EXCLUSIVE: Fans are in support of independent regulator for football

EXCLUSIVE: No tyrants or oligarchs should own our Premier League clubs! A new Mail on Sunday poll of 11,000 football fans finds huge backing for a regulator, tougher takeover curbs and wage controls

  • Nearly 11,000 fans took part in the Mail on Sunday’s State of the Game survey
  • 85 per cent supported the appointment of a regulator for English football
  • Fans of Manchester City and Newcastle were against such a role being created
  • The majority of fans are opposed to owners linked to regimes with murky politics

The vast majority of Premier League fans want an independent regulator for football with the powers to stop nation states, sovereign wealth funds or individuals backed by foreign governments from owning football clubs in England.

In a huge poll of nearly 11,000 fans undertaken by The Mail on Sunday, 85 per cent supported the appointment of a regulator. 

But fans of Manchester City and Newcastle voted overwhelmingly against such a move. Just 15 per cent of City fans — whose club are owned by Sheikh Mansour, the deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates — support such a rule, as do just 45 per cent of fans of Newcastle, owned by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, PIF. Fans of every other Premier League club voted overwhelmingly in favour.

Manchester City fans were least in favour of an independent regulator in the Premier League

The notion of what ‘suitable’ ownership for a club entails has been thrown under the spotlight in recent weeks, with Roman Abramovich sanctioned by the Government for his close links to Russian president Vladimir Putin, forcing him to put Chelsea up for sale.

The Government said Abramovich has obtained financial benefits from Putin’s reign, including contracts in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. As such he is deemed supported by Putin and supportive of him, despite his consistent denials.

In another blurring of football and geopolitics last week, the Government criticised City’s Sheikh Mansour for having a face-to-face meeting with Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad on the latter’s first trip to the UAE since Syria’s civil war began 11 years ago. It suggested a warming relationship between the two countries.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: ‘It is the UK’s firm belief that — in the absence of a change in behaviour by the Syrian regime — strengthening ties undermines the prospect of a lasting and inclusive peace in Syria.’

Premier League fans voted Manchester City’s owners as the most damaging in the top-flight

Supporters of City and Newcastle were least in favour of an independent regulator of the game

MP Chris Bryant subsequently asked whether Sheikh Mansour was a ‘fit and proper person to be owning a football club’.

The same question has been asked by politicians and fans’ groups of PIF at Newcastle, given Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record and the perception that Newcastle are merely a ‘sportswashing’ tool to polish Saudi Arabia’s international image.

Fans of clubs as varied as Brighton, Leeds, Tottenham, Liverpool, Burnley and Arsenal had more than 90 per cent of survey respondents wanting a regulator who can ban nation state ownership or financial support.

Whether such a regulator will actually come to fruition remains to be seen but vocal supporters of such a move include Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the past few days.

The majority of Newcastle supporters were also against a regulator being introduced

It is easy to argue that Johnson will say anything to court popularity, but there is widespread political support for a regulator after former sports minister Tracey Crouch’s independent fan-led review of football governance recommended one.

Our survey findings show little opposition to foreign owners in particular, or indeed to super-wealthy individuals.

Indeed, when fans were asked to nominate the owners at a current Premier League club aside from their own who had done the most admirable job, the top three owners nominated were those at Leicester, Brentford and Brighton.

Leicester City’s owners (the billionaire Srivaddhanaprabha family, from Thailand) received 41 per cent of more than 10,000 votes cast by fans of other clubs. Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, 36, has been Leicester’s chairman since his father Vichai was killed in a helicopter crash in 2018.

 Opposition fans voted Leicester’s owners as the ones who had done the most admirable job

Leicester fans are grateful the family have not just brought success on the pitch, transforming them from Championship strugglers to ‘miracle’ Premier League winners, but for gestures such as giving a local children’s hospital £2m, offering £1m for medical research to the University of Leicester, and handing out free drinks and club scarves to fans.

Multi-millionaire Matt Benham at Brentford polled 15 per cent of other fans’ votes as a model owner, while billionaire Tony Bloom at Brighton polled 12 per cent in third place. Villa and Leeds’ foreign owners are also well regarded.

Thus is it not simply foreign or rich owners that fans are opposed to but rather owners linked to regimes with question marks over human rights and murky politics, such as Saudi Arabia or Russia.

Supporters were asked an open question about a potential regulator, with no limit on how many things or how much space they could use to respond to: ‘Is there anything in particular you would like to see an independent regulator focus on in regards to club ownership?’

Almost 6,800 fans used between a few sentences and many hundreds of words to share myriad ideas, with some 20 topics cited, unprompted, by one per cent or more of respondents. 

The most common issue was financial fair play, with almost 12 per cent of fans wanting FFP to be ‘properly enforced’ or ‘better policed’ or ‘made meaningful with cheating actually punished’. 

Domestic FFP, in both the Premier League and EFL, effectively tries to limit how much money a club can spend over and above what they legitimately earn. In layman’s terms, it should in theory clamp down on ‘financial doping’.

The UK government criticised Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour for meeting Syria’s president

The second most requested power for a regulator was variations on ‘a more robust fit and proper person test’ (almost eight per cent of fans), followed by variations of ‘independent monitoring of sponsorships at market rate’ (over seven per cent).

There is a widespread perception that some clubs benefit from ‘mates rates’ sponsorship deals with linked entities or parties that would not be happening if they were genuine arms-length deals.

The fourth most pressing issue was debt, with six per cent of fans wanting some kind of instrument to prevent clubs becoming dangerously indebted, for whatever reason. Crouch’s report suggests real-time monitoring of club finances could be introduced, which could help address this.

Almost six per cent of respondents want a regulator to introduce a specific human rights and/or ethics element in any ownership test for a new buyer. More than five and a half per cent of fans cited a desire for a salary cap or some other kind of wage control, such as a luxury tax, to attempt to level the playing field.

Almost one in 20 fans specified that a regulator should have powers to address the issue of ‘sports-washing’, or in other words prevent any entity from owning a club if there is evidence they are doing so to polish an otherwise tawdry image. 

Tracey Crouch’s independent fan-led review of football governance recommended a regulator

This is likely to be highly problematic if not outright impossible to envisage, not least when the Government are happy political bedfellows with all manner of dubious and war-mongering countries.

Mandatory fan involvement on club boards is wanted by nearly five per cent of respondents, as is fan consultation on issues related to stadium moves or renaming. Fairer financial distribution is wanted by four per cent, and a regulator-controlled mechanism to encourage German-style 50+1 ownership models cited by three per cent.

Among hundreds of other things supporters want a regulator to tackle are limits on cash withdrawals by owners from clubs; ticket price caps; bans on gambling and crypto products; protections to stop stadiums being sold; a ban on the stockpiling of players outside the first-team squad and a cap on agents’ fees spent by each club each season.

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