By Steve Greenfield, University of Westminster
The Hillsborough stadium tragedy on April 15th, 1989, led to the death of 97 football fans, 94 on the day and 3 subsequently after. The last of these was Andrew Devine who died in 2021 but was ruled by the Liverpool Coroner to have been unlawfully killed.
It was a watershed for English football that had gone through numerous stadium disasters such as the 1985 Bradford fire that killed 56, and from the 1970’s the ‘English disease’ – football hooliganism. Numerous inquiries made recommendations, but still the problems persisted as Lord Justice Taylor noted in his report:
“It is a depressing and chastening fact that mine is the ninth official report covering crowd safety and control at football grounds. After eight previous reports and three editions of the Green Guide, it seems astounding that 95 people could die from overcrowding before the very eyes of those controlling the event.”
English football was in the last chance saloon and the ‘solution’ was a new beginning with all seater grounds and more fundamentally a shiny new League.
The formation of the Premier League, by the Football Association, was opposed by the Football League who sought a Judicial Review of the FA’s decision to set up the new competition at its expense. As Justice Christopher Rose noted “…it is no part of my job to decide whether the creation of a Premier League will or will not be a good thing for English football…” The issue at stake was whether the FA had the authority to set up the breakaway competition. Rose determined the FA wasn’t subject to Judicial Review by the Football League, giving the green light for the Premier League to commence in 1992. The driving force was the potential for new broadcasting income, with the first exclusive deal to show live matches signed with BSkyB for £304m over the first 5 years, growing to £4.5bn by 2018. This approach was revolutionary and the start of a subscription based model that continues to this day.
The money has continued to roll in and in 2021 the 20 Premier League clubs shared some £2.6bn between them with bottom club Norwich still receiving almost £100m. This was a far cry from the first year where the total pot was a mere £35m with top placed Manchester United receiving £2.4m.
Clubs, Owners and Fans
The enormous commercial rewards have given clubs a newfound world status and attracted interest from across the world. Examination of the current Premier League clubs indicates both the wealth and origins of the new owners. Only Bournemouth and Brentford lack billionaires at the helm. There are even two ‘countries’ involved, Manchester City is three quarters owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group and Newcastle United was bought in October 2021 by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. This has brought concerns about ‘sportswashing’.
The diversity is breath taking; Wolverhampton Wanderers is owned by a Chinese consortium, Southampton by a Serbian billionaire, Fulham by an American-Pakistani sports tycoon and Nottingham Forest by a Greek media mogul. Americans have an interest in more than half a dozen clubs, most controversially Manchester United, which has been controlled by the Glazer family since 2005.
The purchase model loaded debt onto the club and the family have taken out over £150m from the club which places the club at the bottom of the League for owner investment and is in stark contrast to the other clubs.
The Glazer ownership has led to significant fan protests, at the time of the original takeover a new club, FC United of Manchester, was formed by disgruntled supporters. Protests have continued and gained momentum as the club has become less competitive with the ground requiring obvious investment. After the announcement of the European Super League, supported by the Glazers, fans invaded the ground prior to the game against Liverpool on May 2nd 2021, leading to the game being postponed. This was a highly significant and serious event that garnered worldwide publicity.
In the same manner, well over 10,000 fans joined a mass protest march before an August 2022 Liverpool fixture. Perhaps fortunately for the owners, United produced an outstanding display to win 2-1 having lost both of their previous fixtures. It is clear that the discontent will continue with future protests planned.
Following the widespread criticism of big clubs seeking breakaway to form the European Super League, the government set up a Review of Football Governance prompted by 3 events, first the financial collapse of Bury FC, second the impact of Covid, and thirdly the ESL. The Review was tasked to “explore ways of improving the governance, ownership and financial sustainability of clubs in English football, building on the strengths of the football pyramid.”
The Final Report set out ten ‘strategic recommendations’:
“(A) To ensure the long-term sustainability of football, the Government should create a new independent regulator for English football (IREF)
(B) To ensure financial sustainability of the professional game, IREF should oversee financial regulation in football.
(C) New owners’ and directors’ tests for clubs should be established by IREF replacing the three existing tests and ensuring that only good custodians and qualified directors can run these vital assets.
(D) Football needs a new approach to corporate governance to support a long-term sustainable future of the game.
(E) Football needs to improve equality, diversity and inclusion in clubs with committed EDI Action Plans regularly assessed by IREF.
(F) As a uniquely important stakeholder, supporters should be properly consulted by their clubs in taking key decisions by means of a Shadow Board.
(G) Football clubs are a vital part of their local communities, in recognition of this there should be additional protection for key items of club heritage.
(H) Fair distributions are vital to the long-term health of football. The Premier League should guarantee its support to the pyramid and make additional, proportionate contributions to further support football.
(I) Women’s football should be treated with parity and given its own dedicated review.
(J) As an urgent matter, the welfare of players exiting the game needs to be better protected – particularly at a young age.”
Overall, a rather toothless and tepid set of proposals that placed responsibility in the hands of an independent regulator (should the role ever be created). There is no guarantee that regulators will regulate effectively, for example, the House of Lords was critical of the Gambling Commission for failing to use its statutory powers proactively. Neither is it clear that the government will act on the proposals and legislate.
On the surface the English Premier League appears to be an unrivalled success and the envy of Football Associations around the world- no one has a product like it. It has transformed the game and the grounds are unrecognisable. The broadcasters are now key players who can have fixtures moved to their own schedule. Opportunities for new revenues stream have appeared though there are concerns with the number of gambling companies who sponsor shirts or other aspects.
Clubs have delayed dealing with the issue, as has the government. It is also unlikely that the European Super League has gone for good and will return in a revised form. It is too valuable an opportunity to be discarded, there is too much money to be made. The new breed of owners are ruthless entrepreneurs who are well positioned to exploit their product. Top level football has undoubtedly been modernised but fans have found this came with a price.