The Premier League is facing the strongest challenge for years to its financial and administrative dominance over English football as a parliamentary committee prepares to draft legislation intended to force reform of the Football Association by law and the appointment of a regulator.
The proposed action by the culture, media and sport committee, calling for a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the FA, follows a critical intervention from three former FA chairmen and two former senior executives, who have said they learned in their roles that the governing body is incapable of protecting the game from the “financial might” of the Premier League.
Greg Dyke, David Bernstein and David Triesman, the three most recent chairmen before the FA’s current incumbent, Greg Clarke, together with the former FA director David Davies and Alex Horne, a former chief executive, have written a strong letter to the committee backing legislation. It says the FA as currently constituted, with a board dominated by Premier and Football League representatives, and a council of “well-meaning”, mostly elderly white men, cannot “counter the EPL juggernaut”.
While calls for a government-appointed regulator have been made with some regularity by supporters’ groups throughout the past 20 years in which the Premier League has grown exponentially richer and cemented a strong hold over the FA, this is the first time such senior former insiders have collectively argued for it.
Damian Collins, the Conservative chair of the committee, responded to the letter by saying that draft legislation is already being prepared and parliamentary time sought for legislation.
“The committee is working with the parliamentary authorities to prepare a draft bill to deliver the necessary reform to the structure of the FA,” Collins’ reply states. “We will also ask the backbench business committee if time can be secured for a debate in the House of Commons calling for a vote of no confidence in the FA, and for legislation to deliver the change it needs.”
Any such bill would have almost no chance of becoming law unless the government supports it, and there is no sign this government is any more inclined to legislate than all governments since the 1992 breakaway of the Football League’s First Division clubs to form the Premier League. The top clubs initiated that breakaway and secured the support of the FA so that they would not have to share their pay-TV financial bonanza with the rest of football.
Governments have viewed the Premier League as a great success and international advertisement for Britain and been more inclined to seek reflected glory from it than legislate for a more equal distribution of money and power in football.
In their letter to Collins the former FA chairmen and directors are highly critical of the dominance the Premier League’s 20 clubs have over the rest of football, arguing that even the money that is now redistributed is conditional on compliance with the Premier League’s strategic aims.
“The reality is that the professional game stakeholders from the English Football League to the players, managers and referees are dominated by the English Premier League (EPL) due to their financial might and the way financial contributions are wielded at every turn to assert beneficial positions for the EPL,” the letter states. “The EFL’s strategy unduly influences the Championship clubs eager to access EPL financial advantages. This affects the League 1 and 2 clubs adversely, which in turn knocks on to the National League and right through the football pyramid.”
Summing up the financial imbalance of English football, the former FA chairmen and senior directors pointed to the “bizarre” fact that the FA is required to distribute 50% of the money available for football investment back into the professional game.
“Twenty clubs are in receipt of billions whilst the FA is under threat of losing millions which it gives wholly to grassroots football. To make matters worse, under the bizarre funding formula of The FA, not only does the FA not receive any of the EPL billions, it is compelled to contribute tens of millions to the EPL, also money which could go to the grassroots of the game.”
The letter asserts that the FA is now incapable of curbing the Premier League’s power: “We can testify first-hand that the FA’s decision-making structures are arcane and convoluted leading to a lack of clarity about the role and purpose of these structures.
“The FA has neither the modernity of approach nor independence required to counter the EPL juggernaut or to modernise its own governance.”
Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) backed the calls for fundamental reform. “Reform of the FA is decades overdue,” their chief executive, Duncan Drasdo, said. “The FA’s main board needs to have a majority of independent directors to curb the undue and inappropriate influence of the powerful vested interests in the game. The FA Council needs to change too and become a powerful advisory board with representation from a wide range of football stakeholders and most importantly to include supporters, without whom the game is nothing.”
The FA has never supported legislation or a regulator for football, including during the time when the five former officials were in their posts, and, like the Premier League, the governing body has actively opposed previous calls. In a statement the FA said: “The FA is currently working on governance reforms to adhere to Sport England and UK Sport’s Governance Code for Sport which was released in October this year.
“The FA welcomes the new Code as a means of ensuring that sports organisations in receipt of public money are operating in an effective and transparent manner that best supports their sports. We will continue to work with the appropriate bodies, DCMS and Sport England, to achieve this joint ambition.”
In a statement of their own, the Premier League said it had “always supported the FA’s governance reforms, for example backing the changes recommended by Lord Burns in their entirety. We have kept patience when past chairmen and chief executives at the FA have failed to deliver, but will continue to work with the current leadership team at the FA to progress their governance agenda.”
The committee is due to question the sports minister, Tracey Crouch, on Tuesday, and MPs are certain to ask her if she will support the proposed legislation.
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