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Len Shackleton: Get the state out of sport

Len Shackleton is a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The Government recently produced its response to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into the governance of football. There are of course some ways in which professional football may impinge on government responsibilities – for example, the sale of broadcasting rights (which may conflict with competition law) and the notorious "football creditors rule" (by which the footballing authorities have asserted the priority of debts to other clubs over debts to the taxpayer in bankruptcy cases). But this latest intervention is focused elsewhere.
Its prime concern is with creating a new Football Association board, a plan to develop a new wide-ranging system of licensing/regulation of clubs, and with making major changes to the representative structures of the FA. It explicitly threatens to impose legislation in these areas if the football authorities fail to come up with agreement on these measures by the end of February next year.

Going beyond this, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s response gives official opinion on such matters as the creation of "supporters’ liaison officers" (a good idea, apparently), the sale of clubs’ grounds (a bad idea), the compulsory release of club players for internationals (a good idea) and so on. It also finds room to make the case for an FA campaign against "transphobia". This isn’t the fear of losing your best player to a higher-paying rival, but rather the hostile response to those changing gender – a rare experience in football, I would have thought.
All this may be sensible enough, and we might agree with many of the sentiments – but why on earth should the government be involved? Nowhere in the paper does the Department explain why a private activity between consenting adults, like football, should be subject to this kind of pressure from the state.
One can only assume that the laddish interest in football begun under Tony Blair endures under the Coalition. You’d think they had better things to do. It’s not as if there is public money involved.
The same cannot be said for some other interventions, however. The hyperactive Sports Minister (Hugh Robertson MP), was also busy last week demanding an inquiry into Rugby Union in the aftermath of the disastrous World Cup. This has been an obsession for quite a while. Admittedly the Rugby Football Union senior management has been in a mess for some time, and Robertson called in the Acting RFU Chairman in August to demand changes. In this case he had some ostensible justification as the government is planning to underwrite the cost of the 2015 World Cup to the extent of £25 million. But while there is obviously a cause for concern if we are entrusting public money to an organisation which resembles a headless chicken, surely a prior question is: why does rugby need public money anyway?
This brings us onto the subject of the Olympics, which are officially going to cost us over £10 billion, though the real cost is likely be even higher. Academic research suggests that these mega-events, while hugely enjoyable, always cost more than expected and bring few, if any, lasting benefits to the host country.
Robertson has been active on this front as well in the last couple of weeks. The planned sale of the Olympic stadium to West Ham United (predicated incidentally on a huge injection of money from one of the country’s poorest boroughs) has collapsed, and Plan B will now see the government being a permanent landlord to West Ham or Tottenham Hotspur.  As Mr Robertson puts it" “the Government is committed to securing a legacy from the Olympic stadium, and wants to see it reopening in 2014”. No doubt one or other of these clubs, whose management and employees earn millions a year, will receive a handsome public subsidy in order to meet this deadline.  They will be repeating the example of current Premiership leaders and big spenders Manchester City, whose excellent ground was a present from taxpayers following the Commonwealth games a few years back.
How did we get into this situation? Was there ever an election fought on the need to get the government involved in sport? If so I must have missed it.


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