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When this week-long series on fan ownership was conceived a few months ago, it was practically unthinkable that the dominant headlines in recent weeks would be about a potential supporters’ takeover of England’s biggest football club.
Yet, at the time of writing, the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) has seen membership rise to around 128,000 since the wealthy Red Knights group announced their intention to take over the club with the help of the fans. At the other end of the pyramid, Chester City look set to start again under Supporters’ Trust ownership, and trusts across the land are ever more prominent in the media.
Fan ownership, then, is more relevant in English football than it has ever been, yet it also stands at a crossroads. Will we see the idea of Trust ownership take hold across the English leagues and many more clubs going into the hands of their supporters? Or, when we revisit articles from this period five years on, will it be a curious footnote as the billionaire single owner model reigns supreme?
And what of those clubs already under fan control? Will Brentford revert fully to the wealthy benefactor model? Will Exeter’s rapid rise through the ranks be the undoing of their fan ownership? Will AFC Wimbledon resolve their ground issue? And if a member from a Trust the size of Scarborough comments on here that there is a two-tier membership, what hope is there for a model that involves all fans?
Where, then, does fan ownership go from here?
Fan Ownership vs. the Benefactor Model
Whether the Trust movement takes off or not in the Premier League, the free market idea that billionaire owners are the best way forward has taken one hell of a kicking over the past 12 months. The Glazers at Manchester United, Hicks and Gillett at Liverpool, Mike Ashley at Newcastle and any one of the myriad of owners at Pompey have all galvanised the respective supporter bases at each club in opposition.
For Dave Boyle, the CEO of Supporters’ Direct, it’s not a surprise that the fans are starting to think towards a different ownership model. “I think there were two types of negative response to supporter ownership this time last year,” he says.
“The first was that it was only for the little clubs but with the discussion around Man Utd that’s not really tenable anymore, which in itself is on top of increasing understanding of the way German clubs work.
“The second response was that people could see some advantages to supporter ownership, but couldn’t see what the problem was that meant it was a solution worth pursuing. Linked to that was the idea that the current model delivered cash for player expenditure in an effective and efficient manner.”
It is Manchester United who are currently making the most waves in this area, and for Boyle, the whole saga has opened fans’ eyes to the dealings of the boardroom.
“It seems to me that a lot of people didn’t know how much the Glazer business plan bleeds them dry and how risky it is to the club in the medium-term and beyond. That information has been the catalyst for everything which happened subsequently. But the ground work was done back in the years leading up to the takeover in the campaigns against the club’s various takeovers, and in the anger which was fuelled by the inflation-busting ticket prices.
“But shy of sequestration of the club they need to be bought out, and that means people with money need to come to the table, and clearly, what one might like – 100% mutual ownership – must be balanced against the real world pressures. I’m hopeful that something can come together which will both lessen the need for the club to be so rapacious in its treatment of its supporters, and means that the club has a very strong, inalienable voice for the supporters’ trust.
“Ideally, I’d like to see the a situation where there is a year-on-year increase in the proportion of the club under the trust’s control through a levy on season tickets and merchandise, so the supporters whose revenue drives the club are given increasing ownership of it. That would seem to be both a narrative that fits the rhetoric and would be the only way to ensure that out of this sorry mess, something truly wonderful could emerge.”
But United will be one of the lucky clubs who can call upon a vast global fanbase, should they go down the supporter-owned route. Like Barcelona, the modern-day incarnation of Newton Heath FC will be unlikely to want for cash. Many other clubs are Premier League level may not be able to do the same.
It’s also worth pointing out that if United were to succeed as a fan-owned club in the cash-rich Premier League, they would first need to establish a Trust with a membership of millions rather than hundreds of thousands. Unlike lower league clubs with more modest ambitions, United fans will be unlikely to want to balance a commitment to fan ownership with a modest level of success on the pitch.
The Greatest League in the World
At the other end of the table, Portsmouth’s Trust are engaged in a battle for the very survival of their club. Soundings have already been made to the Conference about re-starting Pompey down the football pyramid, should the worst happen at the end of this season. They could also be joined by their opponents from the 2008 FA Cup Final – Cardiff City have been handed yet another postponement at the High Court as they look to pay huge unpaid tax bills.
Elsewhere, other Premier League chairmen look nervously at their finances. Bill Kenwright has already said Everton need a billionaire if they are to compete, while Eddie Davies at Bolton has just become the club’s main banker. Relegation would hit the Trotters hard.
For Vic Crescit from Arsenal’s Supporters’ Trust, in the context of all this, it’s ever more evident that having an active Trust is vital for any Premier League club.
“The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust has played an indispensable role along with the Independent Manchester United Supporters’ Association in holding the Glazers to account,” says Crescit. “The current campaign simply wouldn’t be happening without them.
“Fulham very probably would have lost their historic Craven Cottage ground if it hadn’t been for the Fulham Supporters’ Trust. Pompey would probably be out of business today if it weren’t for the work of the recently-established Pompey Supporters’ Trust. Arsenal would probably be in sole ownership of either Stan Kroenke or Alisher Usmanov if it weren’t for the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust.”
Crescit points to Spain where, in 1994, the law was changed to require all clubs to convert themselves into Sports Limited Companies. Only four clubs – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna – were financially stable enough to avoid this and remain owned by the fans. The rest of La Liga have seen their debts increase tenfold.
“The commercialisation of professional Spanish football is a failed experiment,” says Crescit. “Valencia currently has debts of nearly €600 million (US$810 million). That’s simply unsustainable and living proof that private ownership isn’t the panecea it was made out to be.”
As a concept, then, the Trust movement is currently riding a wave of momentum. But in the final piece of our series on fan ownership tomorrow, we will look at the practicalities of this from the perspective of the bottom line.