We call it the ‘beautiful game’ but there’s nothing particularly beautiful or edifying about the direction professional football has taken in recent decades. At the top end of the sport, football has become an ‘industry’; the game, a ‘commodity’. One of the most iniquitous consequences of this corporatisation of the game is the marginalisation of the very masses who sustain it – the fans.
Ironically, most of the UK’s big name clubs began their days as small cooperatives, so the concept of supporter involvement in the governance of football clubs is neither new nor particularly controversial. And today, in fact, many thousands of fans do enjoy a degree of representation, control and even outright ownership at lower league and non-professional clubs, thanks to the efforts of scores of supporters’ trusts up and down the country.
But the ‘giants’ of the industry remain untouchable and seemingly impervious to the new age of accountability and transparency. Iconic clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool in my own constituency are happy to relieve ticket-holders of their hard-earned cash and to ride upon reputations built by generations of supporters. They’re far less willing to address the under-representation of fans or to acknowledge their right, as crucial stakeholders, to be involved in club governance. Such clubs can pile up debt with impunity, make wildly unpopular, controversial ownership and management decisions and run exploitative marketing and merchandising regimes. Fans - mere ‘consumers’ - have long been expected to put up or shut up.
The worm is slowly turning, though. Many Premier League supporters have had their loyalty and patience tested to the limit and are no longer prepared to stand by and see their clubs taken over, plundered and destroyed by corporate raiders. Increasingly, fans are getting organised - in their tens of thousands - with a view to asserting their rights and ‘reclaiming’ their clubs.
That’s why the time is ripe for a Westminster Hall Debate. The previous Labour Government made considerable headway on this - it established Supporters Direct in 1999, for example - and was committed to ensuring the automatic right of fan collectives to a meaningful stake in their clubs. In calling for MPs to discuss the issue, I hope to encourage a serious exploration of the practical possibilities and to bring pressure to bear on those parties – namely, the new Government and the industry’s governing bodies - best placed to move things forward. The Government has no excuse to procrastinate on this. Not only does governance reform of this kind accord with the alleged social and community aspirations of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ agenda; the Government made an explicit commitment in its Coalition Agreement to “encourage the reform of football governance rules to support the cooperative ownership of football clubs by supporters.”
It will not be enough merely to “encourage” reform, however. Ministers must create the incentives and conditions for reform and proactively coax, cajole and – if necessary – compel football’s governing authorities to initiate change.