Football reforms: fans’ transfer window to buy clubs
Owen Gibson, The Guardian
Gordon Brown frequently cites his Raith Rovers share certificates as among his most treasured possessions. That fact is likely to be wheeled out again in the coming weeks to highlight his personal interest in proposals designed to enable fans to own a share of the clubs they support in the hope that it can become a touchstone election issue.
Over recent years, the government has frequently paid lip service to the supporter-led movement to increase fan representation on boards. But it is only in the last 12 months, as fan fury at Liverpool and Manchester United at the size of the debt loaded on to their clubs by overseas owners has been accompanied by financial meltdown at Portsmouth, that it has started to dominate the thoughts of a broader constituency of fans.
The issue has also entered the political mainstream as the Red Knights looking to buy Manchester United from the Glazer family mobilised, Uefa proposed new rules to force clubs to live ‘within their means’ and Portsmouth became the first Premier League club to go into administration.
Last month Brown said at his monthly press conference that debts at some clubs were ‘too high’ and warned them to ‘look very seriously to their responsibilities to supporters’. A keen Raith fan who contributed to a fan buyout, he is understood to have played a key role in formulating the new proposals.
Organisations such as Supporters Direct have long looked with envy at the German Bundesliga, where 51% of the club must be owned by supporters, and Barcelona, where democratic elections are held every four years.
There are two policies on the table, from several under consideration, that appear to have gained most favour with Brown and are now being subject to legal scrutiny by aides.
The first would, in effect, force clubs to hand a proportion of their shares – perhaps up to 25% – to fans. These supporters’ trusts, comprising democratically elected representatives, would be recognised in law and maintain the clubs’ links with their communities in a variety of ways. The mechanism for doing so would be left to the football authorities to work out.
The second proposal would give fans the opportunity to put together a takeover bid for their club in the event of it being put up for sale or going into administration.
In a pre-defined window, they would be able to seek financial backing for a new ownership model that might lead to a community-owned model, a shareholders’ trust or a single owner who pledges to be democratically accountable to fans. The club’s price could be set by an independent, external auditor.
It is felt that Uefa’s plans for a new Financial Fair Play regime, which it hopes to introduce in time for the 2012-13 season and would essentially prevent clubs spending more than they earn except on building infrastructure and youth development, would make it easier for an outside agency to place a value on clubs.
While there is an understanding that there is much detail to be worked through to make the schemes practical, Brown is believed to be serious about seeing the idea through if Labour were to win the election.
For all its current issues off the pitch, the Premier League, with no little justification, has been able to point to its rise to pre-eminence as the most exciting, most popular and most profitable in the world. Despite the travails of some of its clubs, it remains a British success story and the government has therefore stepped warily, occasionally challenging and cajoling the game to reform its dysfunctional structures but stopping well short of ordering change.
The new proposals mark a distinct shift in tone. The football authorities will be told to implement the ideas on club ownership and simultaneously issued with a ‘final warning’ over the need to overhaul their governance structures.
They will call for the proposals suggested by Lord Burns to reform the FA five years ago – to introduce independent non-executives to the board, reduce the numbers of representatives from the professional and amateur games and overhaul the FA Council – to be implemented in full.
The government will order the removal of the ‘vested interests’ on the FA board that are said to have blocked reform and led to the frustrated resignation of chief executive Ian Watmore after just 10 months.
It will also call for a unified fit and proper persons test, additional scrutiny of club takeovers and a coherent policy on youth development, with the FA taking the lead.
Some will criticise the government for jumping on the bandwagon in response to a flurry of recent calls for change in the way the game is run. But No 10 will say that it has been considering the proposals for months and point to a dialogue with football that stretches back years.
Most recently, the culture secretary at the time, Andy Burnham, wrote to the Football League, Football Association and Premier League posing seven searching questions and challenging the game to ‘reassess its relationship with money’.
Brown is, however, also understood to be keen that the government’s intervention is not interpreted as it siding with Uefa president Michel Platini over the Premier League in the debate about how the game should be regulated.
It will point to its previous support for the Premier League’s position when European regulators attempted to reform the way it sells its TV rights.
The Premier League is expected to mount a robust defence of its model.
Executives recently banked £1.2bn for a series of overseas TV deals that will take the total earned from its next set of TV contracts to more than £3.2bn. On the pitch, the product is as successful as ever.
Its chief executive, Richard Scudamore, told the Guardian last week that he supported reform of the FA but said any move to restrict the freedom of club owners to speculate would seriously damage the attractiveness of the league.