| CHAPTER 2.
The New Commercialism
In order to see how English football has changed and produced such extreme inequalities since 1992, it is necessary to consider the system which was in place previously. Football started in this country, and its development has generally been a process of evolution, with little overall planning. But from the beginning football always considered itself to have a sporting ethos and to aim to play a beneficial role in society. Even as it became professionalised, the game’s governing bodies saw it as their duty to maintain the underlying sporting ethic. The league structure was ordered to maintain some equality between big and small clubs, and the clubs themselves were subject to FA regulations to protect their sporting character and prevent them being treated purely as businesses to make profits for shareholders.
In 1992 the First Division was allowed to break away from the rest of the Football League, with the backing of the Football Association. This constituted a betrayal of a century of the traditional structure, and it was done on the threshold of an unprecedentedly huge TV deal for football. The Premier League did that deal and shared very little of the £305 million which flowed from it. The FA allowed its own rules to be broken to allow flotation, and so the major shareholders, chairmen and a few others, made a fortune on shares bought cheaply under the previous structure.
No other regulation was put in place, except the Taylor Report injunction to build all-seater stadia, for which the clubs were given a subsidy of public money. The top clubs have raised their prices more than 300 per cent since then and indulged in many more money-making activities. In 1997 a four-year TV deal was done worth £670 million, still with only 20 Premiership clubs. The Football League clubs have done their own deals, and there is some redistribution from the Premier League, ring-fenced for ground improvements and for the setting up of academies. But it is utterly insufficient. Generally the game suffers from huge inequality and, despite the full houses which attend Premier League matches, many supporters who came to football in the previous era have been disenfranchised by the rising prices and exploitative culture at their clubs.
It is instructive to understand that this is not mere opinion, but that the current ‘free market’ age constitutes a departure from football’s sense of itself throughout its previous history, in which FA and League strove to balance the needs of commercialism with the central spirit of the game.
Football originated in England. Its rules were developed in the public schools of the nineteenth century. It was played for pleasure, and encouraged by the ‘games ethic’ generation of headmasters who saw in it the social and moral benefits of ‘sportsmanship’, alongside its obvious provision of organised physical exercise. The Football Association was formed in 1863, its original purpose to unify the games being played in the various schools and universities under a single set of rules.
Football was taken out of the upper-class environment around the 1860s and 1870s, spread largely by university graduates. It was substantially promoted by churches and schools, who saw the game’s potential for encouraging physical health and some moral values in still rawly industrialised cities. The game rapidly became phenomenally popular. Clubs sprouted all over the country, in particular the North and Midlands, formed by people who wanted to play the game, or teachers, vicars, or businessmen who wanted to encourage it. Most relevantly in terms of the development of the professional game, the more prominent clubs began to attract huge crowds, which from the beginning appear to have been fiercely partisan.
The FA insisted from the beginning on the amateur ethos, believing that payment of players would corrupt the purity of the game. But competition between clubs, particularly in the North, led around the mid-1880s to regular illicit paying of players. In 1884 the big clubs threatened to break away from FA control if professionalism were not legalised. The following year the FA finally legitimised professionalism. It did so reluctantly, persuaded by the argument that it was now inevitable and if the FA persisted in the ban, professionalism would continue underground and become impossible to regulate or control. From the beginning, therefore, the governing body aimed to regulate commercialism to protect what it believed to be inherent sporting values.
Early professional football
Problems sustaining regular fixtures for football clubs, which now had wage bills to maintain, led to a proposal from William McGregor, chairman of Aston Villa, to form a league. The Football League, the first professional football league in the world, came into existence in 1888, with 12 clubs competing.
The FA remained the ‘governing body’ of football. It remained amateur in its ethos, responsible for every club and league in England and for upholding football’s rules. The Football League was registered with the FA, which set the regulatory framework.
Early regulation of football
From the beginning it was considered important to maintain equality in the Football League. The League’s policy was that it would be bad for the game if the big city clubs were to dominate purely because they could make more money through the gate. For almost a century, the rule was maintained that clubs shared gate receipts equally. Later there was also an overall levy: every club paid 4 per cent of its season’s gate money into a central pot and this was distributed equally to all clubs.
