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Why football ‘ownership’ is a mess

December 28, 2013

Something is wrong with football. The problem is that it is very hard to explain exactly what is wrong. In the very first post on this blog I had a go, trying to point out some fundamental conflicts that exist between different groups who are central to the game – in particular ‘owners’ who want to run their clubs as businesses, and fans. Those conflicts have reemerged this season, in particular at Cardiff City where the current ‘owner’, Vincent Tan, finally pulled the plug on Malky Mackay’s popular and successful tenure as manager.

The relationship between the two had long since broken down, but that is beside the point. The point is that Tan, who until recently and by his own admission knew nothing about football, was able to acquire complete property rights over an institution that has been part of the culture and community of Wales for 114 years. But can – or rather should – football clubs be the kind of thing that can become the absolute property of wealthy individuals?

The answer to this question seems to me to be quite clearly ‘no’. I suspect that I am joined in this opinion by tens of thousands of other football fans (indeed, an argument to this effect was recently made by the chairman of the Cardiff City Supporters’ Trust). Part of what is wrong with football is that the way the game is currently organised is based around the assumption that the answer is ‘yes’. Moreover, the suggestion that someone who invests significant sums in a club should not ‘own’ that club, and do what they like with it, is met by incredulity by many within the game.

I suspect that one reason for this (vested interests aside) is that, in our over-commercialised world, there is the perception that everything is for sale. Everything is available to be owned, if only you have enough money. This perception, however, is an illusion. Some things can never be owned, and no right thinking society would let someone try – this is why slavery is illegal. Other things can be owned, but should not be bought and sold. Each individual owns her own body; sometimes body parts can be transferred from one person to another (in the case of transplants), but we do not allow such transfers to be dictated by payments from one to the other. Instead, other principles are used.

Some things can be owned and transferred for money – land and buildings, for example. Yet often society retains an interest in what that individual can do with those things. Buildings are listed; planning laws are enforced. In fact, there is very little that has a significant impact on people’s lives over which we allow wealthy individuals to exercise complete control. Even private businesses are regulated when the products and services they produce are central to providing for people’s needs.

It might seem that these comparisons are overblown. After all, football is not a matter of life or death, is it? Yet the significance of football clubs as social institutions, embedded in communities, and mutually dependent on those communities should not be underestimated. And given the obvious fact that ‘ownership’ can come in degrees, with greater or lesser freedoms, and with safeguards put in place for those whose interests are tied up with the thing to be ‘owned’, why should we not explore alternative models of organisation? Why should football clubs not be treated like listed buildings, or companies supplying utility services?

As a starter for ten, since self-regulation has clearly failed I suggest ‘Off-foot’, the Office for Football Regulation, tasked with the primary role of preventing the financial exploitation of football supporters and ensuring the sound financial management of the clubs which are our national football heritage. Any takers? Mr Tan?

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