The Premier League meets government regulation, a title winning idea or more resented than VAR?

Alex Rogers, Consultant

Last week many of Westminster’s most avid followers will have been surprised to see a punchy advert from the Premier League in Politico’s Playbook, warning policy watchers to “guard against unintended consequences that would put English football’s success at risk” from over-regulation. Now this has raised eyebrows as the Premier League up their public attack on the issue.

However, why is football under new scrutiny from policymakers and how will the Premier League, the most watched league in world football, fair with new political influence? In 2021, when the biggest teams in England half-heartedly committed to the new European ‘Super-League,’ they caused outroar amongst their fan bases.

Protests, pressure and political interference eventually scared off any prospect of a new league but arguably left a bitter taste in fans mouths, as football club owners took criticism for showing where their priorities actually lie, particularly after Covid had caused an immensely difficult period for clubs in lower leagues. Prime Minister Johnson at the time labelled it the league as going “against the basic principles of competition,” edging the spheres of politics and football even closer to contact.

Cut to 2024, and whilst financial fair play mismanagement by some clubs has increased concerns from some MPs, the Premier League is without a doubt the largest football league in the world, bringing in large sums of revenue, attention and financial support to promote the game at grassroots levels.

Following Tracey Crouch MP’s fan-based review, it was concluded that an independent regulator for English football (IREF), new owners ‘tests’ for clubs and increased levels of community engagement were required. Since publication, the Government has made it clear that this reform is a priority and they have already taken the first steps to implementation by putting the issue in front of Parliament last month.

Many MPs have since backed the review placing the beautiful game back in the spotlight in the run up to a General Election. Football is an emotional topic for many, as Bill Shankley put it; "Somebody said that football's a matter of life and death to you, I said 'listen, it's more important than that'." With the Euros on the horizon, the conversation around football regulation won’t be going away either and the influence it can have on voters may only increase if England progress in the competition.

This is furthered by the broader trend in British politics that is starting to pay more attention to foreign ownership of UK institutions, with the ownership of Manchester City and Newcastle by the UAE and Saudi Arabia states respectively bringing questions of where football ownership should belong.

This leaves the Premier League and major clubs in need of a clear strategy to make their case heard before the Government uses the power of football for its own election campaign. For politicians changing the management of top football clubs could prove to be a vote winner to those fan bases who feel their voice is lost or club is run poorly.

Last week Premier League CEO Richard Masters accelerated this mission by writing in The Times that a new football regulator would bring risks to “reduce our competitiveness and weaken the incredible appeal of the English game.” However, the Premier League needs to go further than this to show it is evolving with the game. Recent points deductions imposed on both Everton and Nottingham Forest have shown that the profitability and sustainability rules backing up the league actually have a solid defence and should be built upon in the public eye. 

Talk of reducing competitiveness is a line that often plays very well with Conservatives but might not sit in line with the current administration who are eager to appear on the sides of the English football fan. Whilst the Premier League are suggesting that the current proposals would relate to too much regulation this is a position not shared by the EFL who represent the smaller clubs of English football.  The second tier Championship still represents the sixth biggest football league in Europe, a considerable growth in recent years and EFL Chairman Rick Parry believes independent regulation is the best way to solve the game’s redistribution problem. What this means for the Premier Leagues defence is yet to be determined.

However, the real test for the Premier League’s current regulations will come under when Manchester City’s charges are resolved, and the big clubs have their interests challenged in the name of fair play. Strong stewardship of these issues in the public eye, and a sustained political engagement on tackling the distribution of media revenue throughout the football leagues into the inclusivity of the grassroots game could blunt these political pressures.

For now, the Premier League and the Government are heading into extra time in the knockout stages. Whilst the Government is behind, has a penalty and needs to score, the Premier League will have to show why it’s number 1. This regulatory tussle looks far from over, the Premier League cannot afford to slip like Gerrard and must make its point heard. Football has entered the political field and for a Government that is behind in the polls, new regulation in the Premier League may be viewed as an opportunity to close the gap.

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