The maximum wage
The other measure aimed at maintaining equality between member clubs was the FA ’s imposition of a maximum wage on players. In retrospect this is generally accepted to have been an unjust and unwelcome product of England’s class system – a restriction by the upper-class FA on the rights of the working-class players – and it lasted until 1961.
Governance of member clubs
Following the onset of professionalism, and particularly when, soon after, the first enclosed football grounds began to be built, football clubs began to form themselves into limited companies. Before this, they were all membership clubs, usually run by committee.
Mostly the clubs formed limited companies as a defensive measure, to protect the members from becoming personally responsible for the expenses of the wage bill and the cost of building the grounds. Most football companies remained clubs in spirit, run by local burghers and businessmen, and were concerned purely with playing the game as successfully as possible. However, it is utterly mistaken to assume the culture was purely philanthropic. The popularity of the professional game attracted entrepreneurs who were interested in football as a commercial endeavour. Three examples illustrate this: Liverpool FC, Chelsea FC and Portsmouth FC were all set up as professional football companies, having had no previous tradition as sporting clubs, purely as commercial ventures for their owners.
It is crucial to understand this early era of football in order to throw light on our current era. Now, ‘market forces’ are causing gross inequality, with many lower division clubs threatened with extinction while Premiership plcs are coveted by some of the biggest corporations in the world. In the City, analysts talk approvingly of the inevitable ‘consolidation’ of the football ‘industry’. But had it not been for the FA and League’s sense that its game was to be different from normal commercial industries, this consolidation, effectively the dominance of only a few large professional clubs, would have happened a century ago.
As noted above, the League was concerned to redistribute money between the large and small clubs, and early this century the FA moved to protect the sporting character of the professional football clubs. The FA imposed rules which were inserted into professional club-company articles of association. The rules are still nominally in force today:
The FA Rule 34
Briefly, the FA ’s regulations were as follows:
1. Nobody could draw a salary for acting as a director of a football club. (This has been changed twice: in 1981 a single full-time director could be paid. Now there is no restriction on the number of directors who can be paid, but they must work at the club full-time.)
2. Nobody could derive major income from owning football company shares; the dividends were restricted to 5 per cent of the shares’ nominal face value.
3. A football club company was protected against asset stripping. If a club were wound up, any surplus assets had to be distributed to sporting benevolent funds or other local sporting institutions.
These rules – effectively a framework of corporate governance – were aimed at maintaining a spirit of public service, not profiteering, in the people who came to own shares and run the clubs. Rule 34 prevented a businessman from making money out of a football club either via salary or dividend. And he could not wind up a successful club because all surplus assets had to be distributed. These rules set the culture for the running of the clubs by local businessmen who, whatever personal benefits they derived from their involvement with the football club, could not treat it purely as a business endeavour.
The development of professional football
Professional football thrived, exploded in popularity, and by 1921 there were four divisions. The amateur FA and professional League had some practical administrative conflicts, but in general there was harmony between the two bodies for the decades until after the Second World War. Players unionised and had periodic conflicts with their stubborn governors.
With regard to the running of the clubs, broadly speaking, most were taken over by businessmen who presented their activity as a form of public service. Directors generally came to describe themselves as ‘custodians’, ‘putting something back into the town’, their job to hand the club in good health to the generations to come after them. This is still a common self-description at many lower division and non-league clubs.
In these days of football plcs run as investments for shareholders, such a culture might seem ideal. However, the ‘custodianship’ was often merely the public rationale for a self-serving group of businessmen, varying greatly in competence and concern for the game and its supporters. As clubs became communal focal points, directors enjoyed public profile, made contacts, received perks or even made money illegitimately out of them. It is arguable that the amateurishness, combined with the class system, created poorly run companies in which complacent owner-directors regarded supporters as a rabble and failed to provide for their safety, let alone comfort.
