Liberal Democrats can define themselves through football reform

 

In the world of football, all is not good. FIFA is undergoing the trials and tribulations of reform, whilst acting like some sort of pseudo- authoritarian state, corrupt to the very core. The FA is blind to the locking out of many fans and seemingly unable to push real reform. The Premier League can’t hear complaints over the cash pile that they find themselves eternally drenched in.

This matters, to a lot of people. In the UK, 32% of the adult population is engaged with the Premier League. This is before we address the Championship, where historically popular teams such as Derby and Nottingham Forest now lie. In 2013-14, Championship teams averaged 17,000 spectators per game, and in League 1 that figure still stood at a very reasonable 8,000. Football matters.

Turning to the Liberal Democrats, the next few months will be dominated by a few big items on the agenda. The party has to define internally what it wants it brand of liberalism to be. It then has to start effectively communicating this liberalism to the general public. It is all well and good affirming internal party values, but to gain popular support, there will be no greater asset than effective communication.

To do this, I believe that the Liberal Democrats will need to take stands and organise campaigns in a number of significant policy areas. Europe and Human Rights seem obvious places to start, with clear ground to put forward a very distinctive, liberal case. But I also believe that an extremely effective way to communicate a redefined liberalism is through taking a stand in football.

The liberalism I believe in supports the idea that where a market does not work and ends up hurting people, there is clear scope for intervention. It supports standing up for the everyday people and ensuring that they have a say against the most powerful in society: a redistribution of power.

It is in football where the Liberal Democrats can show that they can do both. The market is failing the people. Ticket prices are rising, locking out many of the traditional audience of football who simply cannot afford games. Historic stadiums are being sold off. There is huge financial risk-taking, high debt levels, and clubs going bankrupt due to aggressive owners obsessed with winning. Fans are played around by TV, being forced to change and cancel travel plans at the last minute. Clubs are having their identities stripped and their historic kits and crests changed. Fans, the very heartbeat of football and once the most important part of football, have sunk to the bottom.

The FA and the Premier League have promised numerous times to reform, but never quite get round to doing it. The Government has always made vague noises of intervention, but too, never quite gets round to doing anything meaningful. The Football Governance Bill 2014-2015 had an okay go at tackling some of the superficial problems – mostly dealing with ownership grievances – but barely tackled the structural issues. The Lib Dems also adopted a motion at the 2014 Glasgow Conference, and made some superficial moves towards football reform in the manifesto, with some vague claims to improve governance and introduce safe standing, but nothing substantive.

There is real room for the Lib Dems to make this a big issue, win the support of many football fans, and show exactly what they stand for. The party could work with groups such as the Football Supporters’ Federation and give real voice to some of their campaigns, such as Twenty’s Plenty. They could back structured relationships between clubs and fans, with mandatory fan representation on boards, and the ability of supporter’s trusts to buy parts of their club. There could be better protection for stadiums. A significant package of reform on supporting grass roots football using TV riches could be backed. This is just part of the reform that football needs. Associate the Liberal Democrats with popular reform, it starts to become easier to put across visions.

When the market is failing, it needs intervention and pressure for it to reassert itself. Football is certainly failing. There is room for significant reform, and room for the Liberal Democrats to show exactly what liberalism is to people. Communicating it through supporting and campaigning for big reforms is an effective way of putting Lib Dem values across. Football is a policy area that the party should make a big deal.

 

* Will Paul is a student studying History & Politics at the University of Edinburgh and a local party activist

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32 Comments

  • Simon Thorley 27th Jul '15 - 1:03pm

    “The liberalism I believe in supports the idea that where a market does not work and ends up hurting people, there is clear scope for intervention.” While I absolutely agree with this as a principle of liberalism, I don’t agree that not being able to afford a ticket for a football match should be counted as ‘hurt’. Nor, in this case, has the market failed.

