Look, no hands! Why sport needs hands-off owners and hands-on administrators

One of sports’ greatest owners, Dan Rooney, has died while one of its worst, Francesco Becchetti, is killing his club.

Dan Rooney was born in 1932, the year before his father, Art, founded the Pittsburgh Steelers. One of the NFL’s most respected figures, Dan lived almost his entire life in a modest house just a short walk from the Steelers’ stadium. He ran the team for nearly 50 years, overseeing six Super Bowl victories. In that time, he had just three head coaches. He was a patient man who literally never hired a coach who didn’t win the title.

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One of the good guys.

Francesco Becchetti, meanwhile, has had ten managers in three years – sacking them at more than 50 times the rate of Rooney. He doesn’t look like a man who could successfully appoint someone to bring him a sandwich, let alone an away win.

Dan Rooney’s influence went far beyond Pittsburgh. For decades he was one of the people guiding the league’s phenomenal growth, which was based around the absolute belief that team owners must cooperate, pool resources and grow the game’s appeal. For him, ‘Think League’ was the heart of everything. Only if every club is strong can the league succeed. He’s also famous as the sponsor of the Rooney Rule, which remains the most important advance in creating management opportunities for ethnic minority coaches that sport has ever known.

His passing is a real milestone for a sport that’s be fortunate enough to have a cadre of long-sighted owners who love the league as much as they love their clubs. Part of that was mere luck – Dan Rooney was, after all, just a rich guy’s son – but part of it has been a deliberate effort to attract a certain kind of owner.

Historically, NFL teams haven’t always been as profitable as they are now. Rich people have always coveted them as status symbols, though, which is why the league has a long-standing rule that any bid to buy a team must be investigated personally by the Commissioner and approved by at least three-quarters of owners.

The league constitution also reserves to the Commissioner the power to force an owner to sell his or her team if the league deems their behaviour improper. (The NBA, which has a similar rule, actually did this to the LA Clippers owner in 2014 when he was caught on tape making racist remarks.)

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Bellyful of hate: Donald Sterling, the rogue owner who had his wings clipped.

Compare this with the situation in English football, where even being a convicted criminal isn’t a bar to owning a team (provided it’s not in a narrow range of specified offences) and the Premier League and EFL are explicit that an owner’s club is entirely his or her own business.

As a result, with the lure of Premier League riches, global attention and rising inner-city land values, English football has become a magnet for people who could all be played beautifully in a biopic by Danny DeVito or Geoffrey Rush.

Traditionally, the greatest problem facing lower division clubs was the sheer grinding poverty of small town football. Now, however, the clubs facing the biggest crises – Orient, Coventry, Blackpool, Blackburn, Charlton – are all clubs that were formerly financially sound but are now dying in the hands of rogue owners.

And, even if you have been through that hell and come out the other side, life isn’t much easier in a league of financial tweakers. You may have rid yourself of your bad owner, but there are still dozens of others out there, tilting the tables with reckless spending. This is not a league that rewards sound behaviour.

Take Portsmouth, whose fans are currently facing a dilemma. Having rescued their club from a string of disastrous owners and got it back on its feet, they are struggling to raise the cash to repair Fratton Park and sustain a push back into the upper reaches of the league. And so, despite their previous bad experience, they are considering a bid from Michael Eisner – the man who ran Disney for over twenty years.

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Just a local lad who wants nothing more than to help the club he loves.

It is not known if he grew up within the sound of the Pompey Chimes, but he is certainly an incredibly rich, highly respected businessman. The man who produced Duck Tales: The Movie in charge of Portsmouth. What could go wrong?

Well, ask Fulham or Arsenal or Aston Villa. The record of rich, respected American owners in English football is as bad as the owners of any other nation. (I’ve written before about how the NFL sends us its worst owners.) Eisner is also 75 years old, so he could hardly be said to be in it for the long haul. What when he dies? What do we know about his heirs? Will they play Dan Rooney to his Art or Joel and Avram Glazer to his Malcolm?

Selling-up’s not something Portsmouth fans will do lightly, of course. But the risks can’t be denied – even with someone as rich as the Mouseman. Not least because, when I think about all the many reasons why anyone would want to own an English club, I come up with the same formulation as for British Prime Ministers: No one who wants to own a football club should be allowed to.

Getting your hands on Premier League TV money isn’t a good reason. Using it as a tool of global soft power or to burnish your reputation isn’t a good reason. Building a global portfolio of sports teams isn’t a good reason.

The prime duty of the club’s owners should always be to preserve it for future generations. And that’s why I’ve always insisted that, if fans are not to be a club’s owners, then the owner must be able to demonstrate long-standing ties to the local area. Not because I think English football should only be for English owners, but because preserving a club for its community is the only good reason for wanting to own a club and, without deep roots in that community, that motivation is likely to be absent. But this, of course, isn’t enough; it won’t assure us of stable, wise ownership.

I am in favour of an enhanced NFL-style ownership test. Would-be owners would have to submit a detailed, long-term plan for the club, setting out all the sources of their wealth, committing not to use any offshore finance nor to buy the club with debt, detailing how they plan to grow their fanbase locally and agreeing to a meaningful fan engagement programme. Additionally, they would have to pay a bond to the league – an amount equal to, say, six months of the club’s running costs. This money would be reclaimable only on the sale of the club, with the league entitled to use any or all of it to rescue a struggling club.

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Fit and f*cking proper, pt. 978: Francesco Becchetti, who was formerly wanted in Albania on charges of fraud, forgery and money laundering.

It won’t happen, you say. Even now, with Orient on the brink, the EFL has nothing to say. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it just wants the whole business to go away and that, provided the Os can finish up their season, it would be quite happy for them to be relegated and become someone else’s problem.

It’s true, the situation is dire for clubs up and down the country. But, such is the level of EFL and FA negligence in their shepherding of the game, change is becoming not just essential but inevitable. The wealth at the top of the Premier League can’t keep distracting people from English football’s crisis. Fans are organising and taking action. Joint protests are taking place. Fans are becoming smart, effective campaigners. We have even seen the remarkable sight of supporters of London clubs putting their hands in their pockets to help out local rivals.

Look too at the effectiveness of the B Team boycott in the Checkatrade Trophy. Attendances fell by more than half.

The current league leadership aren’t just useless, they’re wilfully inactive. But fans, when they work together, when they unite around a cause bigger than just their club, can be awesomely effective. If you are the fan of a club in the EFL, you need to recognise that you are just one bad owner away from ruin. No footballing authority will step in. You are just a sclerotic heartbeat or business downturn away from having your club flogged off to someone who sees your club as an object to be owned.

There aren’t many Dan Rooneys left these days, even in the NFL. In the last five years, three owners who, together, had more than 150 years of team ownership passed away. Their replacements have a lot to prove.

In English football, if such people ever existed, they’re vanishingly small in number now. The vast majority of clubs in the top two divisions have changed hands in the last twenty years, most sold to people with no ties to their local area.

It is a trend that may bring more money into the top of the game, but we all know the knock-on effects on the lower divisions are both damaging and, seemingly, beyond the ability of the EFL to manage.

So the fight for football reform, especially of club ownership, needs to be redoubled. We need the fans of every club, not just this month’s victim of bad management, to raise their voices. We need solidarity if there is to be change.

And there must be change, because, ultimately, no sensible person should want to own a football club and no one but fans should be allowed to.

Martin Calladine

If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.

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One thought on “Look, no hands! Why sport needs hands-off owners and hands-on administrators

  1. Pingback: The end of the EFL | The Ugly Game

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