BY MARTIN CLOAKE

Sell Wembley Stadium, get £600m to invest in transforming grassroots football in England, relieve the Football Association of the burden of running a stadium, and everyone’s a winner.

That is the line being pushed in the wake of billionaire Shahid Khan’s £900m bid to buy the stadium. It’s a line that has support from some of the big-hitting football writers. And from a number of figures within the game as well as a proportion of supporters.

Last week, a Commons Select Committee held a hearing on the proposed sale as part of a consultation process. Sport England, one of the bodies that funded the stadium build and which is required to consent to any sale, said it could see the benefits in a sale. And, reported David Conn in The Guardian, the England team’s progress in the World Cup had “strengthened the FA’s resolve to sell Wembley”.

The hearing was interesting for a number of reasons. Football fans have been calling for government intervention in the sport for years, but the game has managed to get every attempt booted into the long grass. The current government’s predilection for a small state and markets that are as free as possible does not make it a natural ally in the push for proper regulation of a game sorely in need of it. But Wembley Stadium was built with a lot of public money, so government needs to be involved. Which means the game can’t just do what it wants. It has to persuade, to make a case.

So, the Select Committee offered the rare opportunity for elected representatives to get football to explain itself.

The Committee was also interesting because of who it called. When the FA decided to knock the old Wembley down, rebuild and then take ownership, the fans were not asked what they thought. This despite the fact that they were required to buy in to moving cup finals to Cardiff, and then to the whole ‘home of football’ rhetoric that went with the new stadium. This time, MPs wanted to hear from fans, and so an invitation was sent to the Football Supporters’ Federation. The FSF put forward Katrina Law, co-chair of the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust. Law had experience of the stadium after Spurs spent a year playing there and had also been one of the two fan reps on the FA Council for the past year and had seen the case for the sale presented there.

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Law appeared in the first session, alongside former Manchester United star turned pundit and businessman Gary Neville. It was an illuminating session, the significance of which has gone largely unreported.

The fact that a fan rep was asked to contribute is a big step forward. Admittedly the bar is low – fan reps will tell you how frustrating it is even being acknowledged in a game that all too often sees fans simply as a source of income. Of course, there’s a huge gulf between getting a voice and getting heard, but it’s a start. To its credit, the FA has also acknowledged that fans should be considered as stakeholders, although the impression is still too often that ‘talking to the fans’ is simply a matter of ticking a box rather than actually engaging.

Ironically, Law was representing the largest constituency in the debate, and so had to reflect the wide diversity of views among fans. Neville, on the other hand, was representing Gary Neville, which gave him the chance to say exactly what he thought. In the event, Law and Neville made some excellent points that should not only improve the quality of the discussion over Wembley, but also provide the basis for a better conversation in future.

The first benefit will hopefully be an end to the simplistic conclusions and sweeping statements that have characterised discussion of the sale since Khan’s offer was made public. There is important detail that needs to be understood, and consequences that need assessing.

Khan, owner of Fulham FC and the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL franchise, has made offers to buy Wembley before. The latest offer, according to FA chief executive Martin Glenn, was the first that was worthy of consideration. If the deal goes through, the FA says it will have £600m to invest in grassroots football, plus retained income from the Club Wembley premium seats. Club Wembley is estimated to make £250-£300m over the lifetime of the deal, but that figure is dependent on sales. The original 10-year lease deals for Club Wembley boxes and some seats ran out this year and the commercial team have found it difficult to renew that income stream, so we should be wary of potential income being considered as actual income.

The sale, it is argued, would enable the FA to put £70m a year into grassroots football and, once that was match-funded by partners, would mean an investment of £2billion over the next 20 years. An investment described as “transformative” by the FA. Not least because it would free the FA of the burden, unique among world football governing bodies, of running a stadium and enable it to focus on running the game. Hence the ‘everyone’s a winner’ approach.

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Well, Shahid Khan would certainly be a winner. He’d be buying a stadium that cost £757m to rebuild for £900m. The FA says that the actual cost of the stadium was £600m once you factor in loan repayments. But remember that was 18 years ago. Building costs have increased substantially since then, and the London property market is one of the most expensive in the world. If Khan were successful in his bid, he would get a base for the European NFL franchise long seen as a golden ticket by sports marketers. And he would get substantial financial assistance from the NFL to purchase and develop that stadium.

So, the first question has to be, is the offer enough? It is no good to say the stadium is worth what someone is willing to pay. The FA has already said it has knocked back previous bids, contradicting that assertion. We need to know what it was about this offer that made the FA view it as ‘worth considering’. And we need to know if other bidders would be prepared to offer more, or if their bids have been deemed not worth considering.

If the sale of Wembley is to be carried out in order to fund a strategic plan, the value of the asset should have been worked out first, and a competitive bidding process opened. This has not happened, and so questions of whether the offer represents good value remain.

We must then consider what Khan intends to do with the stadium should he buy it. There are a number of arguments to consider here. First, there is the emotional argument about Wembley, the self-tagged “home of English football” being owned not only by an American, but also potentially by another sport. Hard-headed business types will dismiss emotive arguments, but the fact is that the extraordinary financial success of English football is built on the emotion that fuels the unique customer loyalty of the fans. Emotion is the magic ingredient that makes football a business like no other.

As Law told the committee: “There is certainly a significant body of the fan community who do have an emotional investment in Wembley Stadium”, adding that “in the research we have conducted so far we have a third split between fans who are supportive of the sale, fans who are against the sale at any cost on principle and fans who require more assurance and more details on the deal before the commit either way”.