    “The market is failing the people. Ticket prices are rising, locking out many of the traditional audience of football who simply cannot afford games. Historic stadiums are being sold off. There is huge financial risk-taking, high debt levels, and clubs going bankrupt due to aggressive owners obsessed with winning. Fans are played around by TV, being forced to change and cancel travel plans at the last minute. Clubs are having their identities stripped and their historic kits and crests changed. Fans, the very heartbeat of football and once the most important part of football, have sunk to the bottom.” This is not an example of a market failing – if football fans don’t feel that the price they pay to follow their teams is commensurate with the benefits they receive, they can put their money to other uses. Or start new teams, of course. Is it appropriate for the state to dictate the terms of a market which provides, ultimately, nothing more vital than entertainment?

  • Frankly who cares? If “fans” are silly enough to allow themselves to be fleeced by the football business, then that’s their lookout. As Liberals we should be confident in letting people make their own decisions on this issue. There are plenty of alternative (and cheaper) sources of entertainment provided in the market.

  • William Paul 27th Jul '15 - 1:38pm

    @Simon
    Yes, but football is much more than that. Football is, for a lot of fans, part of identity. In much the same way that joining a political party is expressing something, so is attending matches and investing time, money and emotional support in a club. I believe that a market that locks out these people is failing. It is not as simple as following a new team. Indeed, I’m not suggesting significant state intervention, rather a re-balancing of the rules and some minor interference to ensure that the market serves the many, not the few.

    @TCO
    As I pointed out, a lot of people care. A lot of people find football to be a big part of their lives, their identity and what they enjoy. Again, it is not as easy as finding an alternative source of entertainment, nor should it have to be. Liberalism should stand up when the richest in society are able to lock out the poorest. If we, as a party, to rebuild successful, then we’ll have to understand better than “who cares” about what people are interested in. Standing up for the many vs the few, as in football governance, effectively communicates a redefined liberalism, shows what we are about, and communicates this to a wide audience.

  • Ian Stewart 27th Jul '15 - 1:56pm

    “This is before we address the Championship, where historically popular teams such as Derby and Nottingham Forest now lie. In 2013-14″……….. let me add Blackburn Rovers to that short list (otherwise the Party Leader might think the honeymoon is over).

  • Eddie Sammon 27th Jul '15 - 2:12pm

    I’m interested in reforming football, but the language needs to be more friendly towards the clubs, a lot of whom are in a lot of debt. I know you mention the debt, but you just blame it on “aggressive owners obsessed with winning”.

    We should also respect the fact that the vast majority of those who want a career in football don’t make it and many who do get injured early and never recover. This is one of the reasons they are paid so well.

    In terms of its culture: I agree there is a bit of a problem, but this needs to be resolved mainly with education.

  • @William Paul “Football is, for a lot of fans, part of identity. In much the same way that joining a political party is expressing something, so is attending matches and investing time, money and emotional support in a club. ”

    Yes, but that’s true for any number of sports – why should we privilege football? It’s perfectly possible for someone to follow a football team without buying all the associated merchandise or even attending matches.

    The fans really have the power to change their own sport. We’ve seen examples of this with AFC Wimbledon and United FC. Supporting grass-roots campaigns like this can be done at the local level but there’s no need for market intervention.

    The preamble states “a competitive environment in which the state allows the market to operate freely where possible but intervenes where necessary.”

    Football does not constitute a necessity. Intervention is unnecessary, wrong, and against our principles.

  • Simon Thorley 27th Jul '15 - 2:25pm

    @William Paul: this is, I think, where we disagree. I don’t doubt that people are passionate about football, but it’s not up to the state to reinforce individuals’ passions, even in minor respects. The market (in this case) doesn’t lock out anybody: everyone is free to start their own football team; there are very low barriers to entry. As TCO notes: when it comes to entertainment, the market is none of the state’s business.

  • Nonconformistradical 27th Jul '15 - 2:53pm

    @William Paul: If the football market is failing it is because the fans allow it to happen.

