Football Association ‘Project Big Picture’ fiasco

NEW independent research from Henley Business School for The Independent Director in Society finds endemic complacency and low engagement in UK sports sector boardrooms along with a culture of unavailable or hard to obtain good data/evidence for decision-making.

As if keen to make The Football Association (FA) the poster child for these findings – our research includes interviews with the chairmen and boards of various professional clubs (Southampton, Walsall, Plymouth and Celtic amongst them) and also ex-FA Chairman Bernstein – FA Chairman Greg Clarke has been issuing contradictory statements about the extent of his close involvement in the recent “big six” clubs “Project Big Picture” initiative to drink deepest from the net TV revenues trough.

Disappointingly, FA chairman Greg Clarke is currently apparently unable to remember that he had initiated the whole project rather than “participated in the early stages of discussions” then “discontinued his involvement”.  The Clarke issue isn’t simply a matter of facilitating boardroom greed, radical changes to the structure of English football or attention to detail but sports governance in general as well as corporate governance and the ability of the non-executive directors on the FA board to hold the Chairman and executive board to account.

That the FA continues to officially support Clarke’s version of events is, perhaps, predictable, given that the independent directors of the FA board appear to have abdicated or, at least, “discontinued” their supervision of Chairman Clarke. We definitely urgently need the truth to be publicly available about Clarke’s involvement together with transparency as to whether he was acting with the approval and knowledge of the Board, especially the Independent Directors.


The research surveys for The Independent Director in Society have been completed by directors from National Governing Bodies (NGBs) (68%) and directors of County Sports Partnerships (CSPs) (32%), some of the in-depth findings include:

1.        The average board size for sports boards is 10 members, of which 6 on average are independent directors. Compared to other sectors analysed, sports non-executive directors are younger (44.9% are less than 55 years of age), are short tenured (62% serve two or less years in the role) and have less board experience (50% have had no other board position).

2.       Sports boards have 5 board meetings during the year on average (the lowest number compared to other sectors [Health; Universities; Charities] surveyed by the book), lasting on average 3.7 hours. 

3.       Sports non-executive directors give the least time commitment to the role when compared to other sectors with just 14.1 days/year on average (about one day a month). 

4.       A significant number of directors (17%) do not agree that good data/evidence for decision-making is either made available or can be easily obtained. About 44% say they do not “visit operations and talk to other layers of management”; 22% don’t have “regular updates and presentations on the board from other internal/external experts apart from management”; 14% don’t believe they are “given the right quality of information for the board agenda to play an effective role during meetings” and; 10% don’t think they have “effective dialogue with other independent members”.  

5.       Despite very little time commitment, low engagement with the organisation at different levels and some deficiencies in board information quality (aspects which are magnified by less board experience and shorter tenures), directors rate themselves highly effective on: their “ability to articulate a different perspective at board level” (96% agree/strongly agree), “ability to contribute to a shared purpose” (92%), “board culture of independence” (89%), monitoring task effectiveness (94%) and stewardship task effectiveness (84%). In all of these outcome measures, directors in sports rate themselves higher than any other sector surveyed. 

6.       The above disconnect between input quality (i.e. director time, information quality, engagement, tenure and board experience) and director effectiveness (i.e. articulating a different perspective, contributing to a shared purpose, monitoring and stewardship tasks) may indicate some degree of complacency with the current state of affairs. 

Photo credit: Michael Regan/PA (in the Guardian)