In recent years English football has been bouncing from one crisis to another. So said Tracey Crouch MP when the UK Government’s Department of Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) published the results of a fan-led review, triggered by the European Super League fiasco. The Government wants to implement all 10 of the review’s recommendations, including establishing an independent football regulator “to make the game safer and fairer for all”.
The regulatory plans have sparked controversy in the industry. The Premier League is opposed to the idea, and regulation brings a range of complex issues. So how will this new regulator succeed?
Irrespective of industry, creating an effective new regulatory environment requires early and confident decisions on principles and approach that set the tone and behaviours of the market to be supervised. We’ve worked with DEFRA, the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to set up the Office for Environmental Protection and with the UK Space Agency to design the UK’s new regulator for Spaceflight. Although their markets have little in common, we helped them grapple with the same set of fundamental considerations: how do we become more than watchdogs? How do we champion innovation? And what is the best way to design a regulator that can adapt to the fast-changing needs of the industry it regulates?
Of course, there are some specific challenges when it comes to sport – and football in particular. To kick off the debate about the way forward, we consider the main challenges facing the Government and others in developing a new system of regulation for English football. And we’d like you to join the debate and let us know what you think.
The Premier League has criticised the plan for a new regulator, saying it "recognises and accepts the case for reform" but that a regulator "is not necessary". So, what will win them over? The new regulator needs to bring them into the fold to ensure their concerns are understood, and that they’re contributing to the solution. Yes, there will likely be friction, but friction powers progress. Our experience is that any regulator that doesn’t involve those to be regulated as it forms its early thinking will almost certainly fail to achieve the required outcomes.
This is an area where it’s possible to learn from other regulators. When helping the UK Space Agency (UKSA) design the regulator for Spaceflight, it was vital that we engaged multiple stakeholder groups: satellite companies, television broadcasters, broadband providers, rocket and spacecraft start-ups, and a host of other participants all seeking to secure their share of this important market. Football has a similarly complex stakeholder landscape – and this brings a range of views that should be heard and considered.
Football supporters are clearly a significant stakeholder. How will the regulator embrace the power of the fan – remembering six of the biggest clubs withdrew support for the creation of a new European Super League due to fan protests? Last year, when we helped design the new UK Building Safety Regulator, every single process was started from the perspective of those whose interests it was designed to protect – the homeowner and residents – and the same will apply for the fans.
It’ll also be crucial for any new football regulator to work closely with a wide range of government departments, as we did when designing and implementing a new Innovation Hub in partnership with the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Crucially, this work needed to integrate with the existing innovation ecosystem to promote new ideas and investment in UK aviation, rather than throwing out or reworking the great progress that had already been achieved. In this regard, the challenge at the CAA was not unlike football as the industry ecosystem is already firmly in place, so the focus must be on improving and augmenting rather than starting from scratch.
Current criticisms of the lack of regulation in football involve where power lies, how ownership is controlled, and a slew of financial concerns. The new regulator will have to fix these failings while protecting and enhancing the status of the nation (and world’s) most beloved sport, along with the Premier League and English Football League’s leading position.
One of the biggest problems the Government’s review identified was an imbalance in terms of who has the power to make various decisions. Any regulatory body will need to consider how it can promote equity and fairness across all stakeholders in the industry, enabling all stakeholders to have a voice that's heard. How can clubs introduce shadow boards and golden shares in a cost-effective manner? And how to ensure effective decision making is transparent and, when appropriate, collective, to demonstrate the value of the regulator’s ongoing engagement with industry.
When it comes to ownership, the new regulator is likely to take on fitness tests. How can it balance strict criteria with the need for clubs to maintain funds and prevent issues of debt that have crippled clubs like Bury FC? There’s also the disparity in wealth and financial opportunity between leagues. The immense financial benefits of promotion encourage a culture of risk taking that can lead to clubs that fall short – like Derby County, for example – encountering financial difficulty. How can the regulator address these inequalities without undermining competition between the leagues altogether? There’s a range of measures and tools to consider encompassing both a carrot and stick approach. What measures avoid impacting negatively on the fans? What difference could fan ownership make?
Regulating football really must be about more than finance. There are challenges around diversity and inclusion, mental health, data protection, and sustainability, all of which matter to players, supporters, and sponsors. The game has been under fire for not doing enough to fight racism, look after players’ wellbeing, or consider how it impacts the environment. There have been effective initiatives for tackling discrimination – could a new regulator implement them on a wider scale? For example, FIFA, the International football federation, has updated its disciplinary code to include tougher sanctions for racism and discriminatory behaviour. Would that be enough, or should it go further? How could the regulator address the need to support players before, during and after their careers?
And sustainability, a hot topic across all regulators, is certainly not a ‘nice-to-have’. How will the new system make sure English football takes it seriously? Would providing guidance be enough or should the regulator set formal rules? There are many resources to call on. PA have developed a guide with the UN to help organisations deliver genuine impact against the UN Sustainable Development Goals. And why not crowdsource best practice from among existing clubs? For example, Forest Green Rovers are making huge strides in the sustainability space. The lessons could be inspiring.
So, there are complex legislative and statutory challenges to address as the regulatory model is defined for the beautiful game in England. And there’s a diverse range of stakeholders to engage with to make sure the new regulator achieves its goal. We’ll be exploring these questions further in the coming weeks.