    Some have shown you the way by taking matters into their own hands – those fans who formed FC United of Manchester and AFC Wimbledon and those fans who are involved through supporters trusts in the running of the clubs they support.

  • Interesting angle!

  • I’d love to see some more stuff done with women’s football. They gave us our best World Cup performance in 49 years yet still they’re barely talked about.

  • Hi Will,
    What are the best results you believe our party can help you achieve? Is football governance within Britain there? Is sensible weekly payments to players there? Is minimum number of British players in a team there? Is supporter partnership there? And what else?

  • Surely the reason ticket prices are high is that this is a classic example of a good where supply is fixed (there are only so many seats in the stadium) and demand is high (more people want to get in than there are seats).

    So the question is, how do you most efficiently allocate the supply of the good with the fixed supply, so that (a) none of it is wasted and (b) it goes to those who value it most?

    That isn’t a market failure: it’s the market doing exactly what markets are supposed to do: find the correct clearing price for a good where the amount people are willing to pay matches the supply. If prices were too high, then there would be empty seats in stadia as fewer people would be willing to pay the price than the supply available, so some of the good would be going to waste. As this does not happen, then the market must have operated uccessfully and found the correct clearing price for seats.

    Hence the idea that the market has ‘failed’ is just wrong. This is the clearest possible example of a market succeeding in doing what markets are meant to do: finding the most efficient possible allocation of a scarce good.

  • @Sarah Noble “I’d love to see some more stuff done with women’s football. They gave us our best World Cup performance in 49 years yet still they’re barely talked about.”

    Perhaps there is some latent unsatisfied demand for football that isn’t about overpaid play-acting primadonnas?

  • If we want to be absolutely strict with our definitions, Dav, ‘market failure’ describes any situation where anyone in the system could be made better off without making anyone else in it worse off. Is football today in such a state? Could it be? A market that sold every single seat in the stadium to me, leaving none for the fans, would be ‘efficient’ even if I then decided not to bother turning up to the game. By definition, any allocation of seats in a stadium is efficient as long as every seat is sold. But that leaves the question of whether the distribution itself is optimal in other senses very much open.

    Market liberalism is only one of the legs on which modern liberalism stands. What are markets for? Efficiently distributing scarce goods, yes, but also for delivering certain social outcomes that we rate as desirable. Do unregulated markets always achieve efficiency, that’s debatable although I’d say they tend to. Do they always achieve desirable social outcomes, probably not.

    That said, I don’t quite see what the article proposes to do about what its author sees as a socially inoptimal circumstance, other than introduce a price control through the Twenty’s Plenty thing, which I’m not convinced by. Caveat, I know nothing about football, its fans or its culture. But my favoured solution to this whole fans feeling shut out of their sport thing (not unique to football by any means) would be community buyouts. Much as certain remote Scottish islands were purchased from absentee landlords by their resident communities, I see no reason why such-and-such club can’t be purchased out from under the oligarch owning it by an organised fan movement. Of course, big names would be immune because of the sheer scale of the sums involved, but those second tier outfits should be possible. And second tier names don’t stay second tier forever, nor do the big names reign eternally. Community ownership should make the community feel less shut out, and if not it would then at least only have itself to blame.

  • Put simply, Will, no. Politics / politicians and football don’t make an easy mix. It’s specifically why FIFA have in their regulations rules about government involvement in football – and why ultimately all initiatives from government to do with football ultimately fail. Being in Edinburgh, you only have to look over to Glasgow and the numerous anti-sectarian initiatives by the Scottish Government, but the next time Rangers play Celtic (or even Hearts play Hibs) you’ll see how ineffective they’ve been.

    Any change in football has to come from within, and, frankly, there isn’t the desire to do it in England. The Premiership is all but a closed shop, which is why Mike Ashley is quite content for Newcastle to finish 10th every season and win no trophies. Chairmen in his position are not likely to vote or support fully anything which threatens their income annually, and without that support no change is possible.

