Playing by the Rules: The Governance of English Football

Publication Details

This report has been produced on behalf of ‘For Fans Too’ a supporters-first campaign advocating for improved governance and regulation of football in England. It follows on from the fan-led review into English football governance carried out by former sports minister Tracey Crouch MP and published in November 2021. It builds on the central recommendation of the review to establish an independent regulator for English football (IREF) which can protect the financial sustainability of the game.

The report explores how an independent regulator can be structured to function in an effective manner by delivering maximum value for the fans. It considers the evidence for regulatory best practice from within football, corporate governance and beyond. Case studies illustrate the importance of greater financial responsibility and the protection of cultural heritage in English football. This leads into a broader discussion of what good governance would look like – ensuring that the new IREF does not fall to Premier League dominance and forms of regulatory capture.

The main findings and recommendations consider a framework for English football governance which is enshrined in statute to recognise the unique social and economic value which football clubs provide to their community, while ensuring fair competition and greater supporter input, to secure the financial sustainability of the game and maintain the global economic appeal of English football.

Key Recommendations:

  1. The IREF should protect the football pyramid in England, which is unique and the envy of the world. It should have the power to prevent English football clubs from competing in domestic competitions should they choose to join new competitions – such as the proposed ‘new-look’ European Super League (ESL).
  2. The creation of a new independent regulator for English football (IREF) which introduces of robust owners’ and directors’ tests – establishing a comprehensive assessments system that examines the historic business practices and financial record of potential owners. In addition to this, all clubs in the English football pyramid should be required to appoint – by statute – the equivalent of a Section 151 officer in local government to oversee financial compliance and report to the IREF.
  3. The IREF should be given sufficient powers to impose a new financial settlement for the game. One possible option is for the new IREF to have the power to implement a levy on the Premier League’s broadcasting-related income, with the proceeds being redistributed throughout the EFL and grassroots football to shore up the wider game’s financial sustainability. If a hypothetical 5% levy was applied to the 2022 to 2025 broadcasting rights cycle, this would have generated in the region of £175 million per season for redistribution.
  4. The resources for the new IREF should be funded through the implementation of a progressive levy of all football clubs across the football pyramid. In accordance with the principles of fairness and proportionality, the levy-generated finances for the IREF’s operational activities will predominantly derive from the coffers of Premier League clubs. This offers a golden opportunity for England’s elite clubs to support the football pyramid and strengthen their credentials when it comes to corporate social responsibility.
  5. The IREF should have parliamentary oversight and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) should act as the ‘parent department’ – making the new regulatory agency accountable to ministers and the subject of select committee scrutiny. The House of Commons’ DCMS select committee should play a role in approving the appointment of the chair of the IREF. In addition to this, the House of Lords’ Industry and Regulators Committee can regularly assess risks associated with regulatory capture and conflicts of interests.
  6. The supporter-oriented democratisation of English football should be a priority for the new IREF. It should be an IREF-enforced requirement for all clubs to consider how best they ensure that the voice of fans is considered in making decisions that affect the long-term sustainability of the clubg. boards to include a democratically elected representative of the club’s Supporters Trust. Greater supporter-based representation is not only needed at club level, but also at the national level – especially on bodies such as the FA Council and the EFL Board of Directors.
  7. English clubs in the football pyramid should not only be obligated to submit annual plans to the IREF on how to foster a more inclusive environment for both their employees and supporters – an experienced Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) officer specialising in matters of inclusion and anti-discrimination should be required to sit on the club board. Considering the nation’s ongoing cost-of-living crisis, improving the game’s accessibility and matchday experience for fans in relatively deprived groups should be an EDI priority.
  8. Making use of football’s enduring popularity in left-behind areas, the UK government should reenergise its flagship levelling-up policy to co-ordinate with football charities and foundations to develop the capacity of local communities to, for example, improve health outcomes, raise educational attainment and employment prospects. These multi-agency initiatives can involve state-run academic/vocational institutions and established SMEs which join forces in local public-private partnerships fostered at football clubs which are civic assets in their own right.
  9. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities should review how a shared sense of civic pride in football clubs can be used as a foundation to foster bonds of social trust and mutual respect between residentially separated communities. The role that England’s football clubs can play in facilitating stronger community relations should be explored in greater depth by the UK government’s Independent Adviser for Social Cohesion and Resilience as part of broader political efforts to tackle extremism.