Expert comment on Football Governance White Paper
Dr David Webber welcomes the White Paper but urges more needs to be done if football’s political and economic crisis is to be addressed.
"The football governance White Paper is to be welcomed – but challenges remain to address systemic inequalities within the game and ensure its long-term sustainability,” says Senior Research Fellow Dr David Webber.
After a protracted delay, the government has today (23 February 2023) finally released its long-awaited White Paper on football governance.
Drawing upon many of the key findings of the Crouch Review set up in the wake of the failed European Super League fiasco almost two years ago, this Paper is expected to kick-start a long overdue legislative process that will introduce a new football regulator, tougher ownership rules, a greater say for fans, and a ban on clubs joining breakaway leagues.
Dr David Webber, a Senior Research Fellow at Solent University, Southampton, senior lecturer on the BSc (Hons) Football Studies degree, and specialist in the political economy of football, welcomes the White Paper but urges more needs to be done if football’s political and economic crisis is to be addressed.
“This is undoubtedly an important step in bringing English football back from the brink and the financial mess that the game finds itself.
“English football continues to face a myriad of challenges. The collapse of Bury FC. The ongoing economic uncertainty that many league and non-league clubs face. The European Super League. The deeply controversial Saudi-takeover of Newcastle United. For all its popularity and cultural appeal, barely a month goes by without football facing one economic crisis or another.
“With another state-ownership potentially on the horizon at Manchester United, and their neighbours, Manchester City facing an extensive Premier League investigation over financial irregularities, this legislative process cannot come quickly enough.
“But while this White Paper, quite rightly, highlights the need for reform, and recognises the importance that fans themselves should be allowed to play in the future governance of the game, there is a real danger that this Paper will be simply unable to get to grips with the systemic fault-lines that run throughout the English game.”
“Of particular concern to Dr Webber is the fundamental economic inequality that exists within English football. Inequality that exists between the men’s and women’s game more broadly, and between the Premier League and the rest of the league pyramid right down to the grassroots.
“A so-called solidarity tax – similar to the one I proposed in evidence as part of a Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry three years ago – which would see a certain percentage of the transfer fees paid out by Premier League clubs disbursed into a fund to support clubs lower down the league pyramid was dismissed by one Premier League chairman as an idea based upon ‘a philosophy akin to Maoist collective agriculturalism’.
“But such attitudes, Dr Webber argues, will only entrench the inequalities that have created the conditions of crisis that exist in the English game.
“This solidarity tax was called ‘too radical’. But this radicalism is exactly what football needs if it is to be reconnected to the fans and the communities that make the game what it is.
“The Premier League is the richest league in the world. The problem is, therefore, not that football has not enough money. Rather, it has too much money. Money that has been transferred from the pockets of supporters via ever-increasing broadcasting deals and eye-watering ticket prices and sequestered by a small transnational elite of owner-investors. Owners, of course, several of whom, having transformed these historic social institutions into global financial assets, set about pursuing more money when they embarked upon their failed plan for a European Super League.
“This wealth and these clubs themselves need to be democratised. The record-breaking £815m that Premier League clubs spent during the January transfer window revealed a group of clubs completely out-of-touch from the realities faced by both their own fans and those outside this elite as they grapple with an ongoing cost-of-living crisis.
“Greater fan representation is, of course, to be welcomed. As is an independent football regulator. But, given the economic might of the Premier League, questions remain over how much meaningful power this regulator and supporters will be able to exercise in the governance of the English game.
“The independent regulator must be granted real teeth to deliver the reforms that football needs. Similarly, fans too must be given more than token representation in how their clubs should be run. Without either having any meaningful say in how the game itself should be governed, then the promise of this otherwise laudable White Paper will not materialise.”
Dr Webber's research continues his original interest in British politics and IPE, but has developed to examine the political, economic and cultural changes that English football has undergone over the past 30 years. You can find out more about his work and research on his academic profile.