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Outsourcing your dirty work

A “Think-Tank” tries a hatchet job on the Fan-Led review

If you are reading this, and the rest of our website, you are probably a fan who is or has been concerned about your club. Not just because it lost 3-0 at home last week, but because it seems to face serious threats to its financial viability, and thus its very existence in the form you know it. You may have evidence that your club is or was in the hands of people who were not just incompetent or financially reckless but had goals of personal enrichment , and methods of achieving it, which could have caused the club to fail as an entity. This website is testimony to such a case at one club; however the message behind our work is that what happened at Charlton is part of an epidemic that threatened several other clubs to a greater lesser extent, mainly smaller clubs, but including one FAPL club, and often involved some of the same dubious individuals. And the common theme was that none of these clubs and their fans had any protection from the authorities. Many turned to their MPs, as British people have been taught to do as part of their basic understanding of British democracy; and because the incidences were so widespread, this time MPs resolved to take up the issue. One in particular, Spurs fan Tracey Crouch made it a major part of her work, and the result is the Fan-Led Review. We therefore suppose, that you, dear reader, are likely to think the main recommendations of that Review should be implemented by the Government, and PDQ.

Of course the UK is a democracy, and in global terms a well-governed country  with strong legal and other institutions, so it is reasonable that some parties will not have the same favourable view of various FLR recommendations: and their voices should be heard. Some of the proposals will be challenging; any reader who has served on the board of a Supporters Trust will be thinking hard about the Golden Share, and the extent to which fans should be able to influence decisions made in their club’s boardroom. But overall, the best thing about the FLR was that finally, after years of frustration and helplessness, and the feeling of being very small and unimportant,  politicians heard the fans’ voices and decided to act upon them. 

And then along comes a body that does not just oppose the findings of the FLR, but seeks to portray those who asked for such a Review, and support its findings, as just as small and unimportant as they always were. 

And who is this body? The Institute of Economic Affairs.  Who?? Well indeed…

‘Ooo are ya?

According to journalist Peter Geoghegan in his book “Democracy for Sale”, the IEA is “probably the most successful British export that most people have never heard of”. It is commonly described as a “think-tank.”. This conjures an image of very clever people, from a  learned academic background , who provide the research and analysis that feeds into Civil Service and ultimately to government. You might suppose that therefore they are publicly funded and work in the broader public’s general interest. Such institutions exist. The IEA is not one of them. It is privately funded. It receives funding both long term and ad hoc from corporations, both British and foreign owned, and feels no compunction to reveal details of such funding. As Geoghegan writes of its history, “In the guise of a research institute, it would be a covert weapon to change political and public opinion”. 

At this point, dear reader, you may be concerned that this post is going to “get political”; but do not be concerned, we know (unlike the IEA) that football fans as a group in society are just about the broadest church you can find. It’s a key point in this post. If you are interested, Peter Geoghegan’s book has a whole chapter on the IEA. At this stage, all you need to know is that the IEA regularly publishes “research papers” on “current controversies”, which are written in academic style, regularly quoting other academic papers. The overall impression they seek to convey is that the authors (and the IEA overall) are very learned, very experienced, very concerned for the welfare of the United Kingdom, and with great resources at their disposal. In summary, superior to you. 

Your football club “has no broader significance”…

The paper in question is called “Red Card: Why English football doesn’t need an independent football regulator”. From the title you can see what its main beef is. Again, let’s concede that establishing a regulator for any industry is never straightforward, and some of the detailed obstacles the IEA highlights will need to be tackled with care and forethought. However we need to be clear: the IEA is opposed to regulators on an ideological basis. It believes that governments should not interfere in “private” markets, which will always, if allowed to run free, eventually work out for the best for all of us. This is a point of view that is not unique in the world, but it is fair to say that it is not a majority view. Unfortunately, the IEA feels it necessary to subtly personally discredit all those who hold a different view of the matter. “Red Card”  claims that the Review “represents a particular partisan position on matters which, despite their interest to a sizeable and very vocal minority of voters,  have little broader significance.“ (Are you starting to feel a bit small yet, dear reader?). “Red Card” claims that the Review’s recommendations are “poorly substantiated”. As we will see, this is an example of a pot not so much calling a kettle black, as bellowing it continuously as it follows the kettle down the road. Let’s highlight some of Red Card’s own “poorly substantiated” claims.

