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Game Changer or Sideline Spectator: How a Labour Government Could Reshape British Football

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What impact could a Labour administration have on football?

Should the Labour Party emerge victorious in the upcoming election, Sir Keir Starmer would take on a significant piece of legislation with the potential to transform football. The question remains: how would he handle it? He needs to address issues related to the distribution of wealth, ownership of clubs, preservation of traditions, and the advancement of women's football.

Journalist @nminassian

Sunday, June 16, 2024, 2:

Political decisions can significantly influence the direction of football, especially given the events of the last five years. Now, it's critical to assess how the government plans to engage with the nation's beloved sport.

Amidst the threat of club closures, the emergence of a rebellious league, the growing prominence of women's soccer, and the influence of state-owned teams, football has several reasons to command attention from future political leaders.

The key issue at hand is the significant Football Governance Bill, initially put forward by the Conservative government and widely supported across different political parties.

Football finance specialist Kieran Maguire explained to Sky News that there's a belief football is deeply ingrained in the nation's culture and therefore requires safeguarding, which is the purpose of the proposed legislation.

He explained, "A football club operates as a sole provider; for instance, if you're a fan of Wolverhampton and they cease operations, it's not as though you can easily switch your allegiance to West Bromwich Albion."

"Due to its fervor, it requires safeguarding – from owners, to prevent altering the club's essence."

As the England men's team begins its Euro 2024 journey this Sunday, the focus will alternate between soccer and political developments for the upcoming three weeks.

How might one influence the other; what impact could Labour's proposals have on supporters, and what uncertainties still exist?

A standalone oversight authority

The disintegration of Bury FC during the summer of 2019 led the Conservative Party to propose a review of football governance driven by supporters in their manifesto for the general election that year.

The suggestion was to establish a separate regulatory body to maintain financial stability throughout the sports leagues and to involve fans in discussions about the heritage of their clubs – more details will follow.

The legislation was introduced to members of Parliament in March, but due to the scheduling of a general election, there was insufficient time to fully pass the bill. Consequently, its future now depends on the next administration.

Sir Keir Starmer supports Arsenal, and the Labour Party has pledged to "create an independent regulator" as part of its platform.

Jon Tonge, a supporter of Bury and a political science professor at the University of Liverpool, expressed to Sky News his belief that the upcoming administration "might face pressure" to relax certain rules.

"He stated that the Premier League, a giant in the industry, claims the proposals represent excessive regulation, and there's a chance that a Labour government could dilute these measures."

Distributing prosperity

A pressing task for the newly established regulatory body might be to address the ongoing dispute between the Premier League and the English Football League (EFL), which oversees the three lower divisions.

England's premier league contributes £1.6 billion to the broader football community every three years, which represents 16% of its overall income, supporting amateur and grassroots football.

According to Sky Sports News, the Premier League currently allocates approximately £340 million annually to the English Football League (EFL). Under new proposals from the board, this figure is set to rise to around £500 million per year for a period of six years.

During a March assembly, Premier League clubs turned down the proposed strategy from the board, emphasizing the need to overhaul their financial regulations before considering any increase in their financial contributions.

Premier League teams shelled out over £400 million solely on agent commissions in the year leading up to February 1st, marking a rise of almost £100 million compared to the last season.

Should negotiations fail, a safety mechanism would empower the regulator to enforce a settlement between the Premier League and the EFL.

Recently, within the last five years, clubs including the once-prominent Premier League team Bolton Wanderers, along with Bury, Wigan Athletic, and Derby County, have all gone into administration.

Assessments for possession

Supporters have long demanded tougher screenings and evaluations for potential football club owners, primarily to protect against previously mentioned economic difficulties.

In pursuit of this goal, the regulatory body would enforce an enhanced owners and directors' test, backed by legal authority.

Discover more: 'A significant milestone for supporters': Proposal for establishing a football oversight body. This regulatory body might benefit teams at lower levels of the league hierarchy.

The regulator would be granted access to various agencies and governmental branches, allowing for a more thorough investigation into the sufficiency and origins of funds.

Authorities will issue a directive for the removal of owners and directors deemed unfit, providing a timeline for them to vacate their positions and imposing limitations on their influence within the role.

In assessing the fitness of club owners, regulators face numerous considerations, yet the most significant issue will probably continue to persist.

Government ownership

Over 15 years ago, the acquisition of Manchester City by the UAE initiated a highly debated era in Premier League history, characterized by the emergence of state ownership.

Last year, a group from Qatar was unsuccessful in their attempt to acquire Manchester United, whereas in 2021, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia successfully purchased Newcastle United.

It sparks debate about sportswashing, as nations known for human rights violations take ownership of cherished community properties within the globe's most prestigious league.

According to football finance specialist Kieran Maguire, it seems improbable that a Labour government would tackle the issue of state ownership.