  • William Paul 27th Jul '15 - 6:02pm

    @Nonconformistradical
    Totally disagree. It is simple not easy to give up a big part of your identity and abandon something that you have been part of and then create a “new one”. Also to blame fans is preposterous; they have no voice, a la why they can’t make a difference to things that matter to them.

    @Tony
    I think that we can help creating the right structure. I’m not a fan of quotas at all, and believe that internally, football has to decide about wages and player nationalities. My issue is with governance. I don’t believe that fans should be ripped off for ticket prices, when clubs receive larger and larger TV deals each year. I believe that fans should have a say and interest in the club, such as in Germany, where clubs have to some degree fan ownership and fan representation on boards. I think the Lib Dems, by championing a package of reform, can put significant pressure to reform, and if putting forward manifesto promises, can perhaps move the Tories/Labour into also matching promises, and producing real change. At the very least, they can put higher up the agenda the topic of governance, whilst showing everybody that liberalism stands up for the few against the many.

  • William Paul 27th Jul '15 - 6:02pm

    @T-J
    Yeap, thanks on the point about markets! I think people need to understand that football is a sort of quasi-market. Yes there are strong market elements in there, but let’s not forget about the actual people who are take part. There is emotions and identity wrapped up in this, which is a lot more than you can say for the straight average market. Football clubs are often pillars of the community too.

    There are a lot of policy commitments I’d put forward – for brevity of article I merely listed vaguely ideas – but many can be found through a quick discussion with Supporters Direct or the Football Supporters Federation. Mandatory fan representation would be a small act, as would be making it able for fans to buy say 10% of the club and thus have representation, but it means a new group would be franchised to speak at the highest levels of power and make their view known. As said earlier, it is unsurprising that in Germany with high fan involvement, there is low prices and generally higher fan satisfaction.

    @Keith
    Agree, for the most part they do not mix. But to be precise about FIFA Rules, it is to do with when the government takes over the running of the football association. Being a voice and pressurizing reform is merely representation of the people. I’m not suggesting state takeover of football and a Russian situation of ownership. Not at all. See this article for what government can do: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/21238173.

    There is plenty of support for change- the fans! We need to support them, enfranchise them and give them a platform to reform from.

  • @TCO: it’s probably a systemic thing. Women’s football is so underfunded that the total prize pot for this year’s World Cup was £15m – only £5m more than the men’s team got for being eliminated bottom of the group last year.

  • Richie Edwards 27th Jul '15 - 8:31pm

    I think you raise some very good points. I disagree with some comments that it’s all about supply and demand. I’m a season ticket holder at a championship club, but the stadium is little more than half full, which I put solely down to inflated prices. A friend of mine simply can’t afford to follow the team he has supported for over 40 years.
    Now he’s notoriously reclusive, but perhaps a good person to start with would be Ipswich Town owner, and long time Liberal Democrat doner Marcus Evans ?

  • Richard Underhill 27th Jul '15 - 9:40pm

    “The Lib Dems also adopted a motion at the 2014 Glasgow Conference,” i remember it well. i chatted to a guy who was a candidate in Sheffield, actually helping out in the nearest target seat, Hallam.
    One of the speakers said that he was in a gay footbal team, his opponents were all gay, the referee was gay, but they were getting homophobic abuse from their own fans.

  • peter tyzack 28th Jul '15 - 8:48am

    you can get a decent T-shirt for a few quid at any supermarket, but if you really want to spend around ten times as much to buy one with someone’s adverts all over it, just because that’s what your soccer heroes wear, then that’s up to you. If you buy it then the market will provide it, and they will charge whatever you are daft enough to pay.

  • Lester Holloway 28th Jul '15 - 10:08am

    It would certainly be good for LibDems to support efforts to tackle racism in football, the lack of opportunities for black professionals to enter management, lack of BAME board members, lack of Asian footballers etc.

