UK Football Governance Bill power to fans



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UK football governance bill introduced Image: Coliseum GSVA

A historic legislation to reform the governance of men’s elite football in England (UK) and put fans back at the heart of the game was introduced in the Parliament on March 18th.

  • The ‘Independent Football Regulator’ to be enshrined in law that will give fans a greater voice in the running of their clubs;
  • The Regulator will promote financial sustainability and will have the ability to fine clubs up to 10 percent of turnover for non-compliance;
  • The breakaway closed-shop competitions such as the European Super League to be blocked under the new legislation; and
  • The Regulator will implement strengthened owners’ and directors’ tests and will be equipped with backstop powers to impose a ‘new deal’ on the financial distributions.

 
The closed-shop competitions in sports are leagues where the teams remain members indefinitely, regardless of their performance. This is in contrast to the open leagues, where the teams can move between the different divisions or leagues based on their performance. In a closed-shop league, the number and identity of clubs do not change from season to season.

The European Super League (ESL), officially The Super League, is a proposed seasonal football competition for the club teams in Europe. The initial iteration of the league entailed 20 teams, with 15 of them being founding members of the competition.

‘GOV.UK’ stated that the Bill comes at a critical juncture for English football, following the attempted breakaway European Super League, and a series of high profile cases of clubs being financially mismanaged or collapsing entirely.

The legislation being introduced on March 18th goes further than the Government’s manifesto commitment, establishing the new ‘Independent Football Regulator’ (IFR) as a standalone body – independent of both the Government and the football authorities.

‘GOV.UK’ further stated that the body will be equipped with robust powers revolving around three core objectives: To improve the financial sustainability of the clubs, ensure financial resilience across the leagues and to safeguard the heritage of English football.

Under the Football Governance Bill, the new Owners and Directors will face stronger tests to stop clubs falling into the wrong hands, and face the possibility of being removed and struck off from owning football clubs if they are found to be unsuitable.

The Bill also includes new backstop powers around financial distributions between the Premier League, the English Football League (EFL) and the National League. These powers mean that if the leagues fail to agree on a new deal on financial distributions, then the backstop can be triggered to ensure a settlement is reached.

London (UK)-based the Premier League is the highest level of the English football league system. Contested by 20 clubs, it operates on a system of promotion and relegation with the English Football League. Seasons typically run from August to May, with each team playing 38 matches against all the other teams, both home and away.

Preston (UK)-based the English Football League (EFL) is a league of professional football clubs from England and Wales. Founded in 1888 as the Football League, it is the oldest football league in the world, and was the top-level football league in England from its foundation until 1992, when the top 22 clubs split from it to form the Premier League. The Football League was rebranded as the ‘English Football League’ (EFL) from the 2016-2017 seasons.

Birmingham (UK)-based the National League, known as the Vanarama National League for sponsorship reasons, is the highest level of the National League system and fifth-highest of the overall English football league system. It is the highest league that semi-professional teams in the English football league system play.

For the first time, clubs from the National League (Step One in the football pyramid) all the way to the Premier League will be licensed to compete in men’s elite football competitions in England. The proposed licensing regime will be proportionate to any problems, size and circumstances and will involve a system of provisional and full licenses, to give the clubs time to transition.

It follows a number of issues in recent years including financial mismanagement, breakaway plans for the European Super League, and changes to club names, badges and colors against the wishes of the fans.

Remarked Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister of United Kingdom, “Football has long been one of our greatest sources of national pride. Up and down the country, it brings people together in celebration or commiseration. But for too long some clubs have been abused by the unscrupulous owners who get away with financial mismanagement, which at worst can lead to a complete collapse – as we saw in the upsetting cases of Bury F.C. and Macclesfield Town F.C. This Bill is a historic moment for the football fans – it will make sure their voices are front and centre, prevent a breakaway league, protect the financial sustainability of the clubs, and protect the heritage of our clubs big and small.”

The Bury Football Club is an English association football club based in Bury, Greater Manchester (UK) which plays in the Premier Division of the North West Counties League, the ninth tier of the English football pyramid. This follows The Football Association (FA) approval of a June 2023 merger with the phoenix club Bury AFC. The 11,840-capacity Gigg Lane in Bury serves as their digs.

London (UK)-based the Football Association (known by its abbreviation The FA) is the governing body of association football in England and the Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. Formed in 1863, it is the oldest football association in the world and is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the amateur and professional game in its territory.

The Bury AFC is a phoenix club (a football club that is created after an existing club has stopped operating) that was established to revive the Bury Football Club (F.C.), which is currently inactive. In 2022, the Bury Football Club Supporters’ Society, made up of fans, bought the club’s trading name and Gigg Lane. The purpose of this was to oppose the fan-owned club and revive the Bury F.C. The two clubs merged in May 2023, with the Bury F.C. playing name adopted for the 2023-2024 seasons. The two teams’ histories were combined, with the Bury AFC’s seasons counting as the Bury F.C.’s.

The Bury F.C., one of the oldest football clubs in the United Kingdom, was expelled from the Football League in August 2019 due to financial issues. The Bury F.C. has been playing at the Gigg Lane since 1885, which is now in a sorry state. The pitch is overgrown, the windows are boarded up and the turnstiles are rusty. The club is set to return to the Football League and football’s third tier, the League One.

