Play Fair, Pay Fair

talks to York student Stephen Harper about his campaign to make all Premier League clubs pay the Living Wage

Football and money are virtually synonymous in 2015; bound together in a complicated and often uneasy relationship. The eye-watering new £5.1 billion Premier League TV package has brought finances into sharp focus, with more scrutiny – and criticism – of how England’s top flight runs its increasingly-creaking ship. There are growing calls for football to implement the Living Wage, after Chelsea became the first accredited employer in the game.

York student Stephen Harper is best-known to most as ComedySoc Secretary, making appearances at events including the brilliantly-titled Have I Got News For York? However, the Liverpool supporter is now spearheading a campaign at the University reflecting a national movement – pushing for all Premier League clubs to introduce the Living Wage.

Businesses and organisations across society are coming under increasing pressure to implement the Living Wage – the necessary amount a person needs to earn to be able to live comfortably. The football industry is no different, and it is clear that the mass riches in the game that spurred Harper on to bring the campaign to York.

“I wasn’t aware that Premier League clubs weren’t doing it [paying the Living Wage], and then I saw a report saying Chelsea had committed to doing it and that they were the only team. I was flabbergasted.

“When so many agents, managers and players are on such a high wage, how can they justify one person kicking a ball around and earning half-a-million a week while there’s others at the same club on the minimum wage? It’s just obscene.”

The Living Wage is calculated by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University, and set annually by the Living Wage Foundation. Currently, the figure stands at £9.15 in London and £7.85 for the rest of the UK. Although the National Minimum Wage of £6.50 is a requirement, the Living Wage is not legally-binding – and the discrepancy between the two figures has increased in each of the last four years.

After bringing together a group of fellow York students and taking advice from Labour MP Frank Field, who works on the Living Wage at Westminster, Harper has decided on a twofold approach to the project.

“There are two methods in mind. Firstly, we’ve created a survey that we are taking to all member clubs of the Football League [those competing in the Championship and League One & Two], asking whether they feel that Premier League clubs should pay the Living Wage; if so, who should regulate it; if they do pay the Living Wage already, and if no, would they do so if they had the finances.

“We’re hoping the response will be that Football League clubs do think the Living Wage should be paid and whether or not the FA should be in charge of regulating that. We are hoping to build a consensus that we can take to the FA, government, or whoever else and say to them ‘the clubs involved in your industry support this move,’” Harper explained.

Generating broad agreement will be essential for any successful campaign which lobbies the footballing authorities; the York campaign hopes to ensure that member clubs are not only reading from the same page as each other, but also as from the people that form the lifeblood of the game – football supporters.

“We’re also opening a shortened survey to the general public asking similar questions. That’s going to be the hard part, because we don’t know a lot of the general public! From a University perspective, we’ve spoken to some of the [YUSU] sabbatical officers and some of the Union staff, and they have said they’ll help promote it for students at the University.”

And as well as receiving support from the Students’ Union, Harper aims to utilise the wide supporter base of students to tap into football contacts across the country.

“I’ve asked as many football fans as possible at the University if they have any contacts within the game. If we can get contact with groups of Swansea supporters, or Wolves, or whoever else, we’d like to spread it that way. I know Stan Collymore is a big advocate of grassroots activism and equality within football, so we’re going to try and hit as many different groups as possible. Once we feel we have enough responses to take to the FA, we will do.”

The group from the University are not alone; they are joining a burgeoning collection of football supporters nationally who are pushing for change within the running of the game. Last week, the Premier League agreed to approach its member clubs about adopting the Living Wage, following a petition from creator Joel Sharples, which received over 60,000 signatures.

The Living Wage campaign is up against an institution with a widely-held reputation of being heavily out-of-touch with supporters. Richard Scudamore, Premier League Chief Executive, recently received vehement criticism following an interview with the Guardian where he maintained that implementing the Living Wage was not Premier League clubs’ responsibility – despite the new revenue package meaning that clubs will earn over £110,000 per minute of football played from 2016-17. However, Harper believes that it’s only by groups of supporters coming together to encourage gradual progress that change will happen; he has a point – which is why this campaign takes on an added importance.

“A football club is so much more than just the finances. As soon as you look at it as a business, you’re not running a football club anymore.

“Football has been one of the biggest things in my life for as long as I can remember. Most of my friends have come through football in some way; it’s something that can bring people together. It is being turned into a commercial enterprise, especially with the Premier League. It is men like Scudamore and the club chairmen that are doing things like that to the game.”

It is clear that harnessing the indescribable, unique nature of the ‘football family’ is central to Harper’s aim of improving the game for everyone involved; while it is multi-million pound stars which make the headlines, it is often forgotten that our football clubs, an historic collection of national institutions, are maintained by an entire network of staff who are often paid no more than the minimum wage.

A growing group of supporters who are discontented with the state of the game claim that modern football has forgotten its roots. Harper hopes that by simply focussing on implementing the Living Wage in isolation, it is the first step in bringing the game back into touch with its fans.

“The Premier League Living Wage is exactly what it says on the tin. These clubs are big enough and rich enough to do it that they should [implement it]. If these clubs can’t find it in their budget to pay the Living Wage then, they need to manage their accounts a bit better.

“The aim is to get the Premier League to realise that their peers want this to happen. When I go to Anfield and there’s 46,000 people, there’s 20 or 30 executives, and 46,000 regular people. It’s people that make the game and it’s them that should be making the decisions about it. If the authorities want football to be a commercial industry, we’re its consumers and should have a say in how it is run.”

The conviction that it is fans, and not businessmen, that make the game, is refreshing. It is hoped that by taking a grassroots approach to the campaign, it will forge a sense of involvement in positive change for everyday supporters, and things will be getting underway from the University outwards imminently.

“In terms of timescale, we want to get things underway before the end of the season [ending in later April] with the surveys going out to the public in a couple of weeks,” Harper explained.

The national Premier League Living Wage campaign isn’t without its critics; some suggest that enforcing the move could exacerbate problems further down the football pyramid. Although all 20 Premier League outfits are amongst the 40 richest clubs in the world, the picture is somewhat different in the Football League and Non-League. While it is possible further down the pyramid – seventh-tier FC United of Manchester are also committed to the Living Wage, for example – many clubs live a ‘hand-to-mouth’ existence which is entirely reliant upon gate receipts and shareholder loans to survive. It is feared that hikes in wages could force many clubs into redundancies, or even administration.

To combat this, Harper is focussing solely on the Premier League in the short-term, and is hoping that a trickle-down effect would allow it to be rolled out across the football map further down the line.

“We only want it for Premier League clubs at the moment because they can easily afford it. I don’t see why the footballing authorities couldn’t create a pot of money longer-term to make the Living Wage viable, progressively going down one league at a time. Maybe clubs can be rewarded who pay the Living Wage and support can be given to those who can’t. That will take years of work, but it’s a policy for the future maybe.

“This is a realistic fight, and we want to get to a stage where if a team wants to compete in the Premier League, they have to meet these requirements.”

This broad, growing campaign is strengthened by the skills of this grassroots group of York students, which could play a crucial role in bringing the Premier League Living Wage a little closer to reality. If it continues in the manner it has started, then it may well succeed.

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