Friday, 21 January 2011

The Government and football – strong words need to be followed up with action

Sports Minister Hugh Robertson had some harsh words to say about the governance of English football yesterday:

"If you look across sport, it is very clear to me that football is the worst-governed sport in this country, without a shadow of a doubt. The levels of corporate governance that apply to football, a point often addressed by [Labour], lag far behind other sports, and other sports are by no means beacons in this regard."

Not only did Robertson (correctly) identify the problem, he promised action.

"So, action is needed and the Government will take it, but it wants to see the results of [the Department of Culture Media and Sport] select committee first."

That's quite a bold statement, and also very clear. Football supporters need to hold that promise to account. Here is my list of what's wrong with football. Others may agree or disagree and no doubt views on the relative importance of each problem will differ:

Debt and financial mismanagement
How is it that no Bundesliga club has ever gone bust or into administration yet dozens of English clubs have?

Leveraged buyouts
Impossible in most European leagues, banned in the NFL(!). Adding debt to a club for the privilege of having new owners. Nothing added, nothing invested. 

Supporter ownership
Why is there no help (or even preference) for the most natural owners to take a stake in their clubs? Instead we end up with the crooks, carpetbaggers and dodgy dealers who have ruined so many.

Ticket prices
Record income flows into our game and yet prices rise inexorably upwards with supporters priced out. £100 for a non-executive ticket at Arsenal? Laughable.

The FA
Responsible for the debt ridden shambles of "Nu Wembley", the decline of the FA Cup and the shambolic England team and its manager. Not fit for purpose.

Financial inequality in the game – Champions League qualification makes you rich, PL mid-table makes you worry, relegation could send you broke. Lower than that clubs fight for scraps.

Why hasn't there been a proper debate on this? Visit a German stadium and see how they do it (no doubt they would sell us some of their highly engineered safe standing barriers).

You may have your own issues you would add to the list. Some, such as the level of player wages, seem to me to stem from the no. 1 problem, financial mismanagement.

I believe that if Hugh Robertson is serious about taking action on football "governance", these are the issues and benchmarks against which he and the government must be measured.

Over to you Hugh.



Written Offside said...

Great post, agree with the problems you list especially debt, ticket prices and supporter ownership.

As you say player wages are out of control. When the likes of Bridge can earn 90k a week, we know we have a problem. This all stems from the scatter gun approach of City's owners who can afford to pay what it takes.

Wembley is another shocking example of mis-management coming in way over budget and a crap pitch meaning the FA has to host all and sundry to make up the shortfall.

As for ticket prices, how can the average man on the street afford to watch matches these days? Ticket + travel + food etc all adds up to a massive expense. More and more will revert to being armchair fans and the lifeblood of loyal supporters will be lost for a generation.

Diem said...

Whilst I agree with most of these points, some give me some concerns - "it works in Europe" doesn't always apply to the UK. On e particular example is "24 hour drinking", with the apparently reasonable theory that extending the hours to drink will prevent the 11pm chuck out and the resulting issues.

What's happened in the UK? High profile publicity about youth drinking etc (possibly masking the beneficial impacts elsewhere). It's a cultural change which is required, assessed over a generation - a few years is too short.

Back to football, and I have the same worries. Standing and alcohol are both prohibited in the UK and, given the typical UK football fan, I can understand why. Cultural change required, and will it be given enough time in the face of adverse media treatment to come to pass?

I'm not intimately familiar with the reasons for New Wembley's cost over-run, however since many major building projects see similar issues perhaps the FAs biggest failure was the underlying contract, which left them at risk of such penalties? Otherwise I agree - the FA management model is appalling.

Finally, supporter ownership. I'm not entirely sure I'd welcome a move to the Real / Barca situation, where every few years you have a presidential election, which generally involves huge amounts of money chucked around on players who aren't really needed by the manager, just to make a statement. And given the levels of debt at those clubs, propped up by the banks, I don't know if they're necessarily any better than the present situation.

Another instability which could result from fan ownership is increasing manager turnover. When fans are calling for the manager to be sacked inside six months, the board at least provide a counterweight. Under fan ownership this would presumably not happen.

With regard to leveraged buyouts, why are they impossible in European leagues? I'm curious - is it the high level of local government ownership?

ja said...

Other problems include changing dates and times of fixtures at the drop of a hat (or the whim of TV) with no consideration for anyone who has already bought a ticket or any concern about logistics of travelling to the match and coordinating this with reasonable public transport access.

andersred said...

Thanks for the comments.

Diem, I agree on booze at matches, but standing is a weekly reality around the country made (paradoxically) less safe by all seated stadia.

I too wouldn't like a Barc type "vote in a strongman" model. The German 50+1% model preserves the culture of clubs whilst allowing some corporate investment. That rule makes LBOs impossible in Germany. Barca and Real's structure does the same. In France municipal ownership provides protection. In Italy and other Spanish clubs LBOs are a theoretical risk.

