Football Sponsorship Levy

– in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 7th April 1998.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Labour, Lincoln 3:35 pm, 7th April 1998

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a Football Levy Board with powers to impose levies on football organisations and to allocate sums for the benefit of association football. Parliament needs to take a lead, where others have failed, to tackle the ever-growing financial divide between super-rich clubs and the rest. If action is not taken soon, dozens of smaller clubs may go to the wall, dragging down with them the prosperity and well-being of the local communities that they represent.

I welcome the Government's commitment to supporting our national game through committing £20 million to the Football Trust to improve the stadiums of clubs below the Premiership, and I welcome also the action to tackle racism, but hon. Members on both sides of the House, as evidenced by the 155 hon. Members who have already signed my early-day motion, want to be able to applaud the Government for more. My Bill seeks to offer that opportunity through the establishment of an independent representative board to distribute television money more fairly.

If politics is to re-empower the disempowered, replacing disillusion with faith and commitment, football is as good a place to start as any. My Bill tackles the whole unfair business of football wealth. Football is awash with money. In the past few years, hundreds of millions of pounds have come into the game through lucrative sponsorship deals, stock market flotations, merchandising and, above all, television deals. That television exposure has been the key to unlocking the millions from those other sources, with the lion's share of the money going to Premiership clubs, which set themselves up as an elite group to cream off Sky TV money.

I do not wish to offend hon. Members who support Premiership teams, but the Premiership was founded on greed. As time passes, we see also the greed of people who have a passion for making vast amounts of money, rather than for football. That is a source of aggravation and despair for fans of Premiership clubs, who want football to flourish and to be given back to the fans.

This problem runs the length and breadth of Britain, but, if we consider the example of England and Wales, we can contrast the £200 million a year broadcasting money that is shared between 20 Premiership clubs, with the £20 million a year that is shared between 24 division one clubs, leaving the crumbs of £5 million to be scattered among the 48 divisions two and three clubs: for Lincoln City £104,000; for Spurs £10 million. At a meeting tomorrow, Nationwide first division clubs will seek to grab a bigger slice of the television cake. That cannot go on.

If the already uneven distribution of broadcasting money becomes even more uneven, genuine competition will be stifled throughout the game. Football thrives on competition. It depends on the art of the possible. With the right mix of skill, tactics, stamina, luck and sound finances, a small club can clamber up the football mountain.

The smaller clubs are being clobbered in many ways. The knock-on effect of the rich clubs being made richer by television wealth is the upward spiralling of wages and transfer fees. I hope that hon. Members do not begrudge top-quality players the rich rewards that they deserve, particularly in such a short career, but the upward spiral of wages means that smaller clubs living on the edge have to offer wages that they can ill afford, because if they do not, somebody else will. On top of that, midweek televised football reduces the gates at the smaller clubs while the top clubs benefit.

Why should we be bothered about smaller league clubs—the Lincoln Citys, the Burnleys and the Bournemouths? There will be plenty of others to support, and hours of football on the television to enjoy. The reason why we should be bothered is my motivation in bringing forward the Bill.

Smaller clubs make a unique contribution to the economic and community life of their towns and cities, as I have seen in Lincoln. Around Lincoln City, affectionately known as the Imps, after the mischievous Lincoln imp in the cathedral, is a whole industry which touches our lives beyond the outcome of the match.

However, let us not minimise the impact of winning or losing on a community. At the most recent home game, I felt a dampening of the spirits at the Imps' 1-0 defeat at the feet of Colchester. The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) will not support that point. Some say that losing a game is like losing an election. It is not; it is worse.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Labour, Lincoln

For some, it is.

Lincoln City football club has spawned three websites, two fanzines—The Deranged Ferret and The Yellow Belly—an all-weather pitch, social and leisure facilities which we can all use, its own band featuring Ringo the drummer, in case anyone wondered where he went to, and a plethora of sponsorship deals ranging from those with big companies such as European Gas Turbines and the Lincolnshire Echo, down to sponsoring the boots of the club's longest-serving player, Grant Brown, which I do.

If you were fortunate enough to come to Lincoln on a match day, Madam Speaker, you could enjoy the nationally acclaimed and now legendary hot pork rolls. There is a whole economy, industry and community based around the local football club, which gives so much back through its community programme, its education programme and its charity work.

As David Kilpatrick, chairman of Rochdale football club, has said: How far do you want to be obsessed with always being the biggest and the best? There is a place for doing what you do at your level to the best of your ability, and I don't see anything wrong in that. Let us not forget the career opportunities and the hopes and dreams offered every year by the smaller clubs to hundreds of talented youngsters. The super-rich teams cannot fill their sides with overseas talent for ever.

There will always be people who want to support a successful and famous team, but what is support? Is it buying the latest replica kit and the glossy club magazine, seeing the team on television, but rarely, if ever, watching it because it is too expensive; or is it watching the local team through thick and thin and feeling part of that club? The passion felt by supporters of smaller clubs is more heartfelt, not less. A spectator is just as likely to see an enthralling encounter in the third division as in the Premiership.

For football to remain vibrant and solid in the local economy and community, there must be strength outside the Premiership. Mr. John Reames, chairman of my local football club, warns bluntly and correctly that the future of football as we know it is at stake right now. I ask hon. Members to support the Bill to serve the millions of people in hundreds of constituencies throughout the land for whom football, our national game, and all that goes with it, is key to their communities and lives.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Gillian Merron, Mr. John Heppell, Mr. Vernon Coaker, Liz Blackman, Mr. Russell Brown, Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe, Mrs. Joan Humble, Mrs. Linda Gilroy, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mrs. Teresa Gorman and Mr. Lembit Öpik.