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A Game on the Brink

With the fallout from the now-defunct European Super League still fresh, Chris Clarke and Chris Fairley say football clubs are vital to the health of our communities, and can help act as a bulwark against extremism. But serious reform is needed if they’re to thrive.

Part of the problem with football finance is its murkiness and unpredictability, particularly in the lower leagues.

Polling for HOPE not hate Charitable Trust found that the majority of people (67% overall, and 78% of those who support a team) want to see clubs become more financially transparent. Yet it took the pandemic, clubs calling for player pay cuts and pressure from the Professional Footballers’ Association (the footballers’ trade union) for League One and Two clubs to open their books to independent accountants this year. Only the shockwaves emanating from the European Super League disaster have really drawn the questions at play into focus.

What is clear is that there’s a real, deep-set problem in how football clubs are run. Headlines have been dominated by clubs’ financial precariousness for some time now. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the financial fault lines that already existed, as well as creating new ones.

Kieran Maguire, a football finance expert from the University of Liverpool and author of The Price of Football, explained the problem succinctly:

“The gap in money between individual divisions is so high that it encourages a casino-style approach. If you know that in the Championship you get £7m in TV money, but in the Premier League you know you get a minimum of £100m, then that’s worth rolling the dice for in the minds of many club owners. As a consequence, in 2019 the operating losses of clubs in the championship exceeded £600m. That’s only sustainable if owners continued to underwrite those losses. And there’s no guarantee”

Championship teams (those in the second flight) seem to be at a particular risk, when it comes to this phenomenon. But numbers in the other leagues aren’t much better. The average EFL club spends nearly 100% of its income on player wages alone. Stadium upkeep, backroom staff, training facilities and other costs are pushing the majority of clubs into debt. An investigation by The Times found that 52 of the 72 clubs in the EFL (made up of the Championship, League One and League Two) lost money in their most recent annual accounts.

Without action, the pressures created by the pandemic – and by a potential back-up of toxic debt – could spell the end for dozens of clubs. If we believe that clubs are vital to local identities – and at HOPE not hate we do – then surely they’re too important to be left as vulnerable to shocks and uncertainty as the pandemic has shown them to be.

Football clubs and place identity

In our 2020 report, Loss on the Terraces, we revealed how football clubs play a key role in civil society, as shared spaces, community support networks and hubs of economic activity. They act as anchor institutions, forming part of a community’s living heritage.

Towns with football clubs are also disproportionately likely to be those with higher deprivation, increased pressure on services and rapid demographic change – making the positive role they play in community identity even more important. As the chart below shows, across different levels of deprivation, attitudes to immigration are consistently more liberal in towns with professional football clubs than in towns without.

Our wider research has consistently shown that community tensions – and support for the far right – are most likely to emerge from a context of decline and economic hardship. As highly visible and collective forms of local identity, football clubs are vital elements of how our communities view themselves. Their future will likely have an outsized impact on British communities’ vulnerability to the lure of the far right.

The crisis in football is liable to hit towns hardest – given that it disproportionately places lower league teams at risk. Just 25% of clubs in the Premier League are based in towns or smaller cities, for example, compared to 77% of EFL sides (that’s tiers 2, 3 and 4). If clubs collapse in small towns with fewer alternative sources of identity, the negative impact on the social fabric is likely to be especially acute.

The importance of inclusivity

Football certainly has a lot to grapple with – an enduring default culture of white masculinity; a history of systemic racism, sexism and homophobia; and the uncomfortable truth that historically, when far right organisations wanted to go recruiting, they often headed to the terraces.

Polling carried out by HOPE not hate of over 1,000 Black and minority ethnic Britons found that a majority saw the importance of football clubs for British culture and identity (64%). But almost half (43%) had been put off a sporting event in the last five years because of a fear of racism; 60% felt that football authorities and clubs need to do more to tackle racism; and 64% agreed that football clubs should do more to encourage involvement and support from minority communities.

Clubs clearly can, and must, do better if they want to be the community anchors many see themselves as.

We have an opportunity now, with the renewed focus on the role of clubs after the ESL fallout. By investing in football clubs as active hubs of community pride and inclusion, clubs have the opportunity to deprive Britain’s far right organisations of an area they’ve felt comfortable working and recruiting in for too long.

However, to justify that place in public life there needs to be serious, long-term reform in the game. Proper financial oversight and public accountability is non-negotiable, as is a material commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Chris Clarke is a policy researcher at HOPE not hate, Chris Fairley was policy & partnerships co-ordinator at HOPE not hate | @hopenothate


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