This month Supporters Direct (SD) launched its manifesto in a ten-point plan aimed at all political parties. It calls for a shake-up in football governance. SD point out that football clubs are not simply businesses and supporters are not simply consumers and to involve them in a democratic and structured way leads to better decision-making, which benefits both club and community.
It would like to see more clubs controlled by supporters and the wider community. The full document can be seen here
NUST agrees with Supporters Direct when they say that governments and sports governing bodies have a crucial role to play in enshrining these principles in regulation and legislation. We have stated before that we don’t think improved governance in football will happen as a result of self regulation.
We have previously reported that the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee published a series of recommendations in 2011 and 2013 which, although largely accepted by the football authorities, have never been implemented. This is unacceptable.
We have faced our particular problems in getting our club to engage with us on behalf of NUST members and SD’s manifesto states that every professional football club should have a formal plan for meaningful engagement and consultation with Supporters Trusts.
SD would like the barriers to supporter-ownership removed and would like to make it easier for independent and/or supporter directors to sit on club boards. Finally, it demands a code of governance for football clubs at least as robust as that operating in the wider business community.
“These demands are reasonable and achievable,” the manifesto says. “The time is right for the government to act. The voice of the supporter has never been so important.”
SD chief executive Robin Osterley said: “We don’t think that it’s too much to ask that supporters know exactly which person actually owns their club. We think it’s equally reasonable to expect that the rights of supporters are protected properly by the rules.
NUST has had a lot of support from a number of our local MPs in the region and we will be calling on them to help in addressing the issue of reforming football governance.
Whilst we support the SD manifesto and the aims behind it NUST believes that more can and should be done. We’ve been working with other Premier League Trusts to suggest how more could be done by Government if meaningful and permanent reform is to happen. Tottenham Hotspur Trust and Manchester United Trust have been particularly active and made detailed submissions to the Government’s Expert Working Group. NUST has supported their approach and will be working with them to help bring to the table a discussion paper proposing a Football Club Ownership and Governance Act should football fail to respond to further voluntary invitations to progressively reform.
Martin Cloak, THST says “We’re aware that such a view will immediately provoke accusations of ‘interference with the free market’. And that leads us to one of the basic principles upon which our approach is based. Football is not a business like any other, and so needs a unique set of rules to be applied to it. The current legal framework does not recognise that Football Clubs are fundamentally different from ordinary commercial businesses in certain key respects. Like commercial companies, they are run by a board of directors and owned by shareholders. Like commercial companies, they have relationships with suppliers and customers and need to take into account the interests of employees. But, unlike most companies, most Football Clubs are integral to the local community. Uniquely, Football Clubs have a very important stakeholder – their supporters – but, unfortunately, the current legal framework does not recognise their existence.”
Full details of Martin’s article can be seen here and the following is drawn from his article and the discussions with other Trusts.
It is the lack of special provision for Football Clubs in the legislation which has created a barrier to supporter ownership – especially at the higher levels. The majority of Football Clubs are privately owned and non-transparently managed. Currently, an owner can re-name the stadium, sell the club’s stadium, re-locate the team, change the colour of the shirts, massively inflate ticket prices, sell the best players, increase the borrowings and extract massive dividends, without being accountable.
This was not always the case. There was a Football Association Rule 34 protecting clubs from “asset-stripping” which was effectively removed when Tottenham Hotspur became the first club to float on the Stock Exchange in 1983.
We believe it is possible to regulate football as the unique business that it is, if there is a political will to do so. The best way to achieve the required changes, in our opinion, would be the introduction of a specific Football Club Ownership and Governance Act. The key reforms required are :
- require the controlling boards of all football clubs to have a majority of directors to be independent of both the executive management and of the shareholders, with at least one director elected by an accredited Supporters Trust;
- ensure that while the fiduciary duty of Independent Directors remains primarily to shareholders, where a potential conflict of interest arises which might result in material detriment, the best interests of the club will precede those of shareholders;
- require Independent Directors to promote supporter engagement and facilitate growth of supporter share ownership;
- require clubs to conform as a minimum with all (appropriate) sections of The UK Corporate Governance Code especially in relation to reporting, audit and accounting standards;
- set out a simple, model company structure for all Football Club ownership structures to conform to so as to avoid attempts to bypass the above reforms or more general obfuscation, tax avoidance or unequal rights for some shareholders;
- require the consent, as a class matter, of the relevant Supporters Trust for any attempt to change the location of or sell the club’s home ground, or to change the club’s name or home shirt colours;
The views set out above are a set of proposals, and we would encourage discussion of them at all levels of the game. They are not an unchangeable set of demands, but we believe the basic principles represent a genuine way to reform the game. Cynicism about this latest attempt by Parliament to consider reform of football is understandable after so many past failures. But the thinking in our proposals is shared widely by supporters groups, and the fact that more and more grass roots supporter groups have the confidence and ability to put forward such detailed ideas is a signal in itself that the terrain has changed. Politicians have a unique opportunity to reform a game that remains at the heart of national life.
That chance should not be wasted.