The Sweeper: Should Government Intervene in Debt-Ridden English Football?
As a General Election looms, the Telegraph is reporting this weekend that there are plans in parliament for a regulatory body (“Office of Football Regulation“) to prevent clubs from running up irresponsible debt-to-turnover ratios and stop the winding-up orders that have in recent days threatened the existence of several long-running English teams. Legislators are also looking into ways a regulatory body could give fans a greater say in governance of their clubs. Momentum for this wide-ranging legislation has picked up in recent days:
The potential government plans – ahead of the forthcoming general election – follow a decision by Tony Lloyd, the Labour MP, to table an Early Day Motion in the Commons calling for supporters to hold tangible stakes in their clubs and for the government and the football authorities “to create a binding framework which will regulate club debt”.
The Telegraph declares that the move “would be one of the most controversial political interventions into sport in history” and will meet resistance from all quarters, including the Premier League, the Football Association and the Football League (although it doesn’t lay out clear reasons why).
In a separate story, the Telegraph details how Manchester United supporters and other rival supporters’ groups, galvanized by Tony Lloyd’s early day motion, are soliciting government ministers to assist in efforts to wrest control of their clubs from owners whom they believe do not have their club’s best interests at heart:
Those in the boardrooms of clubs and footballing authorities who chose to dismiss the fans’ movement as a gentle, unthreatening wave of dissent risk being caught out like King Canute. Fans’ anger over leveraged debt, the increasing sophistication of supporters’ methods, and the soapbox offered by the General Election, mean that this is a movement that must be taken seriously.
Manchester United Supporters Trust president Richard Hytner, who is looking at several different fan ownership scenarios for Manchester United, says “ours is not a case built on sentiment; it is based on commercial common sense. Loyal fans who love our club are worth a fortune and worthy of respect.”
There is certainly a populist element to recent promises of more government oversight of club affairs, and supporters should be wary of exploitation from political parties seeking election on the back of promised “commercial common sense.” It is far from certain that government-enforced debt regulation and increased fan participation, while admirable, will yield “a new and prosperous chapter,” as Hytner believes it will for United.
But moves for more government regulation of football debts at least in principle reflect a growing belief that clubs should no longer be seen as private financial interests to be exploited by self-interested owners, but public entities with long, autonomous histories, with fans at their centre. Pitch Invasion will be watching closely as this story develops…
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