An Unexpected Football League Revolutionary

Brian Mawhinney

When Brian Mawhinney was appointed as Chairman of the Football League in 2003, I’ll admit to groaning loudly. I was not a fan of the Conservative Party of the 1990s, and Mawhinney had been in the British Cabinet and was Chairman of the Tories. What football needed was less free market evangelism and some radical moves towards greater regulation; this didn’t seem likely to come from Mawhinney.

Yet almost seven years on, with weeks remaining in his tenure, it’s hard not to admire what Mawhinney has achieved in the role. He took over at a time of great crisis for the League and its 72 clubs in the three divisions below the Premier League. The league’s Chairman Keith Harris had recently quit along with Chief Executive David Burns, after the collapse of ITV Digital’s massive television deal (£178.5m), which left the league severely short of cash.

The intervening years have not been smooth sailing financially for all the clubs in the Football League, but Mawhinney negotiated a major sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola that saw the league rebranded in 2004 (hello, “Championship”). In 2007, the league landed an impressive £264 million television rights deal with Sky and the BBC for the 2009-2012 period, a 130% increase.

But the major issue Mawhinney has faced is trying to stem the flow of this money into insane wages and agents pockets, and trying to institute greater regulation of the game. This is where he has taken some important first steps, and belied his reputation as a free-market conservative: as the Guardian comments in a must-read piece on Mawhinney today, unlike the Premier League under Richard Scudamore, Mawhinney has accepted football is a closed-shop and not some magical marketplace where Panglossian dreams come true forever and ever.

“I was called a communist by one club chairman,” Mawhinney told the Guardian, “while another said if Margaret Thatcher was dead she would be spinning in her grave. But that told me they were a couple of right-wing free-marketeers and their ideology was more important than the reality of this job.”

Mawhinney has made progress in three key areas

  • Towards a salary cap: League One and League Two introduced a requirement that spending on salaries does not exceed 60% of turnover, and unlike the Premier League’s continued aversion to the mere prospect of a cap (sorry, Portsmouth fans), Mawhinney sees the unsustainability of the current model of unlimited spending in the Championship: “Championship clubs will have to do so [institute a salary cap]. You cannot run a club where you are losing four, five, six million a year. That’s not sustainable. You don’t need to be a genius to understand that.”
  • Ownership transparency: in 2004, the Football League introduced English football’s first fit and proper persons test to check the background of new ownership. It hasn’t proven to be perfect, and has taken some revising due to the offshore obfuscation by the owners of Leeds United and Notts County this year, but it’s an important principle and Mawhinney comments that “I would like total transparency. That’s me personally and I think we’re on a journey towards that point.”  It’s certainly been an important step.
  • Regulating agents: The Football League also broke ground recently followed by the Premier League in requiring clubs to publish how much they paid agents; since this information became open, payments have dropped in half.

As David Conn commented last month, Mawhinney’s greatest achievement might just be his political management of a league sprawling 72 clubs, with 70% of them changing hands under his tenure, and interests ranging from Premier League drop-outs to clubs just rising from the non-league level. It makes the job of a Richard Scudamore or a Don Garber look easy. To have done this while putting greater financial regulation on the agenda, and with real steps taken towards greater transparency and financial viability for clubs, is impressive.

We could take issue with Mawhinney on numerous issues that have arisen under his tenure that were not handled well, but the most important change is that the league seems finally to be headed in the right direction and is even setting a standard for the Premier League to follow in terms of addressing the base unsustainability of an unregulated free market model in football.

Boy, was I wrong seven years ago about this particularly Tory politician.

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