Philip Patrick Philip Patrick

Football is in enough trouble without a ‘regulator’

Unlike David Cameron – who famously got in a muddle about which team he supported – Rishi Sunak is a genuine football fan. But this makes the government’s latest wheeze of introducing a football regulator hard to take. Sunak says the outfit will help to prevent the ‘financial mismanagement’ of ‘unscrupulous owners’. It is, he says, a ‘historic moment for football fans’. Not everyone is convinced.

The Premier League is one of Britain’s most famous exports. Millions of people around the world follow teams like Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool. Its success is because these clubs have been left relatively free to conduct business: snapping up the best players and paying enormous salaries to persuade stars to play in England, rather than rival leagues in Spain or Italy. 

Footballers will go where the money is and while, to quote Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer ‘football is nothing without its fans’, the Premier League is nothing without its players. 

Any attempt to tame this Premier League beast will either fail (there is no end to the resourcefulness/ruthlessness of the clubs); or succeed and create an opportunity for a Premier League 2.0 (most likely in the Middle East) to flourish free of the impositions of pesky regulators spoiling the fun.

Footballers will go where the money is

This meddling doesn’t only affect the Premier League: the proposed (and yet to be named) independent regulator will have authority over the top five tiers of English football. Its powers will revolve around three core objectives: improving the clubs’ financial sustainability, strengthening financial resilience and protecting English football’s heritage. There will be closer scrutiny of club owners and directors to assess their suitably as custodians of ‘vital community assets’. A licensing system for clubs may be introduced with clubs required to consult their fans on key off-field decisions and strategic direction, a pretty obvious reference to the breakaway super league fiasco of 2021. 

Clearly not all of these aims are bad. The regulator will also be handed powers allowing it to intercede in negotiations on financial distributions between the Premier League and the EFL (English Football League) ensuring a fair settlement is concluded. This is especially important in the wake of a move by some Premier League clubs to walk away from a financial redistribution deal with the EFL, a development which may have accelerated the legislation’s introduction.

But will it work? The Premier League is sceptical:

With our clubs, we have advocated for a proportionate regime that enables us to build on our position as the most widely watched league in the world. Mindful that the future growth of the Premier League is not guaranteed, we remain concerned about any unintended consequences of legislation that could weaken the competitiveness and appeal of English football.

Fans’ groups are divided. Kevin Miles, chief executive of the Football Supporters’ Association, stated that his organisation ‘warmly welcomes the tabling of the Football Governance Bill’ which it sees as an important corrective to the ‘squabbling between the vested interests of the richest club owners.’ Campaign group Fair Game, however, is unconvinced, claiming that ‘at first glance it looks like the bill has missed the target and that they have ‘failed to get assurances that the regulator will have the power to intervene’.

Such responses highlight the problems with any attempt to regulate a sport like football. Regulating sporting markets can help – one thinks of the hugely successful NFL in the United States, whose draft pick rules aim to level the playing field and keep the league competitive – but that can only work where international competition is lacking. This is hardly the case with English football, which faces intense competition, not just from the heritage leagues of continental Europe but the moneyed upstarts of the Saudi Pro League and the American MLS. 

Sunak should listen to the Premier League’s warning of ‘unintended consequences’, before it’s too late.