Corruption, Sport and what we can learn from the Super League debacle

European Super League, we hardly knew ye!

On Sunday 19th April 2021 12 of Europe’s ‘biggest’ football clubs announced their plans to break away from established European competition to form their own ‘Super League’. Little more than 48 hours later over half of them had backed down in the face of overwhelming opposition and the Super League idea (in this form at least) was all but dead.

The UK government, never known for missing opportunities to jump on a potentially popular bandwagon, was one of the Super League’s loudest opposing voices. Both Secretary for Sport, Oliver Dowden, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to do all in their power to prevent the project from going ahead. These protestations of anger were undoubtedly politically expedient. That’s particularly so as it was far from clear what the UK government was actually planning to do. However, there were still very good reasons for the UK government to be worried.

The Premier League is a significant UK export, both financially and culturally. As well as contributing £7.6 billion to UK GDP, the games are broadcast globally to gigantic audiences. Millions upon millions across all corners of the globe tune in weekly to cheer on teams from English towns and cities most viewers will never visit. It is in the government’s interest for the Premier League to maintain value. On account of their global fanbases, the six clubs involved in the project represent a significant part of that value, so prioritising a Super League would potentially reduce Premier League viewership and thus revenues and global reach. The Super League represents a serious threat to one of the UK’s more important assets.

Corruption and Sport; Why Definitions Matter

It is here that the issue of corruption definitions and government policy comes in. There has always been a conceptual tension as to whether sports clubs and bodies exist as social institutions providing a form of community service or simply as private businesses. If it’s the former, then they have wider social roles that need acknowledging and indeed respecting and protecting. If it’s the latter, then their purpose is to generate profit for their owners. Do we make money so we can play more football? Or do play football so we can make (more) money?

In the UK, the advent of billionaires buying football clubs has undoubtedly shifted the focus to the latter. The impacts of this shift have ranged from unpopular commercially-driven changes (such as Cardiff City changing their shirt colour from blue to red to appeal to Asian markets, despite having been nicknamed the ‘bluebirds’ for a century prior) to growing concern that huge revenues coupled with a lack of transparency has made football clubs the perfect vehicle for money-laundering.

How we conceptualise corruption in sport is dependent on how this tension is resolved. Definitions of corruption generally revolve around notions of a deliberate abuse of ‘entrusted power’ or ‘expected behaviour’. This clearly applies to public officials, but less clearly to CEOs or board directors. Practices undertaken by a minister described as ‘corrupt’ may simply be ‘unethical’ when undertaken by a private businessperson. The reason for that is arguably that the private businessperson isn’t spending public money and doesn’t have a clearly defined public role. If an owner is asset-stripping a football club for personal profit, are they therefore corrupt or just undertaking a (controversial) financial practice?

The government’s response to the Super League so far has suggested a clear willingness to perceive football clubs as institutions with social responsibilities that go beyond simply generating profit. Dowden has announced a “fan-led review” of football, describing owners as “temporary custodians” and promising to review governance, regulation and the merits of an independent regulator. Subsequently there has been talk that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has been discussing the 50+1 ownership model seen in German football that guarantees a significant level of fan control over how clubs are run. Many have ascribed this as the reason why no German clubs were involved with the Super League.

There is hope that the Super League fall-out will be the catalyst for positive change throughout football, including corruption mitigation. Any review of football ownership must consider powers to properly scrutinise investors and financial practices. There are currently many opportunities for owners and officials to use football clubs to commit economic crime. Considering these actors as holding ‘entrusted power’ strengthens authorities in limiting these opportunities. The government has taken positive steps in opposing the Super League and now has the chance to dramatically improve integrity throughout our national game.

The question that remains is whether the government’s action will really meet the expectations that its talk is generating.

Billy Pratt and Dan Hough

University of Sussex

Posted in Sport

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