Government finally acts on ownership in face of inept regulation

March 29, 2010 Tags: , , , Opinion No comments

Supporters’ anger, from Manchester United to Portsmouth, via Liverpool, Southend and Crystal Palace, with club governance has finally translated into a promise for firmer regulation by the government. In the week that United faces Bayern Munich, a club 51 per cent owned by the supporters, action is welcomed better late than never.

Under the proposals, which will form part of the Labour party’s general election manifesto, the government will give supporters a significant voice in the ownership and management of clubs. Plans, as yet not fully fleshed out, propose fans be given the right to a 25 per cent stake in their club as a legal minimum.

The government is also planning to forcibly streamline the Football Association (FA), five years after the Lord Burns report was largely ignored by the governing body, according to a report in the Guardian over the weekend.

Legislative proposals mark a stark change in the Labour government’s approach to football, in the lead up to May’s general election, after 13 years of laissez-faire that has enabled football to blossom financially but fail key stakeholders such as supporters.

The Premier League will this week tie up yet another record overseas media rights deal but it is a league responsible for more than 50 per cent of net debt throughout the major European competitions: much of which lies on the books of United under the Glazer regime. Moreover, 14 of 20 Premier League clubs now has a suspended credit rating.

Yet the Premier League has consistently backed a light touch approach to regulation that says football is governed no differently to any other industry. It has enabled the leveraged takeovers at Liverpool and United, together with the astonishing financial meltdown of Portsmouth, through a narrow ‘fit and proper’ test that looks only at owners’ criminal past.

It is perhaps ironic then that United visits Munich this week, whose debt-free financial model is in stark contrast to those in the Premier League. While four-times European Cup winners Bayern cannot boast the financial might of those clubs at the top of the European food chain, the supporters’ majority stake ensures that the club’s governance is in fans’ interest.

Not that a side containing Arjen Robben, Franc Ribéry and Miroslav Klose is a pauper in European terms. Robben, for example, cost the South German side more than £20 million when the Dutchman joined from Real Madrid in the summer. The club’s space-age new stadium (above) is also the envy of many European clubs.

Indeed, the eyes of Europe can now cast envious glances towards Germany where the financial problems faced in England, Italy and Spain are not mirrored. In times of supporter strife in England, the legislated German ownership model of 50 per cent plus one share in the hands of fans is now widely seen as a sensible balance between competing interests.

It is perhaps surprising then that the Conservative party’s sports spokesperson, Hugh Robertson, has been so dismissive of government proposals this week, preferring instead to push for supporter representation at board level without regulating ownership structures.

Still, Supporters’ Direct, the body set up with the government’s support to ensure fans’ trusts flourish, believes a new direction will emerge whatever party wins the upcoming election.

“The two parties – one of which will form the basis of the next government – both agree fans should have a stake in the clubs they support and are pledged to work to make it happen,” Supporters’ Direct ceo Dave Boyle said of the government proposals.

“That’s great news for the trust movement and long-overdue recognition that clubs aren’t businesses like any other.

“We look forward to the next government – whoever it is – putting fans at the heart of the game and we will work with them to make it happen”

In the week Andersred confirmed the £80 million fee gained for Cristiano Ronaldo will head straight out of United’s bank account to pay down the Glazer family’s PiK debt, change cannot come soon enough.


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