In a week that saw the financial muscle match of Russia vs Qatar, or Chelsea vs Paris Saint Germain as most of us prefer to call it, in the Champions League, we saw an era of money-dictated success summed up in around two hours. A day later, in not quite so glamorous conditions, but with the same message to football, a Turkish businessman, Ziya Eren, completed his takeover of Crawley Town. The very same Crawley Town that, in May 2005, defeated my home village team of Ringmer FC 2-0 in the final of the Sussex Senior Cup. The same Crawley Town that only six years ago were in the Blue Square Conference Premier, finalising a deal for new owners who would fund the club moving up into League 2. Does this overseas investment represent the future of lower-league English football? Is that where the next series of Middle-Eastern or American investors will risk their funds? On the other hand, can the fan-owned revolution take off from non-league to the Football League and above?
In England at least, there has been a clear shift from British-based owners to foreign-based investors in the past 30 or 40 years, something I commented on during my first blog this year. Well, while this revolution shows no signs of stopping, there has been a separate, seemingly rebellious, direction being taken by a number of non-league clubs in England in the last decade. With Exeter City the first English team to take this step in 2003, they sent a big message to other clubs at their level, as when they were in financial trouble, they turned to their fans. 38 other professional or semi-professional English clubs have officially become totally or majority fan-owned in the following thirteen years. This may not seem like a lot, but these clubs have had a massive impact on the outlook of English football, changing how people perceive football clubs to be run and how clubs can return their support from the community. Fan ownership is something I am very passionate about.
Just 12 months after Crawley Town did beat Ringmer in the Sussex Senior Cup final, a team that I have mentioned before in these blogs, Lewes FC, won the same competition. Another four years after that, and Lewes became in financial peril after two relegations in three seasons from the Conference Premier to the Isthmian Premier League, the 7th national tier. Just hours away from a club-ending winding up petition, a group called Rooks125 saved the club and decided to hand over ownership to the fans. In a period of stability, results on the pitch have hardly improved, with only one top half finish in the five seasons since (including this one, bottom with eight games remaining). However, off the pitch, we have over 1000 owners paying just £30 a year to own a part of Lewes FC, creating funds of £30,000 on top of match-day profits and sponsorship deals. Being in touch with their fans and the local community has allowed sponsorship openings with businesses in the town, more teams to be started and a new 24-hour 3G training pitch to be built. On this pitch, schools, rugby, cricket, stoolball teams and 5-a-side squads can play alongside all of Lewes’ eight teams (obviously not at the same time).
Clearly there are many benefits for non-league, lower budget teams to be fan owned, but a lot of people are sceptics of the concept for Football League teams on a larger scale. Granted, the idea didn’t go as planned for Stockport County, who became bankrupt in their four years of self-ownership following 2005, having to rely on private investors to bail them out. Some argue that a consortium of 20,000 or so supporters of say a League 2 team wouldn’t be able to provide the same amount of regular investment for top-name players or ground improvements purely because they aren’t millionaires. It’s a sad fact, but some people do still think like this, valuing immediate success and flashy Jaguar-driving, champagne-drinking owners over community values and democracy for all fans. If those 20,000 or so fans paid £25 every year like the price of becoming a member of the Dons Trust, AFC Wimbledon’s owners, the club would make £500,000 out of it, which at League 2 level can mean a whole new subs bench worth of players.
Looking back through history, fan ownership in football can draw its roots back to Germany, where it has thrived in achieving lower ticket prices and fan-based projects such as safe standing. This is one of the main reasons that clubs such as Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and St. Pauli rank so high in many fans must-see experiences. It is actually the law in Germany that clubs cannot be owned by a single company or investor, making sure there can’t be any dictatorial chairmen holding their clubs to ransom like Mike Ashley or Karl Oyston at Newcastle and Blackpool respectively. At Bayern Munich, arguably one of the top 5 biggest clubs in the world, you can become an owner for just £23.26. With Borussia Dortmund, you can buy a share on the German Stock Exchange for around £3, whereas at Schalke the cheapest membership for adults is £19.40. Bundesliga clubs involve their fans by giving each paying member a vote in board elections, handing them the right to have their say in how the club is run. Isn’t this how football is supposed to be run?
This example is also used at Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Liga BBVA, capitalising on their worldwide status and millions, if not billions of fans, and creating a worldwide ownership scheme. From Barça’s 140,000 members all paying £136.45 every year, the club will make £19,103,258.79 annually. Almost £20 million every year just from the owners; the fans. While that might only mean one player for the club, they make hundreds of millions in television deals, high-profile sponsorships and win bonuses