Dangers to English football

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Fans protest the Super League outside Stamford Bridge
Football fans protested outside stadiums following the announcement of the Super League in May

The dangers facing English league clubs are “very real”, with key aspects of the nation’s game “at genuine risk”, says the chair of a fan-led review commissioned by the government.

Former sports minister Tracey Crouch has written to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to propose a series of measures.

This includes an independent regulator to “protect the future of our game”.

The review has heard over 100 hours of evidence from fans, the Football Association and clubs at all levels.

“The evidence has been clear that football clubs are not ordinary businesses,” wrote Crouch. “They play a critical social, civic and cultural role in their local communities.

“They need to be protected – sometimes from their owners who are, after all, simply the current custodians of a community asset.

“Key aspects of our national game are at genuine risk. The short-lived threat of the European Super League jeopardised the future of the English football pyramid.

“While that threat has receded – for now – the dangers facing many clubs across the country are very real with their futures precarious and dependent in most cases on the willingness and continuing ability of owners to fund significant losses.”

The measures proposed by Crouch include:

  • A new independent regulator to address issues that are most relevant to the risks to the game, especially financial regulation, corporate governance and ownership.
  • Further work over the summer to ensure greater fan engagement and influence at all levels of governance in the game.
  • Suggested potential reform at the Football Association, the Football League and the Premier League, with a recommendation that at least 50 per cent of the FA board be composed of independent non-executive directors.
  • Greater protection for important club assets such as badges, location and colours, through a ‘golden share’ for supporters that provides them with veto powers.
  • Further investigation over the summer on revenue flows within the football pyramid, including ‘parachute payments’.
  • Calls for a joined-up approach from the football authorities to improve player welfare, particularly with regard to players released from the academy system.
  • Allowing clubs to operate all-weather pitches in League Two to help with generation of revenue in lower leagues.
  • Suggestion that the English Football League (EFL) enter discussions to absorb the National League top division into the EFL structure.
  • Possibility of a levy on transfer or agent fees to support the development of the grassroots, amateur and women’s games.
  • A separate review into the future of women’s football following “varied” evidence on the best way forward.

‘English football facing existential crisis’

The review was promised as part of the Conservatives’ 2019 General Election manifesto and commissioned early after the foundation and swift collapse of the Super League in April.

Crouch highlighted Deloitte figures from 2018-19 – before the impact of the coronavirus pandemic – which she felt underlined the perilous state of many clubs’ finances.

She pointed out that nine Premier League clubs were reported to have made pre-tax losses that season, and eight clubs had wage-to-turnover ratios over 70 per cent.

In the same season all but two Championship clubs made pre-tax losses and the average wage-to-turnover ratio was 107 per cent.

“It is sobering to consider that these numbers are the end result of a long period in which football had been growing revenues to record or near record levels,” she wrote.

“The threat of possible future reductions in income expected as the broadcast market diversifies indicates that, without reform, English football could face an existential crisis in years to come unless pre-emptive action is taken now.”

Football authorities have “lost the trust and confidence” of fans, she added, as had a number of clubs.

She said the authorities had been issued with repeated warnings in the past which had not been heeded, and “therefore it is now time for external assistance”.

Crouch also said the game’s governing bodies had not succeeded in delivering sufficiently on the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda.

‘Fan voices have been heeded’

Dowden welcomed Crouch’s recommendations and said: “We’ve seen this year with the failed European Super League proposals and Euro 2020 how central football is to our national life.

“I’ve been clear that now is the time to take a wide-ranging look at reform of the game. I will not hesitate to take bold steps where necessary.

“I am grateful to the chair and panel for their update on the fan-led review. I look forward to receiving the final report and recommendations in the autumn.”

The Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) welcomed the update, and its chief executive Kevin Miles said: “It’s clear from the preliminary report that not only has the evidence been led by fans but also that those fan voices have been heeded.

“The commitment to the establishment of a new independent regulator for English Football is especially welcome.

“Additional proposals linked to the sustainability of the game, golden shares for fan groups, grassroots investment, mandatory supporter engagement and a strong voice for fans in governance at all levels, are hugely encouraging.

“We will continue to play a constructive role in the work of the review in fleshing out the detail of the interim proposals. Their full implementation could be a huge step to secure a sustainable future for our clubs, the communities around them, and the wider game.”

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