Yet it is worth making some general observations about the beneficial aspects of the ‘custodians’ culture. It has become commonplace, largely because of the Hillsborough disaster, to dismiss the whole way in which football was run pre-1990s, as shambolic. Of course, the failures which led to the disaster were shameful and inexcusable. However, it is false to place the current arrangements in direct comparison with those in place at the time of the disaster, and to draw the conclusion that current arrangements must be better because a disaster on such a scale is mercifully unlikely in the modern rebuilt grounds. There were several benefits of the old regulated system which have to be acknowledged.
It is no accident that football clubs survived and became magnets of loyalty to generations of supporters. Football clubs’ very survival springs from the fact that they were protected against being mere companies competing in a branch of the entertainment industry. The restrictions against profit-making helped keep the cost of watching football affordable to most working-class pockets. Entry was informally free for children even at the great grounds. This accessibility and popularity meant that football became a great binding force in popular culture very quickly. Support came to be passed down the generations and became a family (or father and son) experience.
The redistributive nature of the League (and the maximum wage) ensured the survival of 92 clubs – very few professional football clubs have gone out of business in over a century, despite variable quality of management for most of their histories. The lack of professionalism and often petty provincialism of the clubs would not be acceptable today, but nevertheless there was a public service ethos and culture in the running of the clubs, League and FA, which contributed to the game’s success and popularity and the survival of so huge a population of clubs.
The arrival of television and sponsorship revenue
Sponsorship and television made their first inroads into football in the ’60s. The big clubs were more attractive to the sponsors and TV companies, but the League’s structure and system of governance ensured that all income was treated as the League’s, and distributed equally throughout the 92 clubs. In 1965, the BBC paid £5,000 for the first regular highlights package on British television – Match of the Day. The money was redistributed equally, every club receiving little more than £50 each.
The money grew with the success of football on television, and with it came resentment from the big clubs at having to share it with the small. By the early ’80s, a new younger breed of chairmen began to drive to keep more of the money, particularly after 1981 when for the first time clubs were allowed to pay full-time directors. By 1983 threats were being made by the big clubs to form a breakaway league. Concessions were given by the small clubs, ceding more money and voting rights to the big clubs. First, the overall gate levy was reduced to 3 per cent, then the home clubs were allowed to keep the gate receipts.
In 1985 the so-called ‘Big Five’, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton and Arsenal made a serious threat to break away, which produced further concessions on the distribution of TV money. In 1988 the big clubs did what amounted to a private deal with ITV to see themselves shown almost exclusively on ITV. Nevertheless, the League held on to its four-division, 92-club structure and a proportion of the TV money was distributed to all clubs. The clubs, companies in structure, still did not charge high prices to watch football, which remained widely accessible as a live experience. People continued to invest their emotions and loyalties in these institutions, which were clubs in a more general cultural sense. Even now most people refer to them as clubs, very rarely as companies, or plcs, which most of them are.
‘The new commercialism’: a chronology
The development of English football into its current state of inequality, money-making at the top and poverty below, was beginning with the breakaway talk of the early and mid-’80s. The chronology of how the breakaway finally came about begins at a terrible and sobering point: the Hillsborough disaster.
The Hillsborough disaster
At Hillsborough in 1989, 96 Liverpool supporters were killed, crushed to death, at the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.
The Taylor Report
Lord Justice Taylor was appointed to conduct an official inquiry into the disaster. He produced two reports. The first, the Interim Report, identified the particular causes of the disaster, which he found, in summary, to be: an appalling record of safety management by Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, a failure by the local council in its safety regulatory duties and mismanagement of the crowd on the day by the South Yorkshire Police.
It is worth reflecting briefly on the disaster within the terms of this book. Football’s corporate governance is seen at its wretched worst in the failures which led to the disaster itself. The football industry now is seen in a barely improved light by the bereaved families. They perceive it to continue to be run out of similar self-interest, mostly by the same people who were in charge of football then. Sheffield Wednesday, for example, has had no concerted change of staff, and the safety officer in 1989 is still the club secretary. There has been little or no spirit of recompense or even responsibility from the football industry to the families. The families, who have had to bear the enormous cost of protracted legal procedures themselves, have been given almost no financial assistance from football, despite clubs having been given around £200 million of public money as a direct result of the disaster. Only this year, a decade after its failures led to the disaster, has Sheffield Wednesday agreed to place a memorial to the disaster at Hillsborough itself, done grudgingly following a threatened boycott by Liverpool supporters of this year’s match between the two teams.
