266: The government’s plans for football: beware the review
Football plays such a high-profile role in communities, the economy, popular culture and across the media that its actions always come under scrutiny. Now, as a consequence of COVID-19, it faces the prospect of huge change as a result of political intervention. It’s time for clubs and the authorities to start planning.
Fundamentally, the suggestion is that ‘football’ has made a mess of dealing with the consequences of COVID-19. Critics point to the slow pace of reaction, how some clubs furloughed and then unfurloughed non-playing staff, how rich clubs have taken the government’s money whilst hugely rich players wanted to be paid and executives took their own high salaries.
This is a massive distortion and ignores the reality of, for instance, life for clubs across the divisions, the efforts led by the Premier League captains’ #playerstogether NHS fund, the community activities that do not make national headlines. But perception, reputation and reality are not the same, especially at the moment.
The Daily Telegraph highlighted the comments made by the chair of the Culture Select Committee, Julian Knight MP, that:
‘The debacle over Premier League clubs furloughing staff prompted those at the highest levels of government to question how the game is governed and its economic model’.
It also suggested that former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch backs calls for an independent review of football governance.
Even before the current crisis, there had already been rumblings about football’s perceived reliance on money from the gambling industry and, more recently, suggestions that clubs should be wary, unlike other businesses, of accepting investment from abroad.
So it seems that government as well as parliament will launch inquiries and reviews into football once the immediate COVID-19 crisis is over.
The consequences of such reviews could be draconian. That is to say nothing of the more immediate costs in terms of time, effort and resources but there would be a reputational impacts as well.
So what should clubs and authorities do?
In the first place, there are some foundation stones that need to be put in place. Most clubs should have good relationships with their local MPs (as well as other MPs, businesses, charities and others, businesses etc). They need to be briefed and, all being well, prepared to act as champions for the club. The clubs and authorities also need to ensure that all the good work and efforts they make across the community, and in other countries, are more widely recognised.
Next, it would be sensible to analyse any inquiry or review in stages, and identify the action needed at each point in time:
- Pre-consultation – think about extending the network of friends and allies; get the arguments ready; be critical of the club in the way that politicians will be;
- Consultation / inquiry / review – the actual format could impact on the correct response but this is the time to make formal submissions, give evidence and to follow-up directly. Clubs may also need to establish direct contact with relevant influencers and decision-makers; and
- Post-report – the recommendations – good or bad – will need to be responded to. There could also be legislation, further regulation, or even new regulatory systems. All of which will require their own follow-up actions, and full engagement programme.
So, to borrow from the oval ball game, football needs to get its retaliation in first and prepare now for the onslaught. To be effective means bringing together public affairs and political engagement, advice on parliamentary processes and select committees, as well as factoring in legal advice across governance structures and funding.
This has the potential to have huge implications for football. It needs an inclusive approach that can reflect all the points of pressure.
Handled well, reputations can be enhanced and football will not end up as a COVID-19 scapegoat. The alternative risk inquiries that may come to incorrect or misleading conclusions and could lead to damaging adverse reactions.
Despite all the other current pressures, football needs to plan now for its next moment in the political spotlight.