"He emphasized that the legislation steers clear of involving the government in moral or ethical issues, specifically avoiding any matters of state ownership."

Professor Tonge concurs.

"He stated that state ownership is expected not only to persist but also to expand."

"I believe Labour would hesitate to prohibit it, primarily because the situation has already progressed too far – once you've permitted it for one party, how can you prevent others from doing the same?"

Section 37 (2) of the legislation mandates that the regulator consider the government's objectives regarding trade and foreign policy when evaluating the appropriateness of prospective and current owners.

Women's soccer

The Football Governance Bill completely overlooks the women's game.

The Lionesses secured England's first global title since 1966 by clinching the Euros in 2022 and then advanced to the World Cup final the next year.

This season has seen the Women's Super League break multiple attendance records, with Arsenal surpassing the 60,000 ticket sales mark twice.

Yet, it has thrived even with significantly less financial support than the men's sport.

Premier League teams receive approximately £88 million annually to fund their youth academies, in contrast to the FA, which allocates only £3.25 million annually for women's academy programs.

The premier league has announced a commitment of £21 million to fund women's and girls' football over the period from 2022 to 2025.

Kelly Simmons, previously the head of the women's professional game at the FA and now a consultant for Run Communications' women's sport division, believes that financial investment could "revolutionize the game immediately."

"She expressed to Sky News her belief that women's football is expanding rapidly. She predicted to the FA that it would become the second most popular sport in her lifetime, following men's football."

"However, it often seems to be missing from many major conversations among football stakeholders."

The prohibition on women's soccer was only overturned in 1971 in the United Kingdom, and Ms. Simmons thinks it might be appropriate to contemplate compensation for the lost years.

"She pointed out that the women's sport suffers from a lack of funding and suggested that integrating them into the solidarity payments from the Premier League could be a solution," she stated.

"Incorporating this change in football would be advantageous for the sport, as it would engage the half of the population that has historically been overlooked."

Premier Competition

In 2021, efforts to increase profits at the pinnacle of men’s soccer led to the creation of the European Super League concept.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Tottenham Hotspur were set to team up with top clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Juventus in a highly profitable new league.

Supported with a starting loan of £3 billion funded through debt from American investment bank JP Morgan, the 15 initial clubs were set to get an "infrastructure grant" of as much as £300 million simply for joining.

Unburdened by the risk of demotion or the inability to qualify, the initial 15 members were assured continuous participation in the league every season, irrespective of their performance.

The decision was met with strong disapproval, and the intense criticism from fans in England led every member of the English group to withdraw.

While certain groups in Europe remain attached to the concept, the Labour Party's platform clearly addresses the issue.

The statement declares, "We will never permit an exclusive group of clubs to break away from the traditional English football hierarchy."

Replays in the FA Cup

A new administration may approve measures to prohibit the creation of new leagues, but it is unlikely to interfere with alterations to established tournaments like eliminating replays in the FA Cup.

"Mr. Maguire believes it would be a regressive move to let a regulatory body influence a functional problem."

"FIFA and UEFA have established regulations against government intervention, which could benefit those who are against the implementation of a regulatory body."

In the past, FIFA has imposed bans on national football associations due to excessive interference by government bodies, which results in their clubs and national teams being barred from participating in FIFA or UEFA competitions.

Cultural Legacy

Stay informed on the most recent updates from the UK and across the globe by tuning into Sky News.

While the elimination of FA Cup replays might be seen as a detriment to the nation's football tradition by certain supporters, it could result in them having more influence over their club's decisions.

The Labour Party's platform declares: "Labour pledges to transform Britain into the premier destination for football enthusiasts worldwide."

"We plan to overhaul the management of football to safeguard community clubs and to enhance the involvement of supporters in their administration."

Expenses related

The escalating expenses tied to attending games, including higher ticket prices and pricier train fares, have made it unaffordable for some fans to attend matches.

Traveling to cheer on your favorite team at an away game, an activity that attracts tens of thousands of fans every weekend, can often exceed £100 in rail fares alone, and that’s for a trip that might face delays or lack sufficient seating.

In April, the Labour Party revealed its intention to bring the railways back under public ownership should they triumph in the upcoming general election.

The political group stated that citizens would save £2.2 billion annually – but does this imply lower ticket prices?

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh acknowledged that there is no plan to allocate the saved funds specifically back into the railway system, indicating that these funds might instead be redirected to other areas such as health or education.

Discover more: Sky Sports renews contract with Women's Super League. Ex-banker set to spearhead transformation in women's soccer.

She stated that Labour aims to reduce the cost of fares.

"Today, I'm not in a position to promise reduced fares, primarily due to their intricate nature and the necessary reforms in regulation," Ms. Haigh stated.

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