Lord Taylor’s final report was concerned with the more general issue of safety at sports grounds. His report recommended legislation to make England’s football grounds all-seater. Taylor commented more widely, however, on football’s general institutional failures. In summary his analysis was as follows:
– the League and the FA had both failed to regulate member clubs effectively in terms of fulfilling their safety duties
– the ethos of public service in the boardroom was being widely betrayed:
As for the clubs, in some instances it is legitimate to wonder whether the directors are genuinely interested in the welfare of their grass-roots supporters. Boardroom struggles for power, wheeler-dealing in the buying and selling of shares, and indeed of whole clubs, sometimes suggest that those involved are more interested in the personal financial benefits or social status of being a director than of directing the club in the interests of its supporter customers (Taylor’s Final Report, para. 53).
Taylor concluded his indictment of football with an observation that the game remained phenomenally popular and he called for fundamental reform in order for it to serve its public in the future.
The lesson is surely that now is the moment for the fullest reassessment of policy for the game (Final Report, para. 58).
No such full reassessment ever took place. The government only enacted the all-seater requirement. They did not insist on further reforms, either of the clubs or the increasingly troubled administrative structure. So the government agreed to give public money, in the form of grants to fund the rebuilding, to the very directors who had been so criticised in the report.
The post-Taylor Report rebuilding of the grounds
Taylor recommended that the government reduce the levy on pools betting duty, and give the difference to the Football Trust who would award grants to the clubs to fund the rebuilding. The Football Trust awarded grants close to £200 million to the football companies, in £2 million maximum awards for each stand. Some examples are as follows: Manchester United received £3.4 million public money, Chelsea £4 million, Sheffield Wednesday themselves £3.6 million.
Taylor noted the ‘communal culture’ of football club support and the fact that much of the support was working class. He said that the rebuilding should not be an excuse for increased ticket prices: ‘It should be possible to plan a price structure which suits the cheapest seats to the pockets of those presently paying to stand. At Ibrox, for example, seating is £6, standing £4.’ (Final Report, para. 72).
The League’s 1990 proposal to the FA to unify
In 1990 the Football League produced a document One Game, One Team, One Voice. It was prompted by the horror of the Hillsborough disaster and also the forthcoming expiry, in 1992, of the 1988 TV deal. The League foresaw a yet bigger TV deal being done, and could see the potential for dissent and possible breakaway attempts by the big clubs.
The League’s proposal was simple: unity. The FA and League would bury their differences. A new 12-man board would be formed, six from each organisation, to run the whole of football, professional and amateur, from top to bottom, for the good of all. Commercial and TV deals would be done for the whole of football and money distributed according to the needs of running a healthy game.
The big clubs’ move to break away
Only one month after the publication of the document for unity, the League’s Big Five clubs met in secret with Greg Dyke of LWT to see whether he would be prepared to buy the TV rights if they were to form a breakaway Premier League. He said he would. The purpose of the breakaway was simple: so that the top clubs would no longer have to share TV revenue with the other Football League clubs – or the rest of football.
The FA’s response: the 1991 blueprint
The big clubs needed the backing of the FA if their breakaway was to be legitimate. David Dein and Noel White of Arsenal were deputed to go to the FA to ask for backing.
The FA was working on its own document, which it had begun as a response to the League’s One Game, One Team, One Voice. They saw the proposal for unity merely as a threat to their own administrative pre-eminence, and so they saw the big clubs’ desire to break away as an opportunity to deal a fatal blow to the Football League. The FA agreed to back the breakaway Premier League in the subsequent document: The Blueprint for the Future of Football.
Thus the traditionally amateur governing body of the game, which had always seen its role as regulating the commercialism of the professional game for the common good, betrayed its own history by backing a breakaway of the top clubs on the threshold of a huge influx of TV money. The Blueprint also contained the fateful advice that football should move upmarket to chase ‘more affluent middle-class consumers’. The Blueprint contained no provision that any of the new wealth should be shared with the rest of football. In an interview with me for The Football Business, Graham Kelly, then chief executive of the FA, said it was not even considered. Redistribution, part of football throughout its history, ended in 1992, with the blessing of the FA.
