EPL Debated in the House of Lords

Today I had the fascinating experience of visiting the House of Lords at Westminster to listen in on a debate motioned by Lord Bates on ‘Contributions of the English Premier League Football to the United Kingdom’.

Sceptics and socialists among you may wonder what the hell football has to do with the House of Lords and what possible relevance it might have to grassroots football. Fair enough. The Lords give consideration to public policy and have a responsibility to hold the government to account – when I joined the chamber this morning the state of A&E healthcare provision was under scrutiny – so depending on your point of view you may not see the need for any form of observation or intevention by politicians in sport.

But the debate undeniably highlighted the popularity of the sport across all areas of society. Indeed, by discussing the Premier League in a place traditionally associated with aristocracy and rule by hereditary peers, it was the venue that provided a striking contrast to the classic memory of football I have growing up – of the game being more associated with ‘the working classes’. The Lords chamber is also a particularly striking contrast from the 2. Bundesliga match I attended last weekend at the Millentor stadium between St Pauli and 1860 Munich!

It is useful to be reminded how important football has now become to both the privileged and underprivileged, and how inclusive it has become (or at least has tried to become).

Many speakers in the debate made note of the controversial origins of the English Premier League and its breakaway from the Football Association and Football League in 1992. It remains a very clear marker for the modernisation of the top-flight game in England and a shift in focus towards the commercialisation of the game – with lucrative broadcasting deal after lucrative broadcasting deal ever since.

The high revenues enjoyed by the Premier League are well-known and well-reported. In 1991/92 the collective revenue of the top division in England was £170 million. In 2013/14, in consideration of the latest lucrative broadcasting deals, the seasonal revenue is projected to reach £3.08 billion. Attendances and stadia occupancy rates have also increased significantly, although it is also often pointed out that the German Bundesliga leads the way in that respect.

The “buoyant incomes have been re-invested: in stadium facilities, in playing squads and training standards, in wider communities and in grassroots football” (House of Lords Library Note, p3). Football has become an important economic agent, providing jobs and attracting investment across the country.  An example used in the debate was Swansea – which, according to a study by the Welsh Economy Research Unit, benefits from £8.13 million per year by visitors to Swansea matches per season – creating jobs and even increasing the number of applicants to its university.

Lord Wei provided some detail on how a recent study showed that a large proportion of Chinese people associate of the city of Manchester with football, which very helpfully enables it to be recognised by foreign investors and aids the UK in competing for investment in the Greater Manchester area – not only in tourism but also the development of significant business centres.

And yet, in the minds of some, the association of football with business is impure. But alongside the scarier prospect of selfish profiteers in football comes societal benefits such as the opening up of football to more diverse groups of players and supporters. Football grounds are now much more receptive to families, women and ethnic minorities than ever before and the heavy involvement of football clubs in promoting this change is arguably one positive influence of the commercial benefits of doing so.

On the other hand, in the EPL we are in danger of driving the cost of tickets and television subscriptions beyond the reach of the average fan – a point noted by, among others, Lord Ouseley. Eye-watering price levels have already been reached, and that is one area where politicians may see the need to intervene in the governance of a game which in danger of marginalising its poorer fans and becoming increasingly elitist.

The topic of governance at football clubs was widely mentioned with particular reference to both Portsmouth and Blackburn’s recent decline and concerns that the objectives of owners are not always aligned with the opinions and desires of the fans who invest considerable energy in support of their club. This was yet another area where the profiteering by owners – or perhaps the recklessness of their spending – was highlighted as a threat to the Premier League’s future and one which policitians are becoming ever more watchful of.

The lack of a more diverse and representative mix in both the boardrooms at football clubs and also at the top of the managerial tree was noted as another failing of the game in its current state – as well as the recent damning indictment by Tanni Grey-Thompson on the poor standards for the accommodation of wheelchair users in sport in the UK.

So politics and football: should it mix? In my opinion, to some degree it has to. Football’s grip on its millions of fans in the UK, and billions globally, needs a certain amount of regulation and monitoring considering how much power the leagues and clubs at the highest level have in the way that football is run. With great power comes great responsibility, and it is clear that in some cases the desires of owners are at odds with the desires of supporters – not to mention the ongoing arguments over how the globalisation of the EPL may be negatively affecting the results of the England team. It is hard to imagine how, without the intervention of regulators, the prospects of British academy players or ticket prices can be changed in favour of the local stakeholders in football clubs. For that reason alone I think football can always benefit from discussion and accountability to the community as a whole – be it local, national or global.

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