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Sneaking In Through the Back Door?

Media Company Interests and Dual Ownership of Clubs in Football

By Dr Adam Brown
Research Fellow, Manchester Institute for Popular Culture,
Manchester Metropolitan University


Contents

Introduction

1. Media Ownership

2. Dual Ownership


Introduction

This paper outlines the main recent developments in the media ownership of English football clubs and highlights the dangers these pose for football. It focuses on two main concerns:

  1. media penetration of football club ownership; and
  2. the dual ownership of clubs.

It argues that the key decisions of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission - designed to protect competition within the pay TV sports market - and the Restrictive Practices Court - that it is in the public interest to maintain the collective negotiation of TV rights and its concomitant redistribution of moneys - are both in jeopardy because of recent moves by broadcast companies to own stakes in clubs. Further, these developments have also raised concerns over the dual ownership of clubs. These problems are exacerbated because it is media companies involved, but dual ownership per se is something which has been outlawed by football authorities here and across Europe.

The paper concludes that only quick and robust action by competition authorities and the football authorities will protect football and the pay TV market from undue influence and unfair competition by some companies. The Government has shown itself to be prepared to call in competition authorities to protect competition in the pay TV field and it now needs to secure the progress already made. The football authorities have an obligation to uphold their own rules regarding the dual ownership of clubs by outlawing the integration of media companies into the ownership of more than one club. At a time when there is unprecedented interest in the regulation and governance of football, these developments pose a serious challenge to existing regulatory structures and, crucially, will test the efficacy of those structures.

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1. Media Ownership

Recent Decisions

There have been two key decisions in relation to the ownership of clubs and the negotiation of television rights this year. It is worth remembering what they said.

Monopolies and Mergers Commission

The MMC was asked by the Office of Fair Trading to investigate the merger of BSkyB and Manchester United. Their report was unequivocal in its opposition to the merger, a report which was subsequently accepted in full by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers on April 9 1999.

Their main areas of concern were:

  • That the merger would be anti-competitive in the pay TV market because it would give BSkyB an unfair advantage in the negotiation of Premier League and other TV rights.

  • That such an advantage would be exacerbated by the already dominant position of BSkyB and the market power of Manchester United.

  • That such an advantage could not be overcome by the imposition of 'Chinese walls' (barriers to the flow of information such as between subsidiary and parent boards), non-exclusive deals or even exclusion from the rights negotiations.

  • That the merger would also damage the quality of British football by increasing the 'wealth gap' between rich and poorer clubs through a greater retention of TV revenue by the most popular clubs.

  • That the merger would give BSkyB additional influence over Premier League decisions which would be against the long term interests of the game.

Restrictive Practices Court

Following complaints from cable TV operators, the Office of Fair Trading took the Premier League, BBC and BSkyB to court. This was on the grounds that the sale of live PL TV rights to BSkyB and BBC was both collective and exclusive. The OFT believed that: a) the Premier League were acting as a cartel in their sale of rights and as such were being anti-competitive; and b) that the 'exclusive' nature of the deal was restrictive in that it prevented other TV companies screening games which BSkyB chose not to.

After a nine-month court case, the judge (Mr Justice Ferris) ruled in favour of the Premier League. In this second land mark case, he again raised the 'public interest' concerns he had with the way football is financed through television. In particular he supported the notion that the collective sale of rights allowed for the redistribution of income in the game:

"Indeed we see no need to differ from the view of the Football task Force that, from the public point of view, it is desirable that resources generated by professional football should be invested to a greater extent than at present in the lower levels of the game. The removal of restrictions now under consideration would therefore deny to the public a benefit or advantage."

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Unfinished Business

However, despite these unequivocal rulings, a number of matters remain unclear in relation to both cases.

In his statement to the Stock Exchange on April 9 1999, Trade Secretary Stephen Byers acknowledged the MMC's concern "about the scope for the competition authorities to examine mergers involving football clubs". Primarily, most clubs fall below the 70m threshold to be considered "qualifying mergers", and existing regulations seem unclear about the partial purchase of clubs by media companies. Byers announced that he would seek views on whether changes were needed in the guidelines so that other club mergers could be examined, with particular reference to public interest concerns. No such changes have yet been announced by the DTI and this has allowed the developments outlined below to happen.

