Who should pay for policing hooligans at sporting events?
Authorities want clubs to foot the bill but it's a broader community issue
Hooliganism and poor behaviour at football grounds are the bane of many fans – and a nightmare for clubs and city administrations because of the high policing costs they can incur.
While the match-day focus is naturally on goals and the quest for premierships, the expense of football-precinct policing is a growing issue around the world.
Jane Baxter, an associate professor in the school of accounting at UNSW Business School, points to instances of hooliganism in the Swedish Allsvenskan professional league, the English Premier League and the Indonesian league, among others, to underline how clubs and police departments are grappling with the question of who should foot the bill for crowd control.
“So it’s a global issue,” says Baxter, the joint author of a new paper, 'Accounting for the cost of sports-related violence: A case study of the politics of the accounting entity'.
Baxter's co-authors are Martin Carlsson-Wall from Stockholm School of Economics, Wai Fong Chua from University of Sydney and Kalle Kraus from Stockholm School of Economics.
Rather than defining the issue from a sporting context alone, the researchers factor in the commercialisation of sport and how accounting issues intersect with external forces.
'It highlights the socio-political nature of accounting work which people often don’t recognise'JANE BAXTER
Blowing out the bill
Highly sensitive matters such as policing costs, Baxter notes, often occur in a politically charged environment, so solutions require more than a technical accounting response to cost-assignment issues.
"It highlights the socio-political nature of accounting work which people often don’t recognise,” she says.
In such an environment, financial obligations are not only changeable, but contestable.
The paper specifically examines the allocation of policing costs in relation to the maintenance of public safety and order in the Allsvenskan men’s league, which has been in operation in Sweden since 1924.
The research draws on interviews with 44 club leaders, players and fans. With the shift from amateurism to the commercialisation of football, authorities have started playing hard ball, insisting that those who run football games – the clubs – should bear the cost rather than taxpayers.
The clubs have hit back, contesting policing invoices in court, taking the view that football games have a broader community function. The upshot is that the judicial system has been clogged up.
According to Baxter, clubs claimed they were being “creamed” by police departments which were supplying more officers, police horses and helicopters than required, blowing out the bill.
At the heart of Baxter's research is the notion of the accounting entity – a concept that “distinguishes the economic transactions of an organisation from those external to it”.
Christine Cooper, chair of accounting at the University of Edinburgh Business School, has core research dealing with such concepts and considers the economic, political and social impact of accounting on our everyday lives.
A keen football fan, Cooper suggests the term hooligan can be misleading with regard to football aficionados, arguing that poor behaviour at major events with high emotions and lots of alcohol is not the preserve of football followers alone.
As to who should pay for policing costs, Cooper notes that in the UK the majority of costs for covering events such as sports clashes, concerts and state functions are met through police budgets, “although football clubs make a contribution”.
She believes the verdict on who should actually pay is complex.
“For example, football clubs may not be the main financial beneficiary of football matches. The financial beneficiaries include TV companies, betting companies and local businesses,” Cooper says.
In line with the research of Baxter's team, Cooper also notes that there are “social beneficiaries” from sport, including fans who derive great pleasure from their association with a club.
“I feel that this means the policing of sports events should come from general taxation since sport benefits business and citizens,” she says.
For their part, Baxter and her co-authors contend that the accounting entity is too often taken for granted and treated as a technical issue based on accounting standards and legalistic interpretations.
Their research helps highlight how the accounting entity is, as they suggest in their paper, “a contestable and changeable socio-political construct, being formed via an entanglement of market participants, their operations, and matters of concern on the part of state agencies and communities”.
Baxter adds that the way in which we track the responsibility for costs can be “quite fluid”.
“And we can see how constructions of an accounting entity shift and change over time, whereas most people don’t think about the accounting entity being problematic or negotiable,” she says.
'The financial beneficiaries include TV companies, betting companies and local businesses'CHRISTINE COOPER
One of the issues with football hooliganism or anti-social behaviour is that it does not just affect the players and fans in the football arena itself.
Those who live in proximity to the stadium also experience fallout, as well as those who are catching buses and trains with potentially inebriated or violent fans on the day of the event. This magnifies the need for a city-wide response, not just a club response.
According to Cooper, the issue highlights the need for a “more holistic approach to society”, suggesting that accounting standards and rules have a significant social and economic impact.
“They concentrate business people’s minds on certain things – like profit, the proportion of assets to liabilities and so on. There are also many important things which cannot be captured by numerical metrics which become obscured by accounting numbers.”
Accounting, she adds, is not an impartial technical system that gives neutral information.
“And it could be changed to bring about different behaviours. But … perhaps accountants should simply ensure that companies pay their fair share of taxation, some of which could be used to provide adequate funds for policing,” Cooper says.
To their credit, Swedish football clubs – while trying to minimise policing costs – have not sought to diminish their responsibility to the community. Baxter notes that they play a key role in fostering children’s engagement in sport and encouraging refugees to interact with the community through football.
“If you take a very narrow shareholder focus, or a narrow members-only focus, you might throw up your hands and say ‘we have no responsibility’, but the clubs tried to show they were focused not only on the elite league but also on developing youth and having a positive role in society,” Baxter says.
Cooper says the research by Baxter and her colleagues raises broader questions about the role of sport in society. She views it as a “pretty environmentally friendly commodity”.
“Rather than people going to a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon and buying more ‘stuff’ that they don’t need, it might be better for the planet if they got out in the fresh air and participated in a more ‘social’ pastime, and supported their local team,” she says .
“So, it might be interesting to have more research on the impact of sport on society and the natural environment.”
While Baxter's research concentrates on issues in Swedish football and society, she agrees that the issue transcends that league – and, indeed, sport – and expands our understanding of how communal values and beliefs inform accounting practice.
As such, it can also guide non-sporting entities such as music festival promoters and even mining companies that have a potential impact on society and the environment.
As Baxter explains: “If you think, for example, about what’s happening in Australia at the moment with music festivals and pill testing and the cost of a medical presence at such events, there’s a big debate about who should carry the costs of that – whether it’s the promoter or whether it’s a broader community issue.”
It's a debate that will continue to test the minds of club officials, police leaders, city leaders and, not to forget, accountants.