“Is that an elephant by the drinks tray?”  “Yes, but pretend you haven’t noticed it”

Red Card includes an introduction which attempts to summarise the relevant development in the English professional game which brought us to where we all are now. Unfortunately it contains one glaring omission. It refers in passing to the Premier League „breaking away“ in 1992, while remaining “linked” to the EFL by a system of promotion and relegation. It goes on to concede that there is therefore a pyramid. It completely swerves any discussion of the Premier League breakaway, and why the FA decreed that this breakaway should be allowed to be a separate commercial entity which negotiated the TV rights with Sky, and handed down the rights revenues  to the rest of the pyramid, at its own discretion; a situation that remains today, and results in the financial cliff-edge of relegation to the Championship (and actually another smaller cliff to League One too). No other major European League has allowed its top division to become a separate entity with such overwhelming financial control over the rest of the pyramid. Given that concern over the way TV rights money is distributed to the rest of the divisions at present is central to the Review, you would at least expect a serious think-tank, full of brilliant minds, to say “Hmm, that’s a little odd, perhaps we should examine the pros and cons of this model“. We, unfortunately have a relatively simple explanation for why Red Card does not do this, which we will come to.

Call yourselves fans? 

Then comes a section which is entitled “Why a Fan-Led‘ review?”, and this is the section which provoked the title for this post. Here Red Card makes the point, more than once, that football fans are not a homogenous group. We agree with that; politicians, football authorities, and club owners  always seem to be surprised to find that an organised fan group facing them may include lawyers, accountants, tax advisers and advertising executives, as well as..well who, exactly, did they expect? But the IEA authors have a slightly different point to make. Apparently, we who push most strongly for greater protection of our clubs are “emotionally invested” and the implication is that such fans are not representative of the rest. No research whatsoever is offered by the authors to support this assumption. Rather they point to revenue earned by the biggest clubs (and in reality they are only talking about 6 FAPL clubs) from overseas “fans” and also corporate sponsors. The argument is that these groups should have as much say as e.g the Wigan Athletic Supporters Trust, because clubs earn money from them, and that is Business, and Business must be allowed to run free. Of course Wigan don’t get so much from sales of away strips in Bangkok, and its sponsorship deals will be pretty modest, but down the road Manchester United earn far more from these revenue sources then from the 73,000 who attend the stadium, and Manchester United is publicly quoted on the NYSE, so it must be free to Do Business. That is the reasoning of the IEA; and it’s driven by the authors’ need to shoe-horn ideological diktats onto an “industry” that has too many awkward contradictions to bear comparison with any other. 

We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we? That the global armchair fans pay more in total than those who attend in person, and most of those who attend don’t belong to their Supporter’ Trusts; so the organised fans are branded as “activists”, a word that is heavy with political connotations, and “emotionally invested” implying that football is the dominant force in their lives, so they cannot possibly have any of the expertise that the authors, the Two Think-Tankers, are so anxious to project. 

The Think Tankers offer no research to back up their claim that organised fans are somehow pushing for changes that the majority of other fans – at least those who actually attend a match – do not agree with. They ignore the fact that most organised fans are backed by a wider mass of fans, and have often been elected by a democratic process, usually under the auspices of the supporters trust. At Charlton we can lay claim to the biggest deployment of basic British democracy by “activists“. We are talking of course about the Valley Party, and the numbers show how clearly a small group of activists were in touch not only with the opinions of the broad group of fans but also the wider community.

In 1989 Charlton were languishing at Selhurst Park, with core support of around 5000, despite being in the old First Division. Its plan to return the club to The Valley was torn up by Greenwich Council who had previously agreed to it. In response fans decided to contest the upcoming local elections by forming the Valley Party. The idea arguably germinated from the actions of just two fans who had started a fanzine – Voice of the Valley – which rallied the alienated fans at Selhurst Park; nevertheless when the first public meeting of the Valley Party was held, only nine fans turned up. Yet, four months later, the election campaign had achieved a stunning success; to general astonishment  a “bunch of football fans” had shown that they had the skills and knowledge to run a political campaign, including an award-winning series of billboards; the number of votes cast, 14,838, was almost 3 times the core support that attended at Selhurst Park; and it was clear that many people voted, who either never attended football matches, or had given up when Charlton were uprooted from the local community. Greenwich Council caved in on the issue 24 hours after the election count. The Chair of Planning had no say in the matter. He had lost his seat, and he left politics.

