Too old to fail? No.

It appears that Bury FC has finally been expelled from the English Football League (EFL) because of its inability to meet financial and other obligations. Another club, Bolton Wanderers, seems likely to follow Bury into footballing oblivion unless it can somehow engineer salvation within the next fortnight.

This has led to calls for the government to intervene. There has been a long-running demand for government intervention to regulate football, and Bury’s demise will further fuel this. There is already a petition demanding a Parliamentary debate, and Sports Minister Nigel Adams and MP Damian Collins (who heads the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee) have weighed in calling for a reprieve.

Bury’s expulsion is hugely upsetting for the players and other employees of the club and their families, as it is for employees of any business that goes bust. But businesses go bust all the time, and quite rightly too: creative destruction allows new businesses and new goods and services to break through and widen consumer choice. In football, for every Bury there is a Forest Green or Salford City.

Government intervention is often called for when old-established businesses go under. A plausible case can sometimes be made for temporary support, particularly where economists can discern negative externalities such as the collapse of employment in isolated areas and its knock-on effects on shops and suppliers. Even here, however, the sensible response is to make resources available to aid readjustment rather than to keep the failing business on life support.

Although there will be some local businesses which will suffer from Bury’s expulsion from the League, it cannot really be claimed that Greater Manchester will be seriously economically damaged. But football has a special problem in that, unlike most other consumer services, there are no real substitutes for lifetime devotion to a club and its location. It’s not like the disappearance of a favourite type of car or clothing brand or chocolate biscuit, where time tends to heal rather more quickly than you expect.

However, far too much is made of the terminal nature of a club’s liquidation. Although it is rare for a club to collapse while a member of the EFL, those clubs relegated to the National League (linked to the EFL by promotion and relegation) collapse quite frequently. Recent examples of ex-EFL clubs fallen on hard times include Halifax, Chester, Hereford and Darlington. Yet in each case the fans remained loyal and the club was reformed at a lower level and fought its way back up the football pyramid. Crowds at these clubs’ grounds are often as high as they were when in the EFL, testimony to life after EFL death. And they can always hope to rise higher.

An inspiring, though slightly different, case is Wimbledon, formerly a Premier League club, which was moved to Milton Keynes. Disgruntled fans formed a new club, AFC Wimbledon, which rose up from roped-off playing fields back into the EFL – and has indeed reached the same League One from which Bury is being expelled.

Bury has been extremely badly run by at least the last two owners, but they, the owners of Bolton Wanderers and several other football club bosses have been indulged for far too long by the EFL authorities. To fudge the issue by extending yet again the time allowed to get their house in order creates a moral hazard problem rather like that associated with financial regulation before the banking crisis. Banks were regarded by governments as “too big to fail” and thus took unwise risks with other people’s money. The temptation is for politicians to say that these venerable clubs (Bury joined the League in 1894 and Bolton was a founder member in 1888) are “too old to fail”. This temptation should be resisted.

The EFL must now surely start applying much tougher rules to its members, requiring far greater financial disclosure and setting a much higher bar with its “fit and proper” criteria for club ownership. It is surely in its members own interests to do so. Expulsion of any club during a season is directly damaging – there is a loss of gate receipts – and also damages the competition’s integrity and reputation. Allowing insolvent clubs to continue means other clubs – and their fans – lose out. It hasn’t been much remarked on, but Bury ‘won’ promotion last season from League Two with a relatively expensive squad of players and managerial team which it is now clear the club could not afford. Those clubs that lost out in the promotion race last season were beaten unfairly.

So the EFL has much to do, and Bury fans need to start thinking ahead to a new life outside the League. But politicians, with their fancy words and short attention span, should stay well clear.


Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

1 thought on “Too old to fail? No.”

  1. Posted 13/09/2019 at 08:23 | Permalink

    You advocate tighter regulation by the EFL. One of the many issues I have with the fundamentals of regulation by the EFL, EPL and UEFA is that its objectives are muddled from the outset. Is regulation needed to stop clubs living beyond their means or to stop rich clubs living up to the standard they most certainly can afford? Likewise, as far as I can see, the “fit and proper person” test is riven with contradictions . Is it intended to exclude criminals and those whose wealth is of undefined or dubious provenance? or simply people who don’t appear to have the required resources (however the requisite level is defined)? When owners take money out, they are “asset stripping”, but when they simply plough money in, their largesse is said to be wrecking football, they need to be restrained, the club is just “a rich man’s plaything” etc etc

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