Should supporters be involved in running their own clubs?

Exeter

When a conference on supporter involvement in English football includes speakers from Barcelona, UEFA, the F.A. and non-league football clubs, you know something unusual is going on.

This isn’t the Leaders in Football conference of a couple of weeks ago, but it might have been just as important: Supporters Direct’s annual conference concluded last week in Birmingham, and it seems to have cut to the heart of the question of how and why supporters should be involved in the governance of their clubs.

As a little background, the mission of the national organization Supporters Direct is fairly simple:

Through establishing and developing supporters’ trusts, we aim to bring about responsible, democratic representation at spectator sports clubs, and so help promote the highest standards of governance, accountability and embed those clubs deeper into their communities.

Since Supporters Direct was founded a decade ago, they have supported the growth of trusts — non-profit democratic supporters’ societies — at clubs across the country. Ian at Two Hundred Percent has a must-read take on the proceedings of the conference.  Ian believes Supporters’ Direct is at a crossroads, on “the question of whether supporter ownership of clubs is always a good thing.”

As Ian mentions, what’s more important than any sweeping generalisation or any single example of success (say Exeter) or failure (say Notts County) is the broadness and depth of the movement as a backbone for British football clubs: over seventy now have a supporters’ trust representative on their board of directors, over 150 have a supporters trusts, and over 150,000 fans are involved in the movement.

This broad base belies the argument against supporter involvement that fans are too short-sighted to be involved responsibly in their clubs. Trusts have saved many clubs from the wall, and given supporters a direct stake in the team they support — in a responsible, democratic and non-profit form, as the legion of advice on the SD website on how to set-up a successful trust iterates.

Barcelona fans

This can work from top to bottom. The representative of Barcelona present, Lander Unzueta (Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer), had previously attended SD’s inaugural conference in 1999 as a Barcelona fan-activist seeking change at his club — three years later, thanks to the democratic structure at Barcelona (as a member-owned club), Unzueta was elected to Barcelona’s board. It’s clear that supporter involvement can work for the good of the game at the highest and lowest levels in different ways, whether it’s through democratic representation or outright ownership, as in the successful cases of FC United of Manchester and AFC Wimbledon.

This perhaps is, as Ian at Two Hundred Percent says, the key for the trust movement: “there is no “one size fits all” answer to the question of how supporters trusts should work,” he writes. At some clubs, trusts have been proven unable to successfully balance majority shareholdings with the interests of other directors. At some, outright ownership has worked — just as other structures of ownership have successes and failures, of course.

But in most cases, stronger supporter representation in governance of the club has been an undoubted positive. Ian reports on a workshop at the conference which showed “the importance of developing strong relationships with local authorities, and that clubs with a strong supporters trust (or that are trust owned) are likely to be able to build closer ties with their communities, because they are more likely to be perceived as working for their community rather than being simply private businesses being run for private gain.”

I find this all very interesting from the perspective of American sports as well, as we think about the future of MLS. Especially in a country where public funding of stadia is widespread, should we not take a serious look at how supporters can become part of the clubs that are often receiving substantial public funding from taxpayers?  Would it not be wise to look to see how supporters could take a responsible stake in governance of their clubs and work towards embedding them into their communities?

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