Sustain the Game – the FSA calls for action

In an interview following his retirement last month, Albion’s Chief Executive, Mark Jenkins, remarked that he believed that this year’s promotion was the most important in the club’s history. He feels that the financial instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to severe problems for a host of EFL clubs, and that it would have been very difficult for Albion to continue to compete at the top end of the table without the benefit of the parachute payments.

While it is difficult to compare the impacts of promotions over the years, there is no doubt, in my mind, that Jenkins is entirely correct about the club’s ongoing ability to compete for promotion without that influx of additional cash from the Premier League. However, if you take a step back from a fan’s biased opinion based on their club, it seems utterly ludicrous that such a situation exists.

The financial discrepancies between the divisions have become so vast that the future of the pyramid in its current form is under threat and the FSA’s campaign to Sustain the Game is one that all fans of the game in this country should get behind.

The financial landscape of football in England has altered drastically over the past thirty years and, unfortunately in my opinion, it has not benefited the game as a whole.

The influx of money has had positive impacts, most obviously in the improvements in football stadia in both comfort and safety, but football at the highest level has become less accessible due to the increases in ticket prices and even in the lower leagues, many fans feel priced out of the game that they love. Many Premier League clubs have priced their tickets in such a way to exclude the traditional fan – while that may make commercial sense in the short to medium turn, the time is not too far away when the majority of fans are tourists from overseas willing to pay the inflated prices as a one-off with the inevitable impact on the atmosphere.

This is all a result of the drive to make money rather than the glory of the game itself. Businessmen by clubs to make money rather that, as used to be the case, for the prestige of owning their local football club.

As an Albion fan, I have been lucky in that Premier League football has remained affordable for the most part, although I accept that it is still too expensive for many and I have been fortunate enough to see many of the world’s greatest players ply their trade at the Hawthorns. Furthermore, the club has largely been very well run over the past two decades which means I have not had to fear for its future in the 21st century.

That was not always the case, of course. Those Albion fans under the age of 25 will feel that the club’s rightful place is in the Premier League. Go back to the 1990s, however, and it was a very different club. It may not have been on the verge of going out of business in the way that our Black Country neighbours were in the late 1980s, but the newly formed Premier League looked a long way away when a coffin was carried round the pitch at Gay Meadow on the final day of the 1991/92 season.

Albion’s ownership had always been in the “traditional” hands of local businessmen and, until Jeremy Peace sold to Guochuan Lai in 2016, it remained that way. While Peace may have earned a pretty penny from his time in charge of the club, he never put the future of the club in jeopardy – many other clubs were not as fortunate as owners chased the big money on offer in the Premier League and Champions League, or merely sought to strip clubs of its assets.

The FSA’s campaign seeks to address the issues of unscrupulous or incompetent owners by improving the regulation of the game. Football clubs are more than just businesses, they are a community asset, but they are offered no protection as such. The law does not prevent an owner from doing as they please with the assets of a football club. EFL and Premier League regulations are never going to be tough enough as the rules are set by the owners themselves – even the “good” owners are worried about over-regulation as it may affect their ability to sell the club in the future.

One of the FSA proposal’s key principles is that the rules on ownership and operation of the club should be set and enforced by the FA as chief regulator, with appropriate “teeth” and backed up by legislation to protect clubs as community assets. That way, there should be impartiality although it would need some changes in the governance of the FA as the major clubs still exert far too much influence.

There are some great ideas in the FSA proposals but without a change to the way broadcasting income is distributed, I fear that football cannot properly be fixed. Nonetheless, the proposals in this campaign are an essential first step and I would urge all fans to read them.

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