Wembley stadium

Christina Philippou reflects on the benefits and limitations to having an independent regulator govern UK football.

Late April/early May 2021 saw a busy period in the off-pitch activities of Premier League football clubs. The European Super League (ESL) proposals came and went, Manchester United fans invaded their stadium in an act of defiance against their ownership, and Chelsea introduced fan representatives at some Board meetings.

The short-lived ESL project seemed to be the tipping point. It threatened the competitive balance and income streams of the Premier League, UEFA, and FIFA, but what promised to shake-up the governance and power of the football world has instead led to the potential to do that in a very different way. What prompted mass fan mobilisation also led the UK Government to launch the fan led review of football contained in their 2019 manifesto.

The review’s terms of reference included one that has been floated repeatedly in recent times

Assess calls for the creation of a single, independent football regulator to oversee the sport’s regulations and compliance, and its relationship with the regulatory powers of The FA and other football bodies.

Getting regulation off the ground

This is not the first time some form of independent oversight has been recommended. The 2017 independent report on Duty of Care in Sport’s first priority recommendation was the creation of a Sports Ombudsman with “powers to hold national governing bodies (NGBs) to … provid[e] independent assurance and accountability”. 

UK Sport took up the accountability mantel and created (in conjunction with Sport England) A Code for Sport Governance, based on the UK Corporate Governance Code, where funding from UK Sport was linked to governance requirements. However, UK Sport explicitly reminds those seeking to lodge a complaint or report on their website that “UK Sport is not a regulator of sport or prescribed regulator for whistleblowing purposes under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. It does not have powers of investigation in internal sporting disputes or the affairs of sports governing bodies.”

Challenges to independent regulation

As it stands, the regulation of football is complicated, and does not come under a single body. In England, there is the FA for the national team and grassroots, the Premier League and EFL for different levels of professional competition, IFAB for the on-field Laws of the Game, UEFA as the umbrella organisation for regulation in Europe, and FIFA for global rules and regulations. The problems stem from lack of independence or conflicts of interest, as all these bodies compete against each other for a myriad of things including sponsors, broadcasters, players’ time, and fans’ money. 

There is also the issue that football is largely not a competitive industry where fans are concerned, as clubs are monopolies (Portsmouth fans are not going to become Southampton fans no matter how good the advertising). Add in the public asset argument, and what other industry like it doesn’t have a regulator? 

But what is a regulator and how do they work? 

Regulators tend to set rules and monitor the organisations they regulate to ensure compliance, and they are normally paid for by set fees by their regulated members, and, of course, fines. We have independent regulators for financial institutionsmedicinewatertelecoms, and education. Given the number of governing bodies in football, this is not a simple ask, but even if the independent regulator’s role is to ensure the country’s bodies abide by their own rules, that is a start.

Could a regulator lead to the betterment of football for all?

In some ways, yes. My colleague, Dr Adam Cox, and I recently argued that the current governance structures are not fit for purpose, but an independent regulator could help some of the stakeholders in the game in the following ways:

Fans

Ownership and governance of clubs also features in the fan-led review terms. Monitoring clubs and governing bodies would ensure clubs are better run, by minimising conflicts of interest, owners involved in illegal activities, or breach of FIFA’s Code of Ethics (1.1) in the case of “illegal, immoral, or unethical behaviour”. Requiring independent and fan members on football boards would also dampen abuse of power.

Owners

Properly monitored financial controls to avoid administration/liquidation would be beneficial to owners too (assuming that they are not involved in money laundering), while conflicts of interest (e.g. with agents), could also decrease costs for clubs and make them more sustainable.

Players

Ensuring stakeholders are consulted in line with regulations would help players as, for example, the EFL salary cap conflict (which would have suppressed player wages) would arguably not have got that far. Also, more representation around the women’s game, disproportionately affected by the pandemic, would ultimately help female players (and their salaries).

Officials

More diversity in decision-making, monitoring, and controls around board membership and engagement, as well as ensuring that policies set up by the organising bodies (for example, the FA’s Code of Governance for County FAs and their Football Leadership Diversity Code) are implemented.

Of course, it is not all rosy – there are many limitations too. Aside from the issues around jurisdiction and recognition of the regulator by the clubs and/or governing bodies, there is also the need for legislation, resources (staff and money), and time. And that is before you get to conflicts between stakeholders, as what is good for many fans (sustainability) may not be good for players (lower wages) or other fans (less money spent on star players).

So where does that leave us?

With plenty of potential benefits and limitations to having an independent regulator. Some of these have been covered here. But it is important for the debate to continue.


Christina Philippou is a principal lecturer and Director of Postgraduate Courses in the Accounting and Financial Management subject group in the Faculty of Business and Law.

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