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New Independent Football Regulator Confirmed in King’s Speech

Plans to restructure English football governance have been looming since the fan-led review of football in November 2021. Now King Charles’ announcement of the Football Governance Bill has brought the topic firmly back into the limelight and given it royal recognition.

Even so, questions remain around the independent football regulator that will be born from the bill. What exactly is it being formed to do? What form will it take? And given the delayed route to this announcement, when will it be functional?

Why the body is being introduced

The overall English footballing structure over the past five years has been extremely volatile both at the peak of Premier League football and throughout lower divisions also.

Alarm bells began to ring after the historic Bury FC, who won two FA Cups and had accumulated 125 years of EFL football, were expelled from League One after ongoing financial issues and a failed takeover attempt.

Only a few months prior Bury FC had been promoted to the English third tier but questionable business decisions leading to mounting debts and late employee payments depicted a rather bleak financial picture which many fans credited to negligent club management.

Bury FC players and fans celebrating their promotion to League One in April 2019 (Credit: Sky Sports)

Since 2019, Wigan Athletic in 2020 and Derby County in 2021 have shown similar finical instability which is a trend that is not easing amid post-pandemic struggles and a cost-of-living crisis.

On the other end of the spectrum, further cause for concern regarding threats to the English footballing structure appeared in the form of the proposed 2021 European Super League.

Real Madrid president, Florentino Pérez, pioneered the breakaway league which would effectively severe Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham from the Premier League in a 12-team closed league of Europe’s self-proclaimed elite clubs.

Again, post-pandemic financial constraints can be seen as a catalyst for this proposal as the league aimed to maximise footballing appeal by having the most prestigious clubs and players regularly playing each other. This in theory would spike viewership and therefore revenue.

Nonetheless, the change would have been crippling for all domestic national leagues, especially the English football pyramid and so the proposal was met with anger and disapproval from fans.

Whilst the league never came to fruition, its possibility posed as a further reminder of the fragility of English football.

The proposed independent football regulator therefore is needed to provide stability. This will come in financial steadiness, organisational guidance and acting both as a safety net and an anchor for English football clubs.

Preventing clubs from going under and deterring similar breakaway leagues will be a key objective for the body in its aim to harmonise the football pyramid.

What form will the body take?

Through earlier examples, the football free market clearly needs regulatory direction, however what will this look like?

From the latest government press release, there is a clear emphasis on the separation of the new body from all ‘existing football authorities and government’ in an aim to achieve impartiality and critical distance when monitoring football clubs.

Its position in relation to other footballing bodies, such as the FA (Football Association), has been described as ‘collaborative’ suggesting it retains no direct authority over other regulators.

Nevertheless, it does seem to fill a gap in the FA’s own regulatory function. It does so by taking primary control in overseeing football clubs and the structure they exist in.

This is clearly outlined in the bodies primary duties including club sustainability, systemic sustainability and preserving cultural heritage.

Protests aimed at Leeds United’s owners outside Elland Road (Credit: Getty Images)

So, what will the independent football regulator’s policy look like to achieve these aims?

  • Licensing system for clubs – The new regulator will create a set of four conditions to apply to clubs, creating a minimum standard each is expect to meet for management, organisation, and other criteria.
  • Improving financial resilience – This will come in the form of financial requirements such as good financial practice, financial buffers, and asset protection.
  • A ‘Football Club Corporate Governance Code’ – A new compulsory code which aims to stop owners acting for their own short-term gain which could jeopardise the club’s long-term future. The code however, is applied proportionally to each club regarding their status, business model and league.
  • New tests for prospective owners and directors – Greater scrutiny over new owners’ sources of wealth and financial plans and clear checks on their integrity.
  • Minimum standards of fan engagement – Will ensure clubs prioritise framework within clubs to give voice to fans via a representative group.

These policies aim to create greater standardisation across the football pyramid and create buffers for clubs. Whether these buffers come in the form of financial resources or barriers into the club to ensure good owner intent, these will act as safeguards to prevent severe downward spirals.

Moreover, the focus on fan engagement is extremely encouraging. Clearly taking inspiration from the 50+1 ownership rule many German Clubs use, the minimum standard of fan engagement proposed will help enshrine fan involvement into the set up of football clubs more effectively.

When will it go into effect?

There is a general expectation for the independent regulator to be in place for the start of the 2024/25 season, nonetheless, the proposal is no stranger to delays.

The white paper for the proposed football reforms was delayed in February of this year and we must consider the possibility of further delays due to the inevitable general election, likely to take place sometime in 2024.

The King’s speech does make the agenda of footballing reform a question of when it will happen rather than if it will. However, the possibility of a political reshuffle means the prioritisation of an independent footballing body remains uncertain in the future despite royal approval.

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All government reports and press releases referenced can be found below:

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