West Ham United owner David Sullivan has got it completely wrong - football needs new regulator

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West Ham's David Sullivan is fronting the Premier League's opposition to a new regulator - but the English game has proven that it's necessary.

The British government finally brought its long-awaited bill to form a regulatory body for English football to parliament on Tuesday – and the response from clubs has been illuminating. Amid broad support from EFL teams, several of which released statements supporting the proposal, clubs in the Premier League have begun to raise the barricades.

West Ham United owner David Sullivan has been the most prominent opponent so far, doing the media rounds to decry the government’s bill.

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“The Premier League is the best league in the world,” he told Sky Sports. “So why change a winning formula? I hope the government don’t wreck something that works.”

These comments come just over a week after Premier League clubs decided against introducing an expanded deal with the EFL that would see the current system, which consists of parachute payments given to relegated clubs and £130m per season in solidarity payments split between the 72 clubs in the Football League, replaced by one set of payments of up to £900m, given annually. So unanimous was the opposition to the mooted bill that the Premier League didn’t even bother to bring it to a vote.

The government’s bill would introduce several measures intended to increase the sustainability of the game. A stronger owners’ and directors’ test would be implemented, and a licensing system would be introduced which would require clubs to consult fan groups on important decisions. Furthermore, the bill includes ‘backstop’ powers which would allow the regulator to intervene if the Premier League and EFL are unable to reach a funding deal.

All of which means that the Premier League could be forced by the regulator to implement a new deal which gave the EFL considerably more money than it receives at the moment. Given that the bill has also been widely praised by fan groups like the Football Supporters’ Association, the Premier League’s opposition to it appears self-interested.

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Sullivan’s opposition largely focuses on the idea that the Premier League is already successful and well-run, and that any intervention would risk the division’s pre-eminence.

“Anything to water down our income will make us less competitive. We may cease to be the top league so they may ruin an asset that we have,” he told BBC Sport, adding that “You tend to put a regulator in when things are going very badly and something has to be done to sort it out. We have the best football in the world.”

But this ignores the contribution made by the EFL to the Premier League’s success – both in terms of producing players for it, providing clubs at which young players can be loaned to develop, and by providing the competitive drama which the entire league ladder thrives on. The gap between the haves and have-nots is already alarmingly wide, and if we reach a point where promoted teams have little hope of competing in the Premier League and relegated teams typically bounce straight back up, it will damage the competition’s appeal and integrity. The quality of the product depends, in no small part, on the EFL, not that the Premier League or its more established clubs seem keen to admit it.

The fact is that the current system, including parachute payments, greatly favours those already at the top table. It enriches those sides and means that they have a massive financial advantage in the event that they do go down. The new EFL deal which was proposed and which may be enforced by the regulator would level the playing field considerably while protecting lower league clubs from the ever-present threat of financial collapse. Far too many historic clubs have gone bust in recent years.

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“Whatever we give won’t be enough [for the EFL],” Sullivan continued. “Tesco don't give the small supermarket chain a subsidy."

Well, no, granted, but then Tesco don’t directly benefit from the existence of corner shops or local grocery chains. Young cashiers in training aren’t sent to a Nisa to get valuable experience. That quote alone is telling – too many in positions of power at Premier League clubs view the EFL as a competitor, rather than a part of the same symbiotic system.

Sullivan also queries who will pay for the regulator, telling Sky Sports that “between the 20 clubs there is almost £2bn of debt, so there isn't really available cash to give away.”

Which in itself seems to contradict the notion of the Premier League being a well-run, successful business machine. The Premier League’s forthcoming new rights deal will earn it £6.7bn between 2025 and 2029 – with such vast wealth coming into the division, one wonders how the league could possibly be billions of pounds in debt unless it was, in fact, run in an unsustainable fashion. A “winning formula” it might be, but a well-regulated one it is not.

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Another qualm of Sullivan’s is rather more justifiable, which is his description of the government’s track record with regulatory bodies as “appalling.” This isn’t a party political article, but it doesn’t take a partisan to raise an eyebrow at the way that several such institutions have functioned in recent years – the ability of water services regulator Ofwat to prevent mass sewage dumps into Britain’s waterways, for instance, suggests that not every such body does its job effectively.

These bodies are, however, independent of the government, at least in theory, and the proposed football regulator would be as well - although governments often drive the agenda for such independent agencies. In any case, if there are concerns about the way the regulator would be supervised, current polling suggests a pretty solid chance that the current Conservative government won’t be involved for all that long anyway. Even if they were, it seems like a poor reason not to try and regulate a sport whose economy is becoming increasingly fractured, inequitable and riddled with risk.

Football needs a regulatory body. The English game has demonstrated time and again that it needs to be supervised in order to avoid shooting itself in the foot. Just ask the supporters of the numerous clubs who have seen incompetent owners drag them down, or watched as their teams go out of business.

The regulator would not be a magical cure-all. There will be problems and it will inevitably face legal challenges from the Premier League that could neuter it entirely. It may not even come to pass – the bill has been introduced to parliament but still needs to go through potential amendments and a final vote, although it seems likely to garner cross-bench support in the Commons that would ease its passage. And in the end, maybe it would prove to be overbearing or incompetent and prove Sullivan and other detractors at the top table right. But given the state of the game and the growing, dangerous division between the top flight and the EFL, it’s a chance worth taking.

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