core and heartbeat of their local football clubs that they dedicate their own time, money and emotion to. In doing this, the regulator aims to safeguard clubs from the risk of administration.
The first part of this change to the UK football landscape is to remodel the ‘directors and owners’ proper persons test’. A form of this test is already in place that ensures any owners and club directors do not have a criminal record, any history of bankruptcy nor any illegal involvement in other areas of football. However, the current test is very surface-level and doesn’t go into any kind of extensive depth in scrutinising prospective club owners and directors. The independent regulator is going to change this. Moving forward, the Directors and Owners test will carry out far stronger due diligence on the source of wealth of individuals that are looking to run an English football club and will require them to not only demonstrate robust financial stability and planning but they will also have to present sound business models for the club in question. This will be seen as a ‘licensing system’ for owners and directors in order for them to qualify to take over a club.
If the individual is approved as a new owner or director of the club, the independent regulator will also implement measures to ensure that the power they are granted over the club avoids disconnecting the fans. Fans will be given their own voice in the strategic running of their club. For example, it has already been stated that one area in which fans will be properly consulted is in the sale and relocation of club stadiums which will then have to be further approved by the independent regulator. The hope is that this will reduce the sense of commodification and overcommercialisation of clubs and highlight their cultural value whilst reinforcing their longstanding heritage within the English football pyramid.
The independent regulator is also making additional considerations concerning the VISA system for English football and the attractiveness to global talents. This will be devised and amended with a priority on developing and supporting the improvement of young domestic players at the forefront.
What does this mean for the rest of Europe?
The integrity of English football competition was brought into question when several major clubs agreed to be a part of the new plans for an exclusive and closed European Super League. Hence, one of the core principles being advocated as part of the Independent Regulator’s plans for the future is that they will possess the ability to block clubs from joining any further attempts to create a European super League or any equivalent projects.
This is significant not just for the protection of English football but it also has knock-on ramifications and consequences for other major European leagues, clubs and football associations. Without some of the biggest, most decorated and global clubs in football such as Manchester United and Liverpool, any form of European breakaway league will struggle to ever establish itself. The independent regulator prohibiting these clubs even considering joining such a league protects English football and perhaps even European football leagues who may follow suit.
To summarise, it remains to be seen what impact an independent will have on the English football landscape. Fans losing touch with their beloved club is a valid concern in the modern football climate and the government believes that redistributing power away from owners will reconnect fans with their local community football clubs and allow them to have an adequate voice in its future which may be integral to safeguarding the English football pyramid.