In fact, no take-overs have occurred since the MMC decision on BSkyB/Manchester United. Indeed, financial analysts believe that

"predictions that broadcasting companies would rush to snap up clubs to gain ownership of valuable media content have proved unfounded, not least because of regulatory hostility to such potentially anti-competitive deals. A few media groups have bought small stakes in some clubs, but beyond these, take-over interest has all but died." (FT Patrick Harveson, 4.11.99)

Of primary concern now, therefore, is the question of whether the recent spate of media companies buying minority stakes in clubs do, in fact, raise many of the same problems which the MMC highlighted. The adequacy of the regulatory functions of both football and competition authorities to protect the long term interests of the game is now being tested.

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Recent Developments

In recent months a number of developments have occurred in relation to the media ownership of football clubs.

NTL and Newcastle

NTL, who hold a 6% stake in Newcastle United, withdrew their take-over offer in the light of the MMC's ruling in April 1999. However, they maintain their stake in the club. NTL are quite open about why they continue to hold their 6% stake in Newcastle United. In an email letter dated 27 October 2020 (see Appendix), Bruce Randall, NTL's Public Relations manager, outlined the reasons for their continued investment thus:

"NTL is interested in gaining a seat at the negotiating table when it comes to television rights... We believe that entering into a partnership with Newcastle United is an excellent opportunity for us to enter the UK sports pay TV market... Clearly, media companies like ours taking stakes in football clubs puts them in a better position to be involved in screening top level football in the UK."

The motives are crystal clear here: NTL see their investment in Newcastle as strategic in that it buys them something more than a return on their stock - it buys them a seat at the negotiating table for TV rights. This should set alarm bells ringing with those authorities who blocked BSkyB's take-over of Manchester United on these grounds.

Granada TV and Liverpool

Granada Television bought a 10% stake in Liverpool - still a limited company - on 13 July 2020 for 22m. "The deal," said the Guardian, "effectively earns the television company a seat in football rights negotiations," and a "senior Granada executive" would be appointed to the board. The role in relation to TV rights negotiations, said Chief Executive Rick Parry, would be to "advise, guide and represent us". [Guardian 14.7.99] Again, it is clear that this investment is not straightforward in that it has additional benefits and roles for Granada, primary of which is increasing their chances of accessing live football.

BSkyB and Manchester United

Having lost their bid to take-over Manchester United, BSkyB maintain their 11.1% stake in the club. Due to the sale of shares by Chief Executive Martin Edwards in October, BSkyB are now by far the club's biggest shareholders and they also maintain their one-third ownership of MUTV.

BSkyB and Leeds United

In August 1999 BSkyB announced that it was to take a 9.9% stake in Leeds Sporting, the listed parent company of Leeds United. Following the approval of shareholders, 9.2% of Leeds was sold to BSkyB for 13.8m on 11 October 2020. Central to the deal was the agreement that BSkyB would act as "media advisors" for Leeds United and that they would take a huge 30% commission on any increase in revenue from television contracts over the next five years. Again the nature of the deal leaves no doubt as to BSkyB's expectations to be centrally involved in the negotiations for TV rights.

BSkyB and Manchester City

In November 1999, BSkyB secured a similar deal with First Division leaders Manchester City, like Liverpool, not a listed company. Here BSkyB bought 9.9% for 7.5m and they have a very similar deal as with Leeds to act as media agents for the club with similar remuneration. BSkyB's role is not to invest in Manchester City merely for the possible long term return that might give, but to place the company in a strategic position with regard to the negotiation of TV rights.

It is not unlikely that further penetration of football club ownership by these and other media companies is likely in the near future - it is reported privately that a number of deals are already in progress. The current collective Premier League TV deal is due for re-negotiation in 2001, with speculation already mounting about possible bids. Questions still remain over the nature of these forthcoming negotiations - although the Premier League remains committed to collective negotiation, whether this happens and whether it allows non-exclusive deals to be made are still uncertain. Thus, the developments outlined above suggest that media companies are positioning themselves to influence those negotiations. As such, nothing short of the free and open competition in the pay TV market as well as football's ability to determine its own future and structures of finance are threatened. Furthermore:

  • it is clear that BSkyB's roles at Manchester City and Leeds United will be to negotiate media deals on behalf of the club. This places BSkyB at a clear and blatant advantage to other broadcasters in relation to the sale of those clubs' TV rights.