Now doubtless the Think Tankers will argue that this was 30 years ago and since then English football has a new global audience, and these people may well have different expectations for how football is organised and presented. The IEA case is that this new segment of the audience is just as important as the core match going audience. It ignores another fundamental and unique truth about football as a business in the entertainment sector. The live audience is in fact part of the product which is enjoyed by the remote audience (and indeed the live audience itself). The teenager in his Bangkok bedroom may not have given any thought to the logistic nightmare inflicted on away fans by late and thoughtless scheduling of games for live TV; but he would definitely agree that the spectacle of the English game is enhanced by the fans inside the stadium, and especially the away fans. So we, the “emotionally invested” fans, are a key  part of the commodity that is packaged up and sold. Does that mean that we should be treated as a commodity, as livestock to be moved around and manipulated  for the greater benefit of business? Without us, the product would be diminished, and that alone makes us not just the core audience but an indispensable part of the product.

It’s the competition, stupid..

A similar fault in the thinking of the IEA derives from the fact that some bigger clubs are now quite large businesses; some are publicly quoted on the stock exchanges. This fact fools the IEA into thinking that these are the businesses that must be protected from undue regulation. However the Think Tankers have failed to grasp that Manchester United may well be a business; but it is only as good a business as the competition it is a part of. Take away the excitement of the league, and the derbies against City, the matches against old rivals such as Liverpool or Leeds, and Manchester United as a business is nothing. Without the league, nobody wants to buy their third away strip. Whether the MUFC business would survive if it broke away to help form a European super league is another question. It’s a question that needs to address whether a mid-week mid-table game against Juventus in this league would be as attractive as one against Leicester. Even for a mid-table game, Leicester would bring 3,000 fans. How many would Juventus bring? In its rush to defend the owners of these big clubs’ right to do what they please with their own businesses, the IEA fails to grasp the true nature of the business that needs to be regulated.

“Do we have evidence for that?” “Nah, let’s just hope nobody checks..”

This doesn’t stop the Think Tankers from claiming that football should not be regulated  because it is… not important enough. To support the implication that all this is being discussed for the benefit of a noisy minority, the IEA seeks to bracket football with theatregoing and concert going, and suggests, again without a scrap of evidence, that the latter two are enjoyed by a larger percentage of the population than those who enjoy football. It is surprising that the  Think Tankers could not pay for access to the research that would shed light on this claim; presumably they have not heard of TGI, other than as a restaurant chain, but it (Target Group Index)  is the standard and long established measure of consumer purchases which can show not just how many people attended football or the theatre each year, but what % of them are frequent users, and what % went just once. We are not in a position to pay for access to this research; however, we do have our version of Tim Harford, the anonymous researcher we call the Head of Dossiers. She has found statistics  ( shed some light on the total numbers attending football, theatre and music concerts festivals. The total indicated attendances in 2019 were

Football (England only, and not Cup or internationals) :  33m

Concerts and festivals, total UK: 33m

Theatres, London only: 15m

So there we are. A “Think Tank” that wings it, and hopes nobody will check their fact-free assertions. But the argument is specious anyway. Glastonbury Festival exists regardless of whether Reading also does. And theatre-goers are not loyal to one theatre. Football fans are “buying” their club’s games, but only in the context of the competition. And finally, as the Head of Dossiers acidly pointed out, the theatre and concert goers are not seeing their favourite venues routinely taken over by dubious characters and driven to unsustainable levels of debt; which is why theatre and concert-goers are not clamouring for an industry Regulator.

“…worthy folk…”

Dwell on that phrase for a moment. How does it sound to you? A tad patronising? A suggestion that the authors are talking about people they may consider somehow inferior to themselves? Well, if you thought they were talking about you again, we have to tell you that this phrase appears in probably the most unpleasant section of the paper, where the two Think Tankers consider it necessary to launch a  personal attack on the professional credentials of the members of the Review panel. The offending – and offensive –  section reads (our emphasis on bold):

“ …Most of these people will spend much of their time at football matches in executive suites; few will pay for themselves  or queue for pies and a cup of Bovril.

So the ‘Fan Led’ review may be something of a misnomer. Perhaps more importantly, for people who are going to demand legislation on behalf of fans, no panel member seems to have experience of industry regulation or the legal training to spot possible dangers in their proposals.”

So finally this pair of ThinkTankers reveal how they perceive us: Pie-chomping Bovril drinkers. It’s that or the executive suite, apparently. They display their complete ignorance of the fact that a typical football crowd  encompasses just about the entire spectrum of British society; by age, by education, by profession, by political beliefs (If any) . Then they go on to tell us what they think are the key criteria for being a member of this panel. They may not have done their homework before dissing the experience of these people; for example Dawn Airey, with her 37 year experience in television, most certainly does have experience of industry regulation. It is called Ofcom nowadays, but Ms Airey has worked with all of the regulatory predecessors in her long career. Dan Jones is a partner at Deloitte, where he has worked for 21 years. He is in charge of the renowned Sports Business unit there, so industry regulation is not currently something he studies in detail; but we would wager that such a professional has a good overall understanding of the issues, and has any number of colleagues around him whom he could consult. But again this is hardly the point. There is another key criterion for membership of the review panel, not mentioned by the Think Tankers; high-level business experience, both from within the unusual business of football, and outside.

