Sport in general occupies a pivotal role in both society and the economy. Football in particular exemplifies this perfectly: its clubs, deeply embedded in their communities, serve as central elements of local identity, are themselves cultural institutions and act as unifying forces across generations, race, class and gender. As with the wider sector, the dedicated efforts of clubs, and those of their staff and volunteers, play a crucial role in ensuring access to the benefits of sports to millions.
Despite the positive impact of sports (and not to overlook the incredible work being done), recent years have seen significant failures in international sports federations, domestic national governing bodies (NGBs) and individual clubs. Rooted in governance shortcomings, these failures extend beyond the organisations themselves, adversely affecting their respective disciplines and the broader sporting landscape. In some instances, these actions have escalated to criminal wrongdoing, resulting in severe consequences such as reputational damage, threats to sporting integrity, third-party investigations, legal proceedings and, in extreme cases, significant human suffering.
Much of the focus on football governance in recent times has been on the financial precariousness and unsustainable business models on which the game in the UK operates. Football occupies a curious position where clubs have been those community and cultural institutions mentioned above for over a century, but operate in a now international industry still struggling to adapt to the distortive effects of large-scale broadcast investment, shifting ownership models and a globalised marketplace. The problems extend down the game’s pyramid.
We think that effective governance is indispensable for bridging the gap between a football club’s sporting, societal and private business roles. Adapting to the dynamic changes in the sports landscape, ensuring responsible and sustainable club management, and securing their legacy for future generations makes the implementation of robust governance practices a necessity for football clubs.
Processes and organisational culture operate synergistically, with a positive culture serving not only to safeguard reputation but also to generate value for the organisation, enhance its assets, and contribute to achieving strategic goals sustainably. An inclusive, transparent and watchful culture acts as a defence against detrimental behaviour, underscoring the importance of fostering an environment that promotes integrity and ethical conduct.
Consultation on Fair Game’s Code of Governance for Football Clubs
For these reasons, we welcomed the government’s White Paper titled “A Sustainable Future - Reforming Club Football Governance,” published at the beginning of last year, which included recommendations for an Independent Regulator for English Football and the establishment of a compulsory “Football Club Corporate Governance Code.”
While advocating strongly for the use of the existing sector code as a preferred foundation – the Code for Sports Governance has transformed governance in the publicly funded sport and physical activity sector − we appreciate the initiative by Fair Game to compile a new football-specific Governance Code ahead of the legislative initiatives aimed at implementing the recommendations found in the government’s white paper, the core of which is the establishment of a statutory Independent Regulator for English Football. During the recent consultation period of the Fair Game Code of Governance for Football Clubs, we submitted our response that emphasised several key points.
First, we highlight the necessity for additional resources, particularly in terms of training and staffing, to ensure the effective implementation of the Code. While we find financial support unnecessary, we stress the importance of training programs to acquaint stakeholders with the Code’s requirements. The Sports Governance Academy, CGIUKI’s partnership with the Sports Councils, demonstrates the profound utility of accompanying additional requirements with support and guidance. Additionally, we agree with the adoption of a phased approach to implementation, tailoring timescales for clubs based on their tiers to achieve fair and practical compliance.
Second, we approach the inclusion of supporter directors on club boards cautiously and suggest a limit of one supporter director if this avenue be pursued at all. We point out a number of potential challenges associated with individual interest directors and advocate for a more inclusive advisory committee approach to fan engagement. To maintain clarity, we discourage the use of the term “fan shadow board” and propose mechanisms akin to those for employee engagement in the UK Corporate Governance Code to ensure structured and effective fan participation in decision-making processes.
Lastly, our assessment rates the overall effectiveness of Fair Game’s proposed Code as moderate. We express concerns over the clarity around decision-making primacy within clubs and suggest potential adjustments to specific Code provisions. We advocate for a mandatory compliance model and stress the importance of clear accountability, transparency and communication to comprehensively address challenges in football governance. Moreover, we are firmly of the view that the way out of the current malaise afflicting the game in England cannot be found solely through the introduction of a regulator or codes of governance. Remedying football’s problems will also require non-trivial shifts in the cultures within individual clubs, the game as a whole and its many impassioned stakeholders.