No coherent or convincing explanation has ever been produced by the FA for having so betrayed their governance traditions by backing the breakaway. The Blueprint envisages an 18-member Premier League tied into a system which promotes excellence, leading to success for the England team. But this was never structurally implemented, and indeed the top clubs refused to reduce in number from 22 to 18. In my interview with him, Graham Kelly admitted that the primary motivation of the FA was self-preservation, that they saw the League’s proposals as a threat, and the Blueprint itself makes a call for the FA to be pre-eminent in football administration.
In my view this action by the FA effectively constituted an abdication of their right to govern football for the common good. Reform of football’s corporate governance has to involve major reform of the FA, and a clarification of its role, aims and responsibilities. It always regulated football for the end of maintaining its public service, sporting character, and a reformed governing body – or regulator – needs to be constituted to do that in the context of the new pressures of a fiercely commercial age.
The Premier League breakaway in 1992 and the first Sky TV deal
The 22 First Division clubs broke away from the rest of the Football League clubs to form the FA Carling Premiership in 1992. Litigation from the Football League produced an agreement to give the League around £3 million per year as compensation.
In the event, Greg Dyke did not win the TV rights for ITV. Sky TV won the rights in a deal with the BBC whose headline figure was £305 million. This was shared almost completely by only 22, later 20 clubs.
The ‘new commercialism’ in the Premier League
The purpose of the Premier League breakaway was simply to make more money for the big clubs and their owners. No internal regulations governed the relationship between the club and its supporters, and the clubs began to look to maximise income from all possible sources.
Contrary to the spirit and letter of the Taylor Report, the rebuilding programme itself, funded with public money, became a springboard for commercialism. The stands were almost all built to accommodate corporate entertainment, banqueting and conference facilities which would be put to work on non-matchdays as well as matchdays. But neither this nor the TV money went to subsidise ticket prices. On the contrary, clubs were allowed to raise their ticket prices, which they have done dramatically and massively above the rate of inflation. Rises of over 300 per cent since 1989 would be a reasonably accurate average. The price rises have led to a significant number of people being excluded from being able to watch football. Recent work has been carried out by Leicester University to assess this. Anecdotally, there is no question that many people who supported their clubs all their lives have found themselves priced out of going. It is increasingly difficult for people to afford to take their children to matches, and the prices are prohibitive to most teenagers. Football has barely begun to address the question of whether, in cashing in so heavily on the supporters built up in a previous, more communal culture, the next generation of football followers is being priced out.
In addition, clubs entered a new era of merchandising, including the mass manufacture of replica kits, whose colours change with increased regularity. The quality and sophistication of the clubs’ merchandising has been quite rudimentary, yet supporters have been ready consumers. The loyalty and culture of football support meant that demand for tickets was ‘inelastic’ – people would continue to pay the increased prices, and they were ‘brand loyal’ to the merchandise. A report in March 1997 by City analysts UBS described football supporters as a ‘captive market’.
Flotation of football clubs
Tottenham Hotspur were the first football club to float, and did so in 1983. In order to do this, they simply bypassed Rule 34. They formed a holding company, Tottenham Hotspur plc, making the football club, Tottenham Hotspur FC, merely a subsidiary of it. All the assets including the ground were transferred to the holding company. The holding company was expressly stated not to be subject to the FA ’s own rules. I have not found a satisfactory answer from the FA about the process by which this was allowed to happen, and why the FA allowed it. It seems to be part of the general loss of any sense of direction or clear idea of the FA ’s purpose in the modern era. In an interview with the FA’s current lawyer, he suggested simply that Rule 34 was outdated and that the market should be allowed to do its work – an extraordinary view from the governing body.
Tottenham’s float was not a success, but with the promise of the breakaway and Sky deal, other clubs were nevertheless still encouraged to float themselves in the ’90s. Manchester United followed suit, an initially lukewarm float which has become the most profitable of all the new football plcs, and in 1998 was the subject of a £623-million bid from BSkyB itself.
