Crouch Report on football governance – advance leak of draft proposals

AFTER supporting the Super league in private and denouncing it in public, Boris Johnson’s government has now commissioned an investigative report into the governance of football in the UK from Conservative MP and ex-Sports Minister Tracey Crouch.


Some of its draft proposals were in an authorised leaked to the media ahead of publication later this year including ensuring all football club boards beef up the number and proportions of their non-executive directors (NEDs). Also leaked were unspecified (as yet) proposals for greater fan involvement - the so-called “golden share veto” – whose exact mechanics remain eye-catching in media terms but unspecified as well as unlikely to work in practice. David Bernstein (former Chairman of the Football Association and interviewee in my recent book The Independent Director in Society) has long campaigned for an independent regulatory body for football and the mood music suggests that The Crouch Report might see this come to some kind of fruition. 


Of course, Crouch has some previous – albeit mixed - football form since she served as Under-Secretary of State for Sport (15 June 2017 to 1 November 2018) when corporate governance turbulence at the Football Association, Premier League and, arguably, Sport England saw them fall short of the publicly stated standards these organisations self-certified for themselves.


It is the case that football’s baddest boys are often found in the boardroom rather than on the pitch. Disciplinary lapses and off the ball corporate violence garner no VAR reviews, let alone the equivalent of a red card from supervisory bodies. Cloistered safely away from prying eyes and lens of fans, players, staff and media alike, good corporate governance traditionally often dies in this football shade. 


Long before it was fashionable to do, I have long campaigned for more independent non-executive directors (NEDs) at our football clubs and various associated supervisory bodies. 

The need for more non-executive directors is blindingly obvious in our club executive suites as well as boardrooms elsewhere.  


On their own greater fan involvement, golden goals type vetoes and consultation or a higher proportion of NEDs won’t magically cure football’s real (or imagined) ills. According to the original research from Henley Business School conducted for my book The Independent Director in Society, the Tracey Crouch report also urgently needs to consider and address many pre-existing and significant common problems in our football boardrooms at all levels of the game. The survey revealed a lack of diversity, and of boards recruiting directors “who they think will give them a less challenging time”. 


Many people become directors of football clubs because they are passionate about the sport but this can compromise independence. “If you’re a fan of the sport, you really need to be able to separate yourself from that in order to provide check and challenge,” said one interviewee. 


What makes this worse is that an often ad hoc recruitment and appointment process (26 per cent had no formal process) means there is clear evidence of a lack of experience for these football club board roles. Sixty-two per cent of respondents had less than three years’ experience in their role and half held no other similar board position meaning their experience is limited in the extreme. More than 10 per cent had no induction training. Nonetheless, many were still over confident enough to rate themselves as doing a good job or better. As if further evidence were needed, the recent abortive Super League proposals from boardrooms at the pinnacle of the football pyramid iceberg suggests something contrary.


Football clubs have a rich tradition of successful local businessmen realising their fan dreams of running them or else - at Premier League level and the upper reaches of the Championship - luring often over-leveraged speculative investors with eyes on the global television revenues rather than signing up independent directors. If more non-executive directors on football boards are to succeed, then the Crouch Report also needs to address the areas of candidate calibre, recruitment processes and also relevant board and/or football experience to ensure greater actual independence. 


Though some of the leaked Crouch Report initiatives are laudable, they lack tactical subtlety so run the risk of being the corporate governance reform equivalent of hopeful long balls into the box during injury time rather than being total football or skilful use of the currently fashionable gegenpress. Football boardroom culture has often been inimical to government influence and reform, based on these leaked proposals the Crouch Report is destined to deliver more of the same.


Photo credit: Kent Online