This is the key finding from our new research note, Open Goal, produced in partnership with the Northern Research Group.
The research finds that football is of enormous importance to the North, and acts as a strong anchor for local communities. There are more professional football clubs in the North, per capita, than anywhere else in the country: one for every 457,000 people compared to one for every 637,000 in the Midlands and one for every 1.03 million in the South East.
These clubs deliver enormous social and economic value to their local communities. They represent invaluable community assets which are central to Northerner’s pride in the places they live. For example, 20% of people in the North East pick their local football team as one of the 3 main things helping to foster local pride in their area. Similarly, Onward’s ‘Levelling Up In Practice’ research in Oldham earlier this year uncovered the centrality of Oldham Athletic FC and Oldham Rugby League FC to residents’ pride in their area and sense of local identity.
It is clear that Northerners view football clubs as defining characteristics of their communities. In the words of one Bury FC fan, an English city can be defined if “you’ve got a cathedral, you’ve got a university and you’ve got a football club. You need to have a football club to feel like a proper city. The club is a focal point for the community.”
However, the analysis also reveals how football is becoming increasingly unsustainable financially across the country. And, despite its vital importance to the North, it is Northern football clubs that have been most affected and proven disproportionately likely to get into financial difficulties.
Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, a total of sixty four professional football clubs have entered administration. These crises have typically occurred as a result of dangerous financial gambles and poor governance. But Northern clubs have been particularly prone to financial mismanagement. Two-fifths (39%) of all of these administrations have involved Northern clubs, as mapped out below.
More than a year has passed since the publication of the Fan-Led Review, which proposed a number of major reforms to football to safeguard the future of the beautiful game. But the Government is yet to act upon its recommendations, and our research finds that without these reforms, Northern football clubs remain at risk. Overspending remains rife and nearly three-quarters (72%) of Northern clubs lose money each year, relying on their owners to reach into their pockets to fund the difference. If and when owners lose interest and pull the plug, the entire existence of these vital community assets is put at risk.
Our research also calls on the Government to act to secure the future of the game at a local level. In our analysis, we reveal that a greater share of the population (23.9%) play grassroots football in the North than anywhere in the country except for London, reducing the number of childhood obesity cases by an estimated 59,000. However, the grassroots game is also under threat. Studies have shown that Northern families are now struggling to pay for kits and subs, while Onward’s recent report, Beyond School, found that significantly fewer children now participate in after-school sports in the North than elsewhere in the country.
In this research note, we argue that there is a clear case for the Government to implement the Fan-Led Review’s recommendations in full. This should include significant changes to the game, such as the establishment of a new independent regulator and a new system of financial redistribution from the Premier League to lower leagues and grassroots football.
This would not be a painful process for the Government. With more than a year since the publication of the Fan-Led Review, voters are growing impatient and Northern clubs remain at risk of financial difficulties. Northerners want to see their local football clubs safeguarded, not left at risk of becoming another statistic.
And, with time running out on this parliamentary term, protecting and supporting the future of football would provide an important success story for this Government’s record in the North.
“The beautiful game runs in the lifeblood of so many Northern communities, but it has never been under greater threat. For too long, Northern football has been left to endure numerous administrations and financial disasters which have risked the loss of vital community assets.”
“The Government must act urgently and implement the recommendations made by the Fan-Led Review in full. Doing so is the only way to end the dangerous incentives for clubs to gamble for success and safeguard the future of football for years to come.”
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