The International, Economic and Cultural Contribution of Premier League Football to the UKJuly 25, 2013
I want to join my fellow peers in congratulating my noble friend Lord Bates for securing this debate. Amidst a summer of sporting success it is only right that we turn to football, a sport whose Premier League become truly world class over the last two decades – even though as a nation we still eagerly look forward to a World Cup breakthrough in future to add to our recent tally.
I want to focus my remarks today on the question of how we balance between the interests of increasingly international club shareholders and owners in the Premier League and that of the nation at large and the communities and economies that they are linked with locally, and why it is of benefit to us all to do so. We cannot ignore either aspect. Investors and new club owners, combined with the boost from commercial television and advertising income these past decades, have presided over a professionalisation and increased global prominence of clubs that we could have only dreamed of when the sport was invented – making the experience whether on or off the pitch, or at home or in the pub, that much richer. At the same time, footballing history reminds us that clubs were initially formed to provide a social function, enabling local communities to enjoy leisure, fitness, and build character. They acted as a lynchpin of local society and indeed of the local economy.
Today there is huge potential for global football brands to further benefit the UK economically. I declare here an interest as a Manchester United FC supporter and as a non executive director of the Manchester-China Forum, where when conducting a survey in a report I co-authored called Growing East, we identified how in China, Manchester is most closely associated with football, and that opportunities for promoting the city among Chinese investors and companies abound when the clubs and local promotion agencies can work together and coordinate their efforts. The very international nature of football today is able to bring not only investment but create relationships of a global nature that can and do enable and fuel growth in our cities and help them develop trade, tourism, retail, and infrastructure thereby creating jobs.
At the same time the very international nature of football brought by foreign ownership and involvement is also a huge benefit I believe to the culture of many of our cities and towns, making them more diverse and interesting on and off the pitch. Racism, which has been historically a scourge in football, has I think moved on significantly as a result of having players and supporters represented in our Premier League teams from all over the world and joining forces through campaigns such as Kick It Out. Some would say this has brought disadvantages in that local British players do not get as much opportunity to play in season, but I think I have to disagree here. We cannot protect our British players from global competition, since it will ultimately make them more competitive, but we could do even more I think at the national level to identify and nurture a truly great set of national teams.
At this point, the debate over whether the national interest and the ownership of major football clubs in the UK can, at times, reach fever pitch. If we look at the other sports where we have seen successes recently, it has overwhelmingly come from an increasingly scientific approach to developing individuals and a team and lots of resources put into growing a strong pipeline of competitive athletes. The onus is on the country or national team to develop this, not on the local club or association. Similarly, I think in the UK we need to borrow again from international influences and follow Germany’s example and vigorously bring youth development of players back into the centre, rather than relying on our Premier League clubs. Indeed we could add a British free market twist and charge clubs if they want to buy some of these players developed in a national pool into their squads to help pay back the nation for investing in them. And indeed the young people themselves could agree to pay back some of their future earnings should they enter the Premier League and earn above a certain amount, so that more finance can be available to develop the pipeline, which could also assuage concerns about the high salaries footballers receive. Germany has a thousand part time scouts and qualified coaches looking everywhere for the talent it needs for the future. We ought to invest to a similar degree now St George’s Park is in place, and not rely primarily on clubs to do all the work, except to provide the market mechanisms to help make this endeavour sustainable.
I want to turn to the question of how this balance between foreign ownership and local needs plays out in that aspect which can sometimes be unfortunately overlooked but which is of utmost importance: the role of fans. In recent years there has been much talk of and a few examples exploring how fans could theoretically come together and buy out in part or in full their clubs, to create structures more akin to that of Barcelona in the UK. I am very much in favour of such an arrangement, but I also think we need to be realistic, and perhaps opt more for partnership arrangements, in which fans come together via a trust and that trust then takes a significant stake with voting rights as with the John Lewis Partnership. This would allow new investment still to come in, yet give fans more of a voice.
Ultimately, it seems to me the Premier League model should complete a shift away from live spectator fees being the main driver of income for clubs to what is has already started to be, advertising and satellite viewing fees combined with diverse merchandising income all around the world. Fans who have a stake in their club financially could then have a greater incentive to help generate more followers and fans both in the UK and globally creating a virtuous and hopefully less debt-fuelled cycle. In this regard I would like to ask the Minister what plans they have in this area, and whether there are any possible legal incentives that could be put forward to make it easier for such fan-led shareholder arrangements to come into place?
For with such ownership we can then start to see more of a holistic set of activities which I think many of the best Premier League clubs engage in but which can understandably be hard to maintain if their ownership is wholly driven by financial and commercial priorities: developing the social and cultural fabric of the local community. I won’t go here in to the countless ways that clubs get involved with and help local causes, but my favourite involves clubs agreeing to host mental health and job clubs for men who traditionally find it hard to admit they have difficulties in these areas but will turn up to an activity on a football ground. Given clubs are not used that much for games during weekdays there is huge scope for them to be leveraged further for public and social benefit such as through the successful aforementioned Premier Skills initiative.
Given these and many other examples, it does strike me that we ought to look at mechanisms whereby just as we can seek to harness global football brands for local benefit on the investment front, such brands could be deployed to help improve citizen wellbeing and save public and club money as well. Could we see impact bonds which public bodies could create in partnership with clubs, their fans, and stakeholders? A kind of social merchandising product but which could generate returns for clubs and community alike? Could we see clubs hosting even more job clubs and business incubators? The possibilities are endless if the practicalities of access, risk, and funding can be dealt with.
Promoting cities for trade through clubs, a football investment bank, incentives and support for fans to jointly own their clubs, and more partnerships to leverage football brands for social and public impact – my Lords, these brief examples demonstrate how with a little creativity and leadership foreign ownership of clubs and local and national benefits from the international nature of the premier league do not have to amount to a zero sum game. Get the balance right, my Lords, and we will all win.