  • J George SMID 28th Jul '15 - 10:11am

    Quote …. When the market is failing, it needs intervention and pressure for it to reassert itself…. Unquote

    Why does a failing market need supporting? And how would a Liberal intervention look?

  • @William Paul:

    ” I think people need to understand that football is a sort of quasi-market. Yes there are strong market elements in there, but let’s not forget about the actual people who are take part. There is emotions and identity wrapped up in this, which is a lot more than you can say for the straight average market. ”

    But in consumer market places where products are near identical in substance and price, emotion and identity is perhaps the only market element operating. Look at cars, or washing powder, or crisps, or soft drinks.

    I’m not denying what you say, I just don’t think that football deserves special treatment as the claims you make apply to any number of other human activities.

    Frankly there are all sorts of elements attached to football (tribal hate, cheating, the exploitation of fans by overpaid executives and players) that mean there is a good argument for letting it whither and die.

    “Football clubs are often pillars of the community too. ”

    How? I don’t see it. How much of Sky’s billions trickles down to the grass-roots clubs that are dying through lack of participation?

  • Personally, I feel strongly about this. I would like UK football to follow the German 50+1 model of ownership which prevents external investors taking a controlling stake, and ensures members/supporters maintain overall control of their clubs. Through this model, German football can give its fans cheap admission prices and ‘safe’ standing, yet its clubs and national team remain highly successful.

    Can this be linked to a political ideology? I’m not sure. However, it is about fairness and giving power over important community assets back to local people – values which our party should be strong on.

  • Simon Banks 28th Jul '15 - 2:05pm

    Agreed that the state shouldn’t intervene on issues like ticket prices or relocation of stadia except, of course, on planning grounds like the traffic implications. One of the problems with the market, of course, is that unlike customers of supermarkets or banks or car dealerships, dissatisfied fans are rarely prepared to switch to an alternative provider, for example Chelsea to QPR or Brentford. But they can and do stay away and not buy club produce. The intervention of a liberal state in the question of club ownership and internal democracy should be restricted to possible tweaking of taxes to give some advantage to the more democratic set-ups: I think this would be legitimate from a state setting out systematically to increase and deepen democracy and citizen participation.

    However, Liberal campaigning need not only be aimed at changing things through state intervention. Certainly we can lend support to campaigning fans’ groups if their aims fit with ours.

  • German football can give its fans cheap admission prices

    So how does it work if a German club has a stadium with 50,000 seats, but 500,000 fans who want to come see them for each game? Do they have a lottery every week, or every year? Is it like getting tickets for the new Stoppard, you have to sit and tap the mouse on the website in the twenty seconds after they open the bookings or you’re out of luck? Or what?

  • Mike Turner 28th Jul '15 - 3:40pm

    Any Government initiative re Football needs to concentrate on ‘ fit and proper’ ownership and directorships. The FA & the Football League have shown themselves inept at dealing with these issues. The dreadful history of the goings on at Blackpool FC due to the actions of the Chairman Karl Oyston provide a case study of the need for reform. The German model of part ownership by fans who have representation on the Board is a good one that has not affected either the team performance or the returns to investors. [See Will Mann’s comment above]. LibDems had a policy motion F29 at (I think) last years Autumn Conference. Maybe we should dust it off. Sadly now exMP John Leech was an enthusiast

  • Christopher Haigh 28th Jul '15 - 9:26pm

    Thanks Will- it’s great to read an article relating to a popular issue. Professional football in England is an example of a chaotic and imperfect market that needs heavy regulation, as you quite rightly argue in your article.

  • Before business owners complain, I support enterprise but not the devious measures used, for example, to hide profits and avoid taxes. Good businesses use open governance to reach the public responsibly.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Aug '15 - 2:20pm

    David William Donald Cameron supports Aston Villa and West Ham, which defines him as a football fan.
    The quote is on the World at One today 6/8/2015.

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