We don’t believe a genuine think- tank would include in a supposed academically grounded paper such personal attacks on those whom they deem to be the opposition. But then, many  who know the IEA well don’t believe they are a think tank, in the old accepted meaning of the phrase. In his book Peter Geoghan reports a Tory MP as saying of the IEA and other “libertarian” think tanks : “they are corporate lobbyists, nothing more.” So our Think -Tankers have a job to do, and apparently it includes a snide little hatchet job. We are sure the Review Panel members will get over it, but we still feel tempted to review the professional credentials of the two Think- Tankers themselves….

Professor J.R. Shackleton apparently calls himself Len, which hints at a football interest, but he does not reveal it, so who knows. Above is his profile as it appears on the IEA website. We could not find him on Linked In. Sum total of business experience? Well it depends on how generously you want to treat being a Dean of two business schools. But he has spent a long time at the University of Buckingham. Did you know Buckingham even has a University.? It turns out to be one of six private university colleges created by Margaret Thatcher, and it has always been closely associated with the IEA. 

Victoria Hewson is a lawyer. However, when we saw “Before entering the legal profession Victoria worked for Procter & Gamble in the UK and Germany”, we were on guard. The writer knows a great deal about P&G, and the quality of the people that join and develop with them. He was duly ready to respect Victoria’s international career, perhaps in marketing. Well Victoria does have a Linked In profile, and we thought we’d better screen-shot it too, as it turns out her “career” at P&G was rather more modest…

So there we are, a diverse group of professionals, plus other professionals with relevant knowledge who assisted the Review such as Kieran Maguire, as well as many Supporters Trust people such as our own Heather McKinlay with her extensive successful business career, have all been dismissed by a former business school Dean, and a former P&G payroll clerk. They must feel, as Sir Denis Healey said after being attacked by Sir Geoffrey Howe in the Commons, like “having been savaged by a dead sheep.”

But, why?

Why did they write this paper, and why descend to an attempt at personal discreditation? Well, the answer, we are reliably informed, is because they were paid to do so. And who paid them for this? Well, according to our sources, the Premier League. We do not know exactly “who,” or whether the fee or “donation” was paid by the FAPL itself. But the FAPL clubs have clearly put their heads together and asked who should “front up” their objections to the Review recommendations. It was notable that initially they fielded people from individual clubs, but not from the Big Six. And as we have documented in our series on the FAPL “Orcs”, they made a right pig’s ear of it. We suppose therefore that they retired hurt, and decided to outsource their objections to lobbyists who could dress up the objections in academic “wrapping”,  thus (they assumed) baffling and blunting the support of us “emotionally invested” fans who would be left in shock and awe at their brilliance, and retreating to their pies and Bovril.

We should say that, in general, the IEA rejects accusations that they act as paid lobbyists, most recently in a blogpost published just this week. It was not prompted by the FLR issue, but it states :

“A major difference is that we don’t and can’t lobby on behalf paying clients. Our research is peer reviewed, our researchers and their output protected from donor influence by high standards.”

Well, we have, here, reviewed this paper and pointed out that many of its assertions are completely fact -free, not backed up by generally available research on the issues, let alone any original research by the authors. We of course don’t expect to be accepted as “peers”, but we’d  be very interested to know the identity of any “peers”who cast their eyes over this before publication. More specifically, if the IEA wish to confirm that the blogpost was written by the two Think-Tankers purely on their own initiative, without any request from either the FAPL or individuals connected with an FAPL club, and without any donation being received or promised from these entities or individuals, we undertake to publish that, and re-write the paragraph concerned. 

But whatever the truth about how this dismal second-rate paper came to be written, we can say for sure that it, like every other past attempt to patronise and dismiss football fans, has failed. If you have a case to argue against any aspect of the Fan-Led Review, you should be able to make it yourself, eye-to-eye with the “emotionally-invested”  fans who back it. If you delegate to “think tanks”/corporate lobbyists to brief unpleasantly in the ear of MPs against “worthy folk”, your bad faith will be exposed, and the country at large will ask…

“Is that all you’ve got?”.