  • as the dominant shareholders in Manchester United and as partners in MUTV, BSkyB have a similarly powerful position in relation to this club's negotiations, which the MMC have already highlighted have an unusually powerful position in the discreet market of pay TV Premier League football.

  • Granada's position as media agents at Liverpool and NTL's openly stated reasons for investing in Newcastle United illustrate clearly that their aim is to secure access to screening live football of their respective clubs.

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Threats to Competition

These factors mean that the ownership changes outlined pose a significant and serious threat to football and to competition within the UK pay TV market for a number of reasons. There are a number of scenarios.

  • BSkyB could have tie-ins with three clubs in the Premier League, should Manchester City get promoted. This will significantly increase their ability to win future rights for Premier League matches, when, as the MMC concluded, they already enjoyed great market power and any extension of this would be damaging to competition.

  • It is perfectly possible that through purchasing stakes in a number more clubs, BSkyB could effectively 'buy' enough votes at the Premier League to block any other broadcaster getting the collective Premier League contract. Ironically, this would be achieved for considerably less than their attempted take-over of Manchester United.

  • Even if no more stakes of clubs are taken, the broadcaster will have, through its stakes in Manchester United and Leeds, access to privileged information in relation to the sale of Premier League broadcasting rights. The same applies to NTL and Granada. As the MMC concluded, "no undertakings... could ever prevent the informal flows of information, nor would they prevent [the clubs] influencing the rights negotiations in advance of the formal negotiations." The broadcast company could therefore gain competitive advantage over their rivals, whether "their" clubs were part of the negotiations or not.

  • That BSkyB and Granada have agreements (with Leeds, Manchester City and Liverpool, respectively) to act as those clubs' media agents, merely exacerbates this concern.

  • However, such agreements also raise a conflict of interest in that, in BSkyB's case, the leading broadcaster of live football will effectively be negotiating with itself, and extraordinarily, be paying itself commission! In this there will be a clear conflict of interest for the broadcaster: their chief concern will be to get TV rights for as little as possible; their role as clubs' agents will be to get as much as possible for these rights (for which they will then be paying themselves commission).

  • In such a scenario, the clubs (fans, players, managers and shareholders) will be put at a disadvantage. Whether rights are sold collectively or individually, the adverse effect on competition of having leading broadcasters acting on behalf of clubs will be detrimental to the clubs.

  • There is also the genuine threat that there may soon be enough broadcast companies with stakes in football clubs who see their best interests served through the individual sale of TV rights and thus, through their voting power at the Premier League, be able to prevent a collective deal, against he long term interests of the game and its customers as highlighted by the RPC judgement.

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Threats of Dual Ownership by Media Companies

There is a secondary concern, to do with the ownership of stakes by media companies in more than one club. BSkyB could own stakes in three clubs in the Premier League next season if Manchester City get promoted: they will certainly hold stakes in three clubs competing in the FA Cup and League Cup. Such a situation appears to be against the rules of the football authorities (see Section 2, below) and as such should be dealt with by their regulatory structures, as would be the case whatever kind of company it involved.

However, dual ownership of clubs by media companies (as opposed to other companies) raises additional concerns about competition within the football market, which should be of interest to the competition authorities. Problems of dual ownership are exacerbated when it comes to media companies because of TV's strategic importance in terms of football's finance and the horizontal and vertical integration of the two. If one media company has an undue interest in more than one club a number of problems may occur, including:

  • favouritism for clubs they own in terms of numbers of matches screened, arrangement of fixtures, reporting of games and disciplinary factors;

  • restrictions on access to players and other staff for other media companies and platforms;

  • a gradual erosion of the collective and redistributive function of PL, exacerbating the 'wealth gap' problems of which the MMC made special mention in their report;

  • a guaranteed access to matches at clubs in which they have an interest, which are not covered by existing, or future, collective agreements (e.g. Champions League and UEFA Cup): the more clubs, the bigger section of the market they are able to secure through ownership, rather than through fair competitive in the sale of rights;

  • a suspicion over the validity of results involving clubs owned in part by the same media company.