She also said fans would be looking for assurances that major football events would take priority at the venue under a new owner, and that the competition organisers would still be able to set ticket pricing. Given that FA Cup Final ticket prices set by the FA were an eye-watering £115 and £145 this season, ceding control of pricing to an even less accountable private owner who would almost inevitably take greater advantage of ticket price inflation is a serious concern for fans.

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Neville’s contribution began to specify the details needed. “The Premier League TV deal this year is £3billion, agents’ fees last year were £250million, the prize money for the PL was £2.5billion”, he said. “Place a 25% levy on agent’s fees, that money’s disappearing out of the game.” Or, to take another angle, reduce prize money for the elite 20 clubs by half a billion a year for the next five years – a move that still allows for prize money to be increased if, as is likely, broadcast rights income increases – and that gives you £2.5bn to invest in the grassroots over the next five years as against £20m over 20 years. Now that’s transformational.

FA CEO Martin Glenn’s argument is that it is all very well to argue that the Premier League should do more to fund the grassroots, but the fact is that it is not doing as much as many would like, and he has a potential £600m of real money he can actually deploy if the sale goes though. It’s an argument you have to sympathise with, up to a point. Glenn is right to advocate dealing with the world as it is rather than, as we would want it. He has a job to do. But there are many questions to ask.

It’s far from clear whether £600m would actually go to the grassroots. Deploying £600m to the grassroots requires the agreement of various other funding bodies, so what happens if they don’t agree? At present, under FA articles, the professional game is entitled to 50% of any sale proceeds. It remains to be seen what they will do with that. And will cash-starved local authorities continue to spend what little they can now, or will they withdraw funding, therefore eating into the real total increase?

Between them, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Greater London Authority and Sport England contributed £161m to the Wembley project. They need to agree that money can be invested in the grassroots programme. Sport England has indicated it would be prepared to do so if it was convinced necessary safeguards are in place. But the GLA may take a different view in current economic circumstances, and the DCMS contribution is UK government money being used for an English project. If that £161m goes back to the funders, the net gain from the sale is reduced to £439m, and half of that is £219.5m.

There’s also an outstanding bank loan on Wembley that is due for repayment in 2024. Would the banks allow the FA to keep the current repayment plan, or would they want their money back immediately?

And, a big question this, do we trust the FA to deploy the money properly if it gets it? It’s all very well making grand commitments about funding all-weather pitches, what about addressing the fact that coaching badges are the most expensive in Europe? And, a fundamental point here, the FA has existed for 155 years and has not yet managed to adequately support the grass roots. Asking why it can do so now is not cynicism or a loaded question, it’s a legitimate concern that any other business would find it odd not to be asked about.

As for using England’s showing in the World Cup in Russia as a reason to back the sale and subsequent deployment of money, let’s remember that the FA’s first choice for England coach was Sam Allardyce, and that its last idea for improving the prospects of the England team was introducing a mid-season break. A measure the fans were not asked about, and which the German FA may not be quite so convinced is a guarantor of success right now.

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Some of those who are seemingly urging the sale to go ahead as soon as possible are also playing the anti-London card by pointing out that selling Wembley means the FA could take the England team back out on the road. That is a move that has huge backing among fans, but the FA could do that now while retaining ownership of Wembley and bringing in other events to keep stadium income ticking over. It’s fair to say that the FA would be better concentrating on running the game than running a venue, but the fact is that the FA has ceded control of large parts of the game, especially at the top level, and it could still generate income from taking England on the road.

Supporters are sympathetic to the argument that more money should go to grassroots – many match-going fans are involved as players or coaches or officials at grassroots level. As Law said: “we see the eye watering amount of money the broadcast deals bring in. The PL is meant to have a commitment of 5% filtering down the pyramid. I’m not sure that’s happening.”

Sports minister Tracey Crouch, questioned later the same day, made much of the “big win” she had secured by getting the Premier League to double the amount of money from its TV deal that it allocated to grassroots football, from £50m to £100m. That genuinely is quite an achievement – the Premier League doesn’t like giving anything away. But the figure is still just 4% of the latest domestic TV deal. While Glenn can be forgiven perhaps for accepting the reality he is presented with, it’s not unreasonable to expect politicians to have less poverty of ambition. And Neville outlined what they could be doing.

“Everyone in this country is detached, everyone’s looking after their own shop, he said. “It needs bringing back together and re-setting so there’s a central board for English football, a strategy created which means we don’t have to make short-term decisions and that everyone benefits.

“Community hubs, youth centres have gone, they’ve been destroyed, school playing fields have been sold so we need these football centres, these sports hubs to be the heart of the community, there’s so much we can achieve here but we’re thinking so small.

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“If we’re talking about a government-backed long term sustainable programme where sport is at the heart of it then every school in the country must have 4G facilities and qualified coaches and every child in those schools must have access to those coaches and those facilities.”

And Law followed up by emphasising what needs to be done around governance throughout the game. “There’s work that can be done to assist those clubs lower down the pyramid in non-league with the way that they’re set up, their governance, being better financially managed to make sure they can contribute more to their community over a longer period of time,” she said. And all that means far more of a big state solution than Crouch seems to want.

There is progress of sorts. As Law said: “The FA have a strategic plan. All that we would ask as supporters is that any decision that they make we’re consulted on or we’re considered on and we’re not just seen as a source of income.” The hearing Law and Neville got was encouraging, with the MPs present engaging far more and displaying more background knowledge than has sometimes been the case at select committees discussing football.

What should be clear now is this. First, that far more needs to be known about the detail of the proposed sale before any decision is taken. Because once Wembley is sold, it’s sold. There’s no going back. And second, if there really is a desire to transform English football, that needs the kind of joined-up, government-led approach that Neville and Law suggested.

FOLLOW MARTIN ON TWITTER @MartinCloake SOME OF HIS WEBSITE IS martincloake.com 

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