Football: Inside football: Reports highlight divisions in game

Task Force verdicts from supporters and football authorities emphasise conflicting priorities between business and the needs of local communities

DAVID MELLOR concluded the Football Task Force's deliberations into ticket prices and other commercial issues yesterday by publishing two reports. One was backed by the Task Force's football supporter representatives, the other by the football authorities. After two and a half years of difficult and at times bitter negotiations, the two factions have agreed to disagree, both on the extent of the game's problems in the commercial age, and on how to go about solving them.

Mellor justifiably praised the Task Force process, which has been much derided, and certainly had its fundamental weaknesses, not least an inadequate budget. It has involved a unique dialogue, forcing those who run the game to talk directly to supporters, and, as Mellor said yesterday, it has produced from the football authorities proposals which for the first time accept the need for some independent scrutiny of the running of the game.

The football supporter representatives on the Task Force, all of them unpaid volunteers, have distinguished themselves in negotiations with highly paid executives, refusing to compromise on the extent of action and regulation required. Their report will stand as a challenge to the Government - in particular the Sports Minister, Kate Hoey - to implement their proposals.

The authorities' report is no mere sop; although vague on detail, parts of it are surprising and refreshing. Philosophically, their acceptance that football is more than simply a business - they describe it as a "worldwide sporting experience", a "community focus" a "source of great loyalty, joy, disappointment and commitment" - is refreshing coming from those who have carved up English football and overseen a relentless commercial revolution. Specifically, the authorities' report offers an "independent scrutiny panel" to report on football's compliance with a consumer charter and code of conduct which will involve promoting "inclusionary ticket policies and greater accessibility".

Mellor welcomed these proposals as a fundamental shift by the authorities, saying: "Everybody is agreed that the status quo is no longer acceptable."

However, the authorities' report did not go far enough for the supporter representatives, who were determined to extract substantial specific commitments and a promise of tough enforcement. Their report, backed almost certainly by a clear majority of the Task Force and by Mellor - who has defied critics to act as something of a fans' champion - will make infinitely more rewarding reading to supporters, commentators and, it is to be hoped, the Government, than the authorities' mish-mash of promised consumer friendliness.

Tracing the commercialisation of the game since the dark days of Hillsborough, the report acknowledges football's great advances since then, but points out its downsides with clarity: the vulnerability of the game and its clubs, at all levels to pure financial exploitation by greedy, even corrupt businessmen. This they summarise as a failure of regulation. The report quotes previous reports back at the authorities, including the FA's own 1991 Blueprint which supported the idea of supporter representatives on the boards of clubs, a proposal still apparently repugnant to most chairmen. Most persuasively, on the issue of ticket prices, the report refers back to the Taylor Report itself. Lord Justice Taylor, when recommending all- seater stadiums, had argued it should not be an excuse for rising ticket prices. "It should be possible," he said, "to plan a price structure which suits the cheapest seats to the pockets of those presently paying to stand." At the time, the average price of the cheapest adult First Division match ticket was pounds 4.03. Since then prices have been increased to the current average: pounds 17.42 - an increase of 332 per cent.

The supporters' report calls for widespread concessions and for the "stretching" of ticket prices so that those at the top end subsidise those at the lower end. Their report also contains recommendations to regulate merchandising, encourage supporter involvement in clubs, develop rules to govern football plcs, and calls on the DTI to inquire into the growing media company involvement in clubs. To oversee football's new order, they call for an independent "Football Audit Commission", together with an "Ombudsfan" to which fans can take their concerns and report clubs failing to comply with the new order. This the Premier League has rejected as "a regulator by another name".

With the Task Force process over, the question is what the Government will do next. The Minister for Sport, Kate Hoey, has a track record of greater toughness and vigour than Banks, who set the Task Force up with a degree of naivety, staffing it with the vested interests and expecting them to reform themselves. The process itself has been as instructive as the final two reports. Much of the debate has been bitter, with the football authorities often reluctant to engage with it at all.

Early on, the Premier League chief executive, Peter Leaver, sought to have Mellor removed. However, the Task Force soldiered on, producing three unanimous reports; on racism, disabled access, and investment in the community. Discussions on the fourth report, directly concerning money - in the issues of ticket prices, merchandising, plcs and supporter involvement - have taken nearly a year and been more fraught.

A report, apparently largely similar to the one produced by supporters yesterday, was presented to the authorities in May. It was immediately leaked and was then publicly denounced by Mike Lee, the Premier League spokesman. The authorities took four months to produce their own joint counter proposals. They were also published yesterday. Much of their proposals were too vague to satisfy the rest of the Task Force, but it did contain the idea of an Independent Scrutiny, which, said the authorities, would be "not unlike that of the British Standards Institution or the Audit Commission".

According to Task Force sources, at a subsequent meeting in October, under heavy questioning about the proposed terms for this body, Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, was forced to admit that he himself was unclear. Craig Brewin, an FSA officer who works in public finance, produced a paper on the powers of the Audit Commission, and how these might apply to football, arguing for independence, the right to mount inspections and define performance criteria, and to have effective sanctions. However, at a further meeting on 10 December, the authorities presented the proposals published yesterday, for a body which would receive all its information from the football authorities themselves, and have no sanctions - effectively backtracking, after four months, from their own proposal. This debacle led to the decision to call it a day and publish two separate reports.

Yesterday Mike Lee, the Premier League spokesman, argued that the authorities' proposals were genuine and positive. "English football is a great success story, but we do recognise concerns identified by the Task Force and supporters," Lee said. "We believe our proposals are radical and constructive and include positive proposals for the future."

Dr Adam Brown, who has led much of the debate for the supporters, acknowledged that the authorities had come a long way, and that the Task Force exercise had been useful, but he said the differences were more than merely in the detail. "The authorities ultimately believe football is a business, and they want to be left alone to make money out of it. We believe it is a sport, which has to be run as a business, but owes a responsibility to its supporters and local communities."

The lesson for the Government is that the game is effectively owned and run by Premiership chairmen. The process has taken them further, in terms of regulation, than they might ever have believed they would go, but it is no surprise they would not sign up to a truly independent, vigorous regulation of themselves. The supporters' report will stand as a challenge to the Government: if it indeed wants to shape the national game into more than a business, into a community sport for the 21st century, they may have to step in and do so. The authorities have shown that they are prepared to go no further.

Task Force split, page 4

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