The Macclesfield Town Football Club was an association football club based in Macclesfield, Cheshire, England. Initially known as the Macclesfield F.C., the club was formed in 1874 and from 1891 played their home games at the 5,300-capacity Moss Rose in Macclesfield. The club was dissolved in September 2020.

The Macclesfield Town Football Club was dissolved in 2020 after a High Court ruling due to severe financial mismanagement by its Owner Amar Alkadhi. The club was the first to have its points deducted for failing to pay its players on time and the players were paid late six times. The club was also relegated to the National League, the fifth tier of English football, for the 2020-2021 seasons after a point deduction was activated on August 11th, 2020.

Added Lucy Frazer, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport of the United Kingdom, “Football is nothing without its fans. We are determined to put them back at the heart of the game, and ensure that the clubs as vital community assets continue to thrive. The new Independent Regulator of Football will set the game on a sustainable footing, strengthening the clubs and the entire football pyramid for generations.”

All the clubs will be subject to the new baseline requirements enshrined in legislation irrespective of their license status, such as protections against the breakaway competitions and stadium relocations.

The provisional license will require all the clubs to meet some mandatory conditions as standard, including basic requirements on fan engagement, corporate governance and financial reporting.

The regulator will then apply additional bespoke license conditions on the clubs, as necessary, to ensure they meet the necessary standards for a full license across three key areas: Financial resources, non-financial resources (such as relevant systems, policies and personnel) and fan engagement.

Fan engagement is a central tenet of the Football Governance Bill and will ensure the fans are put back at the heart of the game. As part of the license, the clubs will be required to consult their fans on key off-field decisions, such as the club heritage and the club’s strategic direction.

Stated Stuart Andrew, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Sport, Tourism, Heritage, and Civil Society, UK, “The football clubs are vital community assets and for far too long some fans have been taken for granted, and the clubs lost to unscrupulous owners. Today’s (March 18th) Bill will pave the way for the creation of an Independent Football Regulator, ushering in greater protections to help the clubs and their fans thrive over the long term.”

Observed Tracey Crouch, Commander of the British Empire (CBE) MP, Chair of the Fan-Led Review of Football Governance, “The football fans can begin to breathe a sigh of relief in the knowledge that the next steps towards protecting the long term sustainability of the pyramid have now been taken. A significant amount of work has gone into this piece of legislation which will establish a truly independent force in football that will place the fans and good governance at its heart.”

Commented Kevin Miles, Chief Executive of the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), “The FSA warmly welcomes the tabling of the Football Governance Bill arising from the 2021 Fan Led Review, and particularly its central proposal to introduce statutory independent regulation of the game. The regulator provides a means to intervene and stop the clubs being run into the ground, protect the heritage of the clubs, give the supporters a much bigger voice in the running of the game, and prevent any chance of domestic clubs joining a breakaway European Super League. The regulator must be given the power to impose a financial settlement in the interests of the sustainability of the game as a whole. It is far too important to be left to the squabbling between the vested interests of the richest club owners.”
 
In addition, the Football Governance Bill sets out further detail on how the Independent Football Regulator (IFR):

  • Will produce a periodic State of the Game report setting out an evidence-based analysis of any issues around financial sustainability and systemic resilience in English football;
  • Will assess all the new owners and directors and be able to disqualify the owners/officers, in the case of persistent and wilful non-compliance;
  • Will require the clubs to meet the license conditions on fan engagement, where guidance for the clubs will set out areas requiring fan consultation;
  • Will not be overly-interventionist and will adopt an advocacy- first approach, but backed up by a broad suite of powers to investigate suspected non-compliance, compel information and enforce if necessary; and
  • Will have no input in on-field decisions and will act in a way that minimizes any impact on the sporting competitions.

 
The Football Governance Bill is the result of the Government’s commitment to deliver a fan-led review of football governance. Triggered after the attempted breakaway European Super League competition, the review sought to examine the industry in detail following the failure of at least 60 professional football clubs since the advent of the Premier League in 1992.

The key recommendation from the review chaired by MP Crouch was the introduction of an independent regulator of elite men’s football in England.

In parallel with the Bill’s introduction, the Government confirmed plans on March 18th to stand up a shadow regulator that will be operational as the IFR is formally set up.

Decisions will be taken on the location of the IFR, the Chair of the regulator and the other Board members in the weeks and months ahead as the Bill makes its passage through Parliament. This follows the appointment of the interim Chief Operating Officer Martyn Henderson OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in January, who will work with a team on the frameworks, policies and guidance required for the formation of the regulator.

English football remains a global success story and the Premier League is the envy of the sporting competitions around the world. The Government remains fully behind its continued success.

Despite this success, the combined net debt of clubs in the Premier League and the Championship (second-highest overall in the English football league system) had reached £5.9 billion by the end of the 2020-2021 seasons. In the same season, the Championship reported a wage-to-revenue ratio average of 125 percent clearly demonstrating that the clubs was stretching themselves far beyond their means.

While football remains one of United Kingdom’s greatest cultural exports, with the clubs and leagues around the world modeling themselves on its success, the Government is today (March 18th) taking the necessary and targeted steps to ensure that continues for generations through the introduction of the Independent Football Regulator (IFR).

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