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Media Ownership - Summary

The MMC ruled that BSkyB's purchase of Manchester United would give BSkyB an unfair advantage over their competitors in terms of access to Premier League TV rights, which would be detrimental to competition in the pay TV market as a whole and which would adversely affect the health of British football.

BSkyB's "Plan B", therefore, has been to gain strategic roles within clubs without leaving themselves open to the scrutiny of the competition authorities. Coming in quietly through the back door, rather than the front.

The roles of other media companies pursuing similar strategies does not lessen the effect of this. In fact, it increases the threat to the collective negotiation (and therefore the redistribution of) of Premier League TV rights. This collective and redistributive function was upheld in the public interest after a lengthy court case but now needs further safeguarding.

However, it is clear that the strategic nature of the stock purchases at both floated and private companies raises many of the same concerns as the BSkyB/MUFC merger. They are deliberately and explicitly designed to increase the ability of those companies to secure TV rights. The warnings in the MMC's report, it appears, still need to be heeded.

Nicholas Finney, a retired member of the MMC panel which ruled against the BSkyB take-over of Manchester United, has said that further action is needed by the competition authorities in order to adequately confront the threat to competition which these purchases represent.

Furthermore, following the RPC decision, it was widely recognised by commentators that the judge's support for collective and exclusive selling of Premier League TV rights was by no means a guarantee that the new TV deal, in 2001, would be based on these lines. It was recognised that pressure from television companies and the desire of a minority of top clubs to increase their share of the money from TV deals, could lead to a breakdown of the collective arrangements. This threat to the public interest exists anyway: but it is increased hugely with the trend in the part ownership of cubs which we have highlighted here.

In almost every scenario, the public interest, competition within the pay TV market and the good of football - which Justice Ferris, the MMC and the Trade Secretary all upheld earlier this year - will be jeopardised. The Premier League have outlined in correspondence (see Appendix) that the "the conflict of interest question" is still to be addressed.

It is therefore the argument of this paper that the Office of Fair Trading and Department of Trade and Industry should act quickly to prevent any further part-purchases of football clubs by media companies and that media companies who currently have stakes in football clubs should be forced to divest of those shares.

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2. Dual Ownership

Dual Ownership by Media Companies in English Football

  • BSkyB own 11.1% of Manchester United Plc , who wholly own Manchester United Football Club, and as such are by far the company's largest shareholders.

  • BSkyB also own 9.2% of Leeds Sporting who wholly own Leeds United.

  • BSkyB now also own 9.9% of Manchester City.

  • Furthermore, they have agreements with both Manchester City and Leeds United to act as "media agents", with seats on each board, in which they will both have a role in TV rights negotiations and benefit from any increase in TV revenue they earn.

  • BSkyB thus enjoy a powerful position in making key decisions in three clubs.

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Existing Regulations

All three football authorities in this country have clear rules to prevent clubs being owned by the same person or company. Traditionally, the basis for these rules is to maintain fair competition in football and avoid suspicions of clubs coming to agreements with each other over matches, finance and transfers. Within the context of the developments outlined above, a new and additional threat is that dual ownership by media companies will be used to help them gain access and preferential deals for TV rights. The current competition rules of the football authorities are outlined below.

The Football Association

The competition rules of the FA Cup, run by the Football Association, the English game's governing body, are explicit. Rule 30 states:

"a) Save with the prior written permission of the Council no club may compete in the competition at any stage where that club is interested in another club which is participating in the competition or wishing top participate in the competition ("the Second Club"). The Second Club shall similarly not be permitted to participate in the competition at any stage.

b) Save with the prior written permission of the Council no club may compete in the competition at any stage where a person or any associate of that person is interested in such club and a Second Club..."

The FA define a club, person, or associate as one who:

"i) holds or deals in... the securities or shares of that club; or

ii) is a member of that club; or

iii) is involved in any capacity whatsoever in the management or administration of that club;

or iv) has any power whatsoever to influence the financial, commercial or business affairs or the administration of that Club..."

One proviso is given, however (section (d)): the FA disregard the holding or acquisition of not more than 10% of the issued share capital. Significantly, though, this restriction applies only where "those shares are, in the opinion of the Council, held purely for investment purposes only." Furthermore the additional factors in BSkyB's ownership of Manchester City and Leeds - their seat on the board and agreement to act as media agents - seem to over-ride this condition.

