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Putting A Price On Democracy

Date: 13th October 2020

Apologies for straying from our usual Scottish football coverage… but a story grabbing the headlines south of the border can tell us a lot about similar issues here in Scotland.

Picture: © Sky Sports

A leaked document known as “Project Big Picture” proposes to restructure English football, and has been developed by the owners of Liverpool and Manchester United. The proposal would reduce the size of the Premier League from 20 to 18 clubs, scrap the EFL Cup and the Community Shield, and bring the Premier League and Football League back together as a single organisation. The financial distribution model would change, with parachute payments being scrapped and 25% of the Premier League’s annual revenue being distributed to EFL clubs (compared with 4% currently). And to help smaller clubs through the COVID-19 crisis up front payments of £250m and £100m would be made to the EFL and the Football Association respectively.

So far so good! But all of this comes at a price… and that price is power. At the heart of Project Big Picture is a change in how decisions would be made, with the “one club, one vote” principle being abolished, along with the requirement for 14 out of the 20 Premier League clubs needing to agree on policy changes. In it’s place, power would transfer to the longest-serving Premier League clubs, with 6 of these 9 clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Man Utd, Man City, Southampton, Tottenham, and West Ham) needing to approve any major changes in future.

As always, money talks, and this is the clearest demonstration of the power dynamic that exists in the English game. Coming less than a year after a general election when the Conservative party made a manifesto promise for “a fan-led review of football governance, which will include consideration of the Owners and Directors Test, and will work with fans and clubs towards introducing safe standing” (a promise that had cross party support but as yet has failed to materialise) the prospect of democratic change seems further away than ever.

In Scotland we have seen for ourselves how difficult it is to effect real change in our game when power is concentrated at the top. This summer’s decision on ending the 2019/20 season, and on the league reconstruction proposals that ultimately failed, required the support of nine Premiership clubs, eight Championship sides and 15 of the 20 teams in Leagues One and Two to pass. It was reported that a number of proposals were developed, but as they did not have sufficient support from Premiership clubs they never reached the stage of being put to a vote of all 42 clubs.

This, however, is not the voting system that the Premiership itself uses. For changes to our top division to be passed an 11-1 majority is required – an effective veto for two clubs (and although any two clubs can veto decisions, it’s often seen as a mechanism that keeps decision-making in the hands of the Old Firm).

Money is also concentrated at the top of our game, and this is now so entrenched that it’s often forgotten that until the 1990s league sponsorship money was divided proportionally between clubs in all four divisions. After the SPL was formed, its clubs retained all of its commercial revenues except for an annual payment to the SFL and a parachute payment to recently relegated clubs. Early this summer, when the Scottish FA announced that £1.5 million in early payments from club licensing and Club Academy Scotland funds would be made to help clubs through the coronavirus pandemic, many assumed an this money would be split equally, or would be allocated based on need. We shared a detailed breakdown of these payments, and of the additional SPFL payments made to clubs in April. Those April payments are a perfect illustration of the financial implications of the 1997 breakaway – rather than the SPFL’s £2.9m being shared equally with a £70,000 payment to each club, the top three in the Premiership received £395,000, the rest of the top flight clubs received £157,500; Championship clubs received £26,500, League One clubs £2,700 and League Two clubs just £1,350.

Power and money are so intertwined that it’s hard to see any alternative to this. Yet this summer we have seen philanthropists such as James Anderson recognise the important role that football plays in Scottish society, giving as much to grassroots clubs as to clubs in the professional divisions. Around the country we can see charitable foundations associated with our clubs working to promote, support, fund and administer activities that help meet the identified social needs of the people of Scotland – and it has been clearly demonstrated that clubs’ ability to effect positive change is not limited by their financial performance or league position.

If we truly support the whole of our game – in the 42 SPFL clubs, in the 250 clubs in the pyramid leagues and in semi-professional football outside the pyramid, and in the amateur game which exists in every part of our country – then we truly will see the big picture. Let’s learn from the best aspects of our national game, rather than simply trying to emulate our larger neighbours to the south, as we have done in recent years.

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