Since the foundation of the Football League in 1888, the ‘pyramid’ structure of English football has been sacrosanct. Despite the foundation of the Premier League in 1992, the system which allows clubs in the lower divisions to dream that they might one day ascend to become champions of England (as Leicester did) remains intact.
In recent years, however, the (in principle) egalitarian structure of English football has come under growing strain.
Increasingly lucrative deals for the television rights to Premier League and Champions League matches have seen the gap in wealth between the clubs at the top and the rest grow to alarming degrees.
The dream of securing Premier League riches has subsequently led some owners of lower division clubs to take risks with their club’s finances, sacrificing financial stability in favour of wild spending on players to try and win promotion.
Perhaps most significantly, the owners of several of England’s biggest clubs—representing the mindset of the new breed of billionaire investor-owner—have indicated that they see the future for their clubs outside of the traditional league system, as exemplified by the aborted attempt to create a European Super League in 2021.
In the wake of these—and other—developments, senior figures in the sport such as Gary Neville have called for the creation of an independent regulator for English football. Following the recommendations of a Fan-Led Review of Football Governance (Chaired by former minister Tracey Crouch), the Government recently announced plans to create such a regulator to oversee the running of men’s professional football in England.
Last week, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked English voters about their views on the proposal for an independent regulator, the fairness of the current league structure, and the role of Premier League clubs in funding the grassroots game.
At first glance, many English voters seem content with the current system. 49% of respondents think the current English football league system, as presently constituted, is fair, a figure which rises to 73% among those who are ‘absolutely’ football fans. 18% of the overall sample think the system is unfair.
In addition, 58% believe that any professional football club in England, if it is run well, has a chance of winning the Premier League.
However, a plurality (47%) of English voters do not believe the financial earnings of the Premier League are being sufficiently passed down to lower league football clubs, and as many as 66% would therefore support a legal requirement that the Premier League provide greater financial support to lower league football clubs.
A significant 61% of English voters would now support the establishment of an independent regulator for English football. Among hardcore football fans, 77% would support the creation of such a body.
Meanwhile, in a sign of just how radical a change English voters would be willing to support, a majority of voters would now prefer a fan-owned model of club ownership, as is the case in Germany.
51% would support the UK Government or the English Football Association introducing a rule requiring football clubs to be majority owned by their fans and members. Among those who say they are ‘absolutely’ football fans, more than two-thirds (67%) would support such a change..
Most English Football clubs owe their existence to the local communities who have sustained them through all trials and tribulations from their foundation to the present day.
Now, in a globalized TV age in which English football attracts interest and investment from around the world, fans want to see the wealth of the Premier League used to support the grassroots game and would therefore support an independent regulator to ensure clubs remain the social, community oriented institutions they were created as, not merely as playthings for rich owners.