The FA Premier League

The FA Premier League have similarly comprehensive rules regulating the involvement of persons or companies in more than one club.

"Section S: Miscellaneous...

2. Except with the prior written consent of the Board, no Club or club may either directly or indirectly:

2.1 hold or deal in the securities or shares of another Club or club;

2.2 be a member of another Club or club;

2.3 be involved in any capacity whatsoever in the management or administration of another Club or club;

2.4 have any power whatsoever to influence the management or administration of another Club or club."

Further, Rule 3 of the Premier League rule book states that

"no person, by himself or with one or more associates, may at one time, either directly or indirectly be involved in any capacity whatsoever in the management or administration of more than one club."

Rule 4 makes a similar distinction to the FA rules with regard to a 10% share holding by saying that:

"no person, by himself or with one or more Associates, may directly or indirectly hold or acquire any interest in more than 10 per cent of the issued share capital of a Club or club while he or any Associate is a director of, or directly or indirectly holds any interest in the share capital of any other Club or club."

The Premier League also follow a similar definition of "associate" to the FA and their conditions outlined in 2.1 - 2.4 suggest that the 10% rule would be bypassed in relation to Manchester City and Leeds.

The Football League

The Football League have almost identical rules to the FA, but state that they are in place to prevent associations and dual interests which might "undermine the integrity of league competitions and the reputation, credibility and image of professional football clubs". Further, the League also outline that they can force any club in breach of these regulations to "take such action as is necessary to rectify the breach" with the ultimate sanction being expulsion from the League.

UEFA

The European governing body, UEFA, have similarly strict guidelines on associations between clubs. In fact their rules have recently been invoked in relation to media company Enic's majority stake in Slavia Prague, part ownership of Glasgow Rangers and full ownership of Vicenza and AEK Athens. Although UEFA's ruling that two teams in which Enic had interests could not compete in the same UEFA competition was challenged within the European Commission by Enic, UEFA's rules were found to be legal under European law.

It should be re-stated that for all football authorities, regulations on dual ownership are quite explicit in a number of areas:

  • that a 10% or below share holding is not considered to be an interest;
  • that a 10% or more share holding precludes a company having any interest in another club;
  • that any share holding which is not solely for investment purposes - whether under 10% or not - shall be considered an interest;
  • that any power or agreement to influence the business decisions of one club shall preclude that person (or company's) interest in any other club.

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Areas of Transgression

BSkyB's holding in Manchester United, their recent acquisitions at Leeds and Manchester City, and their strategic roles at the latter two of these clubs, appear to be a prima face transgression of competition rules in English football. It should be remembered that all three clubs compete in the Worthington League Cup; that all three compete in the FA Cup (except for this season); and that Manchester United and Leeds compete in the Premier League and Manchester City will next season (2000-2001), should they gain promotion this season. There are a number of areas where rules on dual ownership appear to be being broken:

  • BSkyB's holding of 11.1% of Manchester United should preclude them from owning any shares in any other football club with whom Manchester United may be competing.

  • Even if their holding was to be reduced to just below 10%, they would still be by far the largest shareholder in Manchester United and as such they could certainly be deemed to have "any power whatsoever to influence the financial, commercial or business affairs or the administration of that Club".

  • In any case, BSkyB must have the "prior written permission" of the football authorities (the Board of the Premier League, the FA Council or the Board of the Football League) for holding stakes in more than one club. This has not to date been given.

  • BSkyB's agreements with Leeds to act as their media agents and to sit on their board should preclude them from holding any interest in any other club as this constitutes "any power whatsoever to influence the financial, commercial or business affairs or the administration of that Club".

  • Likewise BSkyB's agreement with Manchester City should preclude any other interest or agreement with any other club.

  • Even if all these agreements were terminated and their holding in Manchester United was reduced to below 10%, it is clear that BSkyB's holdings in these clubs are not "held purely investment purposes" but to be able to influence the sale of television rights. They "are buying a seat at the negotiating table" in NTL's words.

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Appropriate Action

BSkyB's ownership stake in Manchester United and its recent purchase of stakes in Manchester City and Leeds, as well as its agreements with those clubs, represent a multiple transgression of the football authorities rules.

These rules were designed to protect the integrity of football. It absolutely essential to the credibility of the football authorities regulatory functions that they uphold their own rules regarding the dual ownership of clubs.

