Friday, 6 December 2013

Cooperative fan-ownership, the future of football

A couple of weeks ago I witnessed a true phenomenon for the first time ever, I watched an FC United of Manchester match. They are the most amazing and unique football club I have ever had the pleasure of coming across. The passion and dedication of the fans was like nothing I had ever witnessed before in football. There were less than 2,000 people there but it felt more like 10,000 and apparently that was a poor match for attendance and atmosphere. What really impressed me is how pleasant the whole atmosphere was. There was next to no swearing and none of the chants I usually expect to hear about putting down former players of the club or rival clubs. It was all positive. There was also a lot of politics. Me and my friends went to the clubhouse before the match and at half time and there were many banners in the clubhouse and a lot were political. This is an entire different way of running a football club and is the future of the sport.

Fan ownership is by no means new and has been around for some time. In Germany nearly all football clubs are by law at least 51% owned by their fans. One of the world's largest clubs, Barcelona are a fan-owned club. In England fan ownership hit the headlines when Wimbledon FC moved to Milton Keynes, and eventually changed their name to Milton Keynes Dons. Original Wimbledon fans weren't at all happy with this and they formed a new club called AFC Wimbledon in 2002, owned entirely by fans of the football club. The club have been going strong and have had 5 promotions in 8 seasons and are now a league club, just one league below MK Dons. Since then there has been a wave of clubs being owned by their fans, which can broadly be put into 2 different categories. Firstly, phoenix clubs. This is where a club ends up dissolving/no longer existing (usually due to not being able to pay off debt) and fans of that club form a new club entirely owned by the fans. Notable pheonix clubs replacing former league clubs include: AFC Wimbledon, Chester FC, Darlington 1883, AFC Rushden & Diamonds, Scarborough Town and Scarborough Athletic. The second category of fan-owned clubs are where clubs have either come into financial difficulties or the owners of the club have become unpopular with the fans and the fans have bought the club off the former owners. This is usually done via a supporters trust becoming the new owners of the club, and the supporters trust is owned and controlled by it's members who are fans of the clubs. Notable league and former league clubs that have become fan-owned include Portsmouth, Wrexham, Exeter City and Wycombe Wanderers. When Pompey Supporters' Trust took over Portsmouth FC in April 2013 they became the largest football club in English history to become fan-owned. As early as 2010 Portsmouth were playing in the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final, but following financial difficulties the club barely survived liquidation and were relegated 2 seasons in a row. Towards the end of last season the supporters' trust put a lot of work in to secure the club for the trust, and despite being relegated fans are rejoicing the new era with attendances up by 26.5% and over 10,000 season tickets were sold during the pre-season (compared to 7,250 the previous season).

The main club I've supported in recent years has been Fleetwood Town. When I first watched Fleetwood about 10 years ago when a friend of my Dad played for the club, they were getting attendances of around 150 per match and the highest paid player was paid in the region of £90 a match. The stadium included just one actual stand which covered a small section of one length of the pitch and around 200 seats, behind both goals were little more than a small roof with grass in front and the other length of the pitch was just grass. This was also around the time that Andy Pilley took over as chairman of the club and since then he has invested several millions of pounds which has mostly been improvements to the stadium bringing capacity to around 5,500. Under Pilley the club have risen from the North West Counties Football League Division One to The Football League League 2, a total of 5 promotions in 9 seasons and average attendances are now around 2,800. There is a good chance that the club could get promoted again this season as they are currently 2 points away from the top. Despite recent success, I am very worried about the future of the football club. Why? Because at some point Andy Pilley will cease to be chairman of the club. It could be in 2 years, 10 years or 30 years but at some point he will go and so will his money. Unless the club gets another wealthy businessman take a dedicated interest in the club, it will struggle to keep up league status. This is why I wish there was a supporters' trust that could take over the club from Andy Pilley when he decides to leave the club. This way the club will not get temporary funds from wealthy investors which could potentially lead to financial difficulties further down the line. Twice in the history of the club it has wound up due to financial difficulties, the current Fleetwood Town F.C. is the third incarnation of the club having been formed in 1997. If you're reading this and you are a Fleetwood Town fan, please try to set up a supporters' trust and buy a small stake in the club. I would gladly join but due to living in Manchester I could not get involved much.

So many clubs have been a victim of punching above their weight by having investment from a wealthy chairman, who leaves the club in financial ruin when they leave the club. Take a look at former league club Darlington. Former owner George Reynolds built a 25,000 capacity stadium for the club costing £20 million in 2003. This was despite average attendances for the club was less than 3,00. He had plans to make the club a Premier League team only to bring the club into administration and leaving a few months later the stadium was complete. The following seasons involved a downward spiral and eventually the club was effectively dissolved. The successor club was not allowed to use the 25,000 seater Darlington Area. If all clubs were owned by their fans then clubs would only be able to invest as much as the fans could invest (along with money from sponsors, prize money and potential TV money of course). A similar fate looked likely for Wycombe Wanderers when Steve Hayes owned the club. He intended to move the club to a new 17,000 capacity stadium which was unpopular with fans considering their current ground Adams Park only opened in 1990 with capacity of around 10,000 is more than enough for their average attendances of less than 5,000. The club, making a loss was reminded by Hayes that they needed his financial support to avoid being placed in administration. Fortunately however the supporters' trust took over the club in June 2012 and the future of Adams Park and the financial security of the club are secure. Stadium relocations are often unpopular with fans, and sometimes can be popular with fan. Under fan-ownership it's the fans themselves which can decide if they want a new stadium of would prefer to develop the current ground if needed.

Since the formation of the Premier League, tickets and merchandise for the tops clubs have continued to become more expensive. It's now cheaper to watch a Premier League match every week on Sky Sports than it is to buy a season ticket to most Premier League clubs. This has led to English football culture being shifted from one where everyone goes to watch their local football team, to one where most people watch Premier League matches on TV. The result of this is that some clubs are making more out of money from TV rights than from ticket sales and in modern football a lot of that money had gone to giving players higher wages. If clubs become owned by their fans, they can choose to lower prices of tickets to matches and pay players fairer wages, which would usually means lower wages in the top leagues. The fans can decide whether to invest in players or the stadium or to save funds to protect the finances. Fan-owned clubs have better attendances with fans being happier with how the club is being run. Because fans are so much more involved in the running of the club, they are more likely to be investors in the club. FC United of Manchester have been able to raise more than £2 million from their fans towards building their new 5,000 capacity stadium due to be opened in around a year's time, with some fans investing several thousand pounds via community shares (which do get paid back in a few years time). I bet near enough all of Manchester United's fans don't put thousands of pounds each into the club.

So for all of you football fans, I encourage all of you to join or set up supporters' trusts or support your local fan-owned football club. Here's a list of fan-owned sports clubs: . It's better financial stability for your club, it's better financial stability for the sport, it gives fans what they want and it will stop big money from dictating which clubs are successful.

1 comment:

  1. Really its a great blog and thanks for sharing the information with us.
    Sports Clubs in Bangalore