I don't to make English football into German or Spanish football, I want an end to virtually unfettered laissez faire at home.

Ja - spot on. See United's cup game vs. Southampton. 5.15 kick off for TV and the trains are screwed....


Si, East Manchester said...

Diem, i am a founder member of FC United and regularly attend matches where i stand in total safety from start to end. We own the club but have so far gone 5 and a half seasons with the same manager. There has not been any clamour for his head at any time even though we have had a couple of average seasons in our league. It's about being realistic and living within your means which unfortunately football at the top has long since lost sight of.

It's a totally different mindset when you become a fan owned club. Our fans self police because why would we want to damage the club that we own and have built up by going around smashing up grounds on a drunken rampage? In any case we attract families with kids who can turn up without jumping through hoops to do it (i should add financial hoops because god knows what it must cost for a family of 4 to roll up at OT nowadays). Why would we want to scare them off as those kids are our future?

We are also more than just a football club and involve ourselves heavily in the local community (e.g our recent "big coat day" collecting for Manchester's homeless). We also have a thriving youth team because we believe in developing players for the future rather than one day having to spend daft amounts.

This thing is all done by the fans, for the fans and you'd be amazed what enough like minded people can achieve. There's only 3,350 members but we have already between us raised almost enough to build our own stadium by pioneering the community shares scheme (just shy of £2 million) and have excellent like minded people running the day to day aspects of the club. Just imagine what 70,000 fans could achieve if a few thousand can get together and own a club with it's own ground in 7 years?

Perhaps the biggest thing about what i have is the fact that this club is mine. The attachment you get to it goes deeper than anything i ever felt at Old Trafford because i was just a cash cow there for Edwards, the PLC and also the Glazers if i'd have stayed beyond 2005. Frankly, i'd had enough of it by the time they rolled up. It's merely TV football for me now...i wouldn't spend my own hard earned on buying a ticket there for nil return. It's something more and more people will conclude if things go on the way they are.

Tony said...

Anders, I agree with your analysis of the problems. It's good that government ministers are promising action, and we need to continue to press them to deliver. However, Written Offside, it's not all gloom and doom in the meantime. Many of the loyal supporters that you fear will be lost are working to re-make their clubs from the bottom up. At clubs like Wimbledon, Chester and FC United they have taken ownership and control and the outcome is a better footballing experience for all. I have enjoyed some of the best games of my life this season following FC United to places like Rochdale and Brighton in the FA Cup. FC fans have now raised more than £1million in a Community Shares Scheme towards the cost of a new ground. This shows what fans at other clubs with much bigger supporter bases could do. The armchair is not the only alternative! Let's take the game back for the people who created it in the first place!

Diem said...

Anders, thanks for the additional information.

Si, Tony, I think you have to be very careful which clubs are put forward as the ideal models. FC United and AFC Wimbledon are totally different scenarios to what would be expected in 'normal' cases. What I mean by this is that these two *new* clubs were set up in express response to influence by external parties on the fans current team. There is arguably a different premise to these clubs than existing professional outfits. (Not that I disagree with it, it just needs explicit recognition!).

The achievements of FC are remarkable, and fabulous, however I just don't believe that you can similarly motivate (and reach agreement amongst) hundreds of thousands (since it would be more than regular attendees who would be interested in participating).

With specific request to support for the manager, since both clubs have been achieving regular promotions, it would be totally unreasonable to call for the managers' heads. More telling will be the treatment over the next 6-18 months should AFC Wimbledon fail to achieve promotion to the league - will the directors change the manager in pursuit of league status, or will they be happy with their achievements and seek a period of stability.

Chester and, again perhaps less directly comparable, Ebbsfleet are clubs which have moved from the traditional to fan ownership structures. Ebbsfleet perhaps went too far (down the "Championship Manager" route) and saw interest wane - as far as I understand it the fans now operate a more 'chairman-like' model.

I'm not against fan ownership, I'm just interested in the practicalities at the top level of the game.

And apologies if I've hijacked the thread onto a narrow theme - the topic was originally the government stepping up to back its words up with action.

I wonder how much this would be construed as "government interference" in FIFA-speak, especially given the complaints that "we don't know who to call"!

Darren said...

I find it comical that some people think that supporters could do a worse job than the owners that we have now at our clubs!

What's the average life of a Premier League manager? Just over a year isn't it? And you're worried that supporters would be trigger-happy!

I think we sometimes forget how unusual it is for clubs to keep their managers for as long as Fergie at United and Wenger at Arsenal. It's not the norm. Owners hire and fire 'em at a ridiculous rate because they're terrified of having their investment devalued by relegation, or failing to reach europe.

Anyway, it's a daft argument. Supporters don't want ownership of decisions such as hiring & firing of managers, or anything team related. We want ownership so that we can feel a part of our clubs again. We want ownership so that we have some say in the things which affect us as supporters. We want ownership to protect our clubs from the likes of the Glazers who give nothing but take so much.