This is particularly important in this case, as indicated above, because of the nature of the company concerned - that is, that it is already the dominant market force in sports pay TV and is seeking to further enhance this position. The importance of TV revenues to football make this a matter of central concern for the whole game. The following action is appropriate:

By the Football Association, with regard to the FA Cup:

  • If BSkyB wish to maintain their shares in Manchester United, they should divest of their interests in Leeds and Manchester City.
  • Alternatively, BSkyB should divest of its shares in Manchester United and one of the other two clubs.
  • BSkyB's additional agreements with Manchester City and Leeds should, if they are not ruled anti-competitive by the competition authorities, be nullified. Under existing rules BSkyB could maintain their agreement with one of these clubs, provided that they divest of their interests in all other clubs.

To ensure that these measures are implemented, the FA should make it clear that the only alternative is expulsion of the clubs concerned from the FA Cup.

By the Football League with regard to the League Cup:

  • As above for the Football Association.

To ensure that these measures are implemented, the Football League should make it clear that the only alternative is expulsion from the Worthington League Cup.

By FA Premier League with regard to the Premier League:

  • BSkyB should end their ownership either of 9.2% of Leeds or of 11.1% of Manchester United.
  • If BSkyB were to maintain their ownership of 11.1% of Manchester United, they should end their agreement with Leeds United to act as "media agents".
  • Should Manchester City gain promotion to the Premier League, BSkyB should be made to either divest of their holdings in Manchester City and terminate their agreement with that club or divest of their interests in other Premier League clubs.
  • The Premier League should prevent BSkyB buying further stakes in any other Premier League club and prevent it from making similar agreements with other Premier League clubs.

To ensure that these measures are implemented, the Premier League should make it clear that the only alternative is expulsion from the League.

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Dual Ownership - Summary

The football authorities in the UK and Europe have robust rules to prevent the dual ownership of clubs and to prevent associations between clubs. It seems clear that Manchester United, Leeds and Manchester City are in contravention of these rules relating to three English competitions - the FA Cup, the Premier League and the League Cup. Should both Leeds and Manchester United qualify for the Champions League next season, they may also be in contravention of UEFA rules. The fact that these dual associations involve the biggest broadcaster of sport in the UK, BSkyB, and that BSkyB has board membership and additional agreements with Manchester City and Leeds to act as their "media agents" makes the case compelling. It raises additional concerns about the integration of media companies into the ownership of football to those outlined in the first part of this report, and places a major question mark over the future finance, organisation and governance of football.

Enic - A Test Case

The football authorities should be confident of their position in relation to these matters of dual ownership. The right of membership associations in football to enforce their rules on dual ownership was upheld in the Enic test case at the European Commission. This followed a complaint by Enic when UEFA challenged their ownership of a number of clubs in different countries which were competing in UEFA competitions. In a third landmark ruling relating to media companies in 1999, UEFA were allowed to enforce their own rules preventing dual ownership of clubs. Their example now needs to be followed in England.

Implications of a Failure to Regulate

There has been considerable debate and discussion in the UK in relation to the governance of professional football. The Government's Football Task Force is at present deliberating about what form of additional regulatory mechanisms are needed in English football. The developments which this paper outlines, and the contravention of FA, Premier League and Football League rules which they appear to represent, are a test for the authorities and their regulatory function. Quick, unequivocal and firm action is needed to safeguard both the integrity of professional football in England and its long term financial health. Although other matters concerning media companies owning strategic stakes in football clubs ought to be dealt with by the competition authorities, the concerns of dual ownership and common associations are in themselves matters for regulation by the football authorities.

A failure to adequately police their own rules in this case will not only damage the health of English football but also strengthen the calls for an independent regulatory structure for football.


Adam Brown
15 November 2020

Dr Adam Brown is a Research Fellow at the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture, Manchester Metropolitan University. he is a member of the Government's Football Task Force and is co-author (with Andy Walsh) of Not For Sale: Manchester United, Murdoch and the Defeat of BSkyB, published by Mainstream.

Dr Adam Brown
Research Fellow
Manchester Institute for Popular Culture
Manchester Metropolitan University
343 Geoffrey Manton Building
Rosamond St West
Manchester M15 6XL

email: [email protected]



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