All the football companies, in order to float, followed Tottenham’s example, forming holding companies to bypass Rule 34. They all expressly admitted this in their prospectuses. (See chapter 10 for the relevant wording from the Manchester United prospectus).
Most of the football companies floated in a busy period between mid-1996 and 1997. Some 20 football companies are now listed on the full stock-market or Alternative Investment Market. They are subject to no specific regulation by reason of being football companies, and have indulged in the relentless commercial exploitation of the ‘captive market’ described above. It has been one of the lesser acknowledged aspects of the current transformation of football that one of the driving forces of this has been the prospect for major shareholder/chairmen making vast personal fortunes out of their football club shares.
Flotation as a means of personal money-making. Flotation was presented to the public, and to the football club, as an unarguably beneficial process for a football club. It was also presented as a means for ordinary supporters to have a stake in their club. In any analysis of flotation, and amongst proposals for a different form of football club ownership, its benefits have to be acknowledged along with its disadvantages. One clear potential benefit is that flotation presents a relatively easy way to raise new capital. New issues of shares are bought up by institutions and their investments can be put to use by the football clubs. However, the record of football club flotations in this area is poor. Most of the flotations occurred after the major capital expenditure of the grounds being rebuilt. Much of the money raised by the flotations was spent on transfers of players, which led to further inflation of the transfer market and players’ wages. Nevertheless, in any proposals to outlaw further flotations or to mutualise the clubs, thought has to be given to alternative ways to raise capital.
A close examination of the reasons for football club flotation leads to the inescapable conclusion that a central motivation was simply for the major shareholders to cash in on their shares. In The Football Business I documented how much shares in various football clubs were bought for, and compared them with their values inflated by the ‘new commercialism’ and flotation. Shares bought cheaply in the years when football was governed by a different culture, by rules of redistribution and Rule 34, are now worth huge sums in the age when football has become a stock-market activity.
Football was never intended to be a purely commercial endeavour and the clubs were built up over a century in which they were preserved from being mere investment vehicles. The current major shareholders, Martin Edwards, Sir John Hall, Doug Ellis, Ken Bates etc., have broken away from the rest of football and its rules for their own commercial ends, exploiting a century of support and tradition to make very quick, enormous fortunes for themselves. Several football club shareholders, including now Peter Johnson of Everton, are resident offshore in order to be exiles from capital gains tax.
The opportunistic zeal with which such personal fortunes were made could hardly represent a more shameless flouting of the spirit and analysis of the Taylor Report. Ticket prices rose, scant attention was paid to the ‘communal culture’ and little if any concerted thought was paid to ‘the welfare of grass-roots supporters’. The very directors so criticised by Taylor embarked on a drive to maximise revenue and their own fortunes, using as a springboard Taylor’s own report and the grants which followed. It is a bitter irony that following the Taylor Report, and partly as a result of it, the same directors who had been so criticised were allowed to indulge in more ‘boardroom struggles for power, wheeler-dealing in the buying and selling of shares, and indeed of whole clubs,’ than ever before, for huge, unprecedented ‘personal financial benefits’.
Wider inequality in football
The Premier League breakaway and the consequent huge fortunes made by a few individuals at the top has produced huge inequality in the game. Redistribution ended just as the money became big enough to restore the fortunes of the whole of football. In the lower divisions, many football clubs are struggling. Wage inflation has come down from the Premier League, but the revenue has not come down to keep pace with it. Many semi-professional clubs are in trouble, suffering from having to compete with Premier League hype and games being televised in mid-week very much more often. At the grass-roots of the game, the municipal playing fields where Premier League clubs find their talent and on which the vast majority of the football population play the game, local authority cuts have led to facilities deteriorating into a state of squalor and disrepair.
The future: the need for reform
It is not difficult to see what needs to be done to reform football in this country. It is not simply a matter of opinion that the game should be run in a more civilised, socially responsible way – for all its history until 1992 structures were in place which aimed to preserve its sporting heart. The primary needs are for unity in the administration of the game, some equality and redistribution of the game’s vast income, and for reform in the ownership and running of the clubs themselves. In effect, the twin forms of regulation – redistribution of money and Rule 34 – have to be restored in a form adapted to modern needs.
In The Football Business and in a submission to the Football Task Force I have proposed, broadly speaking, the following:
Unity in football administration
The game’s governing bodies should unify, and a single executive board should rule the game from top to bottom according to the needs of all. Given the lamentable recent record of football’s governance, some form of public accountability needs to be built into this.
A ‘pyramid’ of football
As with most other countries, an end to the historic division between League and FA would produce a coherent football pyramid. The top league of 20 clubs would be the apex of a system which would stretch from the professional game, through semi-professional and right down to the grass-roots.
Redistribution of money
A united game of football would ensure that money from TV and commercial deals would be redistributed fairly to ensure the overall health of football for the people who play and watch it. The top clubs would no doubt get a higher proportion of the money than the rest of football, but the current levels of inequality would not be tolerated.
Reform of the clubs
The flotations and developments such as the BSkyB bid for Manchester United have concentrated minds on the need to reform the football clubs. It is a historical accident that football clubs became companies – this was mostly a defensive measure against the cost of professionalism and building grounds. Rule 34 was in place to prevent the clubs becoming investment vehicles and to preserve an ethic of public service. The club-companies now have no such regulations to encourage or preserve a sense of community or even responsibility to their supporters.
I believe a key aim now of those concerned about what has happened to football should be to consider other models for the ownership and running of the clubs. The other chapters in this book represent in my view a very useful starting point for this. Most supporters recognise that football clubs have a particular character as a focus for sport, community and loyalty, and are different from commercial companies making products for consumption. It is only since 1992 that football itself has failed to preserve a sense of this in its structures.
Historically, the period following the Taylor Report can now be seen as a missed opportunity. The clubs ought to have been reformed then, along with the rest of football. With public and major television money coming in, the finance was there to effect reform. Despite this, the issue should be addressed to reform the clubs as much as possible now. Some form of mutualisation, of democratic ownership and control by the supporters, is clearly the desirable model to follow. We have excellent domestic examples at Bournemouth and Northampton Town, and there are European supporter-ownership models to learn from as well. The fact of clubs having floated in this country and the high valuations they enjoy on the stock-market present their own problems. But it is clear how the clubs should be constituted; practical ways need to be developed for reform to be effected. I believe at least that a substantial proportion of football club shares should be owned in a collective way by supporters, who would then elect a representative on to the board. This is broadly the position at Northampton Town, which has set excellent examples in areas such as anti-racism and disability access, and has been successful on the field.
A game with a conscience, unified and run according to the needs of those who love it would no doubt avoid exploiting its public. For the moment, at the very least, some regulation needs to be built in to keep prices affordable to people for whom football is an important part of their lives and part of social inclusion. There also needs to be regulation of merchandising, of television coverage, and further work done to make football clubs responsive to their public responsibilities.
The prospects for reform
The Football Task Force report, Investing in the Community, was an encouraging step towards reform of football. Although there are limitations to it, it did, at least, put the need for redistribution and the parlous state of the grass-roots, on to the mainstream agenda, alongside other constructive proposals relating to supporter ownership and players working more in the community. There appears to be a willingness from the government to do something about what it recognises to be problems in the way football has been exploited and is now being run. What remains to be seen is how much it is prepared to do, how far it is prepared to go.
Books such as this one are important in formulating practical proposals, and these have to be translated into real reforms. It is vital that measures be brought to bear as soon as possible, given the prospect of further commercialisation and the threat of a European Super League being formed without a redistributive system to preserve football’s wider population. Given the appalling record of football’s own self-governance in recent years, I am in no doubt that change has to be insisted upon and enforced by government legislation. Advice, encouragement and reliance on football’s own goodwill will founder on the twin curses, there since the beginning of the game, of self-interest and greed.
Conn, D. (1997). The Football Business: Fair Game in the ’90s? Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing.
Inquiry by the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Taylor (1990). The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster:Final Report. Cm962. London HMSO.
Football Association (1991). The Blueprint for the Future of Football. London: The Football Association.
Football League (1990). One Game, One Voice. Lytham St Annes:Football League.