Bryn Jones on big money wrecking the beautiful game
Can it be true? A neoliberal Tory government promising to curb the continuing power of the financial oligarchy – albeit in one particular sector? That is the multi-billion-pound quasi-religion of professional football. Though resistant to massive protests over climate change, health services or poverty-level incomes, the Johnson government, and now Sunak’s Cabinet, responded sharply to mass protests precipitated by a cartel of the biggest, wealthiest clubs, including six from the English Premier League, aiming for further monopolisation of European football competitions in a Super League. This was the proverbial last straw after decades of scandal and supporter outrage.
Hailed as a radical intervention, the Government’s 2023 white paper promises to “put fans back at the heart of the game” through a football regulator, modelled on the Financial Conduct Authority, with powers to oversee the game’s “overall finances, the suitability of owners and directors, corporate governance, fan engagement and club heritage”. Breath-taking scope compared to the timid deference to business autonomy previously displayed by most mainstream politicians. But is this recipe tantamount to ‘socialist measures’ that clash with “a neoliberal agenda for every other industry”, as one analyst commented? At the heart of the problem lie two paths towards public accountability of corporate business.
One is the top-down regulation developed since the 1980s to moderate market forces and curb excessive economic power. Present now in nearly every sector, these regulatory bodies have had some patchy success as well as dire failures in industries like energy (windfall mega-profits and price-gouging), water (under-investment and sewage scandals) and financial regulation (remember the 2009 banking crisis?).
The other path would be bottom-up, democratised alternatives to the financial oligarchy of corporations through mutualisation or genuine stakeholder governance and board-level representation of supporters, players and community interests. In the build-up to the white paper, there were proposals – subsequently ditched – for a democratic element in the form of a ‘golden share’ that supporters could wield to block the most egregious of club directors’ decisions. However, it is the British system of corporate governance that has facilitated football’s financialisation, globalisation and the marginalisation of supporter interests.
England’s biggest clubs are now owned by either US sports corporations or Middle Eastern wealth funds. As is widely recognised, this governance system engenders a general abuse of business power in countries like the UK and USA. It privileges financial returns over socio-economic contributions to society, financial speculation over productive investment and elite wealth and positional power over wider participation and social accountability. Small steps were made towards the alternative, grassroots control of football during the New Labour era.
A civil society organisation, Supporters Direct (SD), was created to promote supporters’ trusts to own and control clubs throughout the game. Despite some successes, the model only took root in football’s lower leagues. The New Labour wheeze of making the mega-bucks Premier League finance the movement, via its ‘Fans Fund’, eventually stunted the original project. The Fans Fund (read Premier League) pressured SD to merge with the Football Supporters Association, thereby blunting its intended scope.
The new regulator’s vague remit on corporate governance will probably mean shady business as usual for clubs that work within the law but violate the lofty values proclaimed in the white paper. Take, for example, West Bromwich Albion FC, founder member of the world’s first professional league in 1880 and the club I have been doomed to support for over fifty years. Sold by its majority shareholder, a City financier, to a Chinese property developer in 2016, it was relegated (again) to the financially under-endowed Championship league in 2021. This season, its fans have been demonstrating against financial shenanigans in which the club holding company made perfectly lawful loans totalling £12 million to the owner and another of his businesses. The resultant financial hole led the club’s auditors to warn of probable insolvency and the owner to take a £20 million loan from a US investment fund at a punitive 10% interest rate. If the full loan is not repaid, or the stomach-churning £5 million annual instalments are not made, the Americans could take possession of the 120-year-old stadium as compensation, effectively threatening Albion’s very existence – a fate already suffered by other clubs traumatised and eventually broken by similar financial chicanery.
Yet under British corporate governance law, this is all perfectly legal. A regulator would have a hard time preventing it. As some have argued for years (see, eg my book, Corporate Power and Social Responsibility (2015)), the scourge is the British corporate model, which is particularly toxic for civil society activities like culture and sports. Vague promises of ‘fan engagement’ imply the cosmetic consultation window-dressing which masks power inequalities. When all this well-meaning regulation fails to prevent more exploitation of the increasingly unbeautiful game and its devotional supporters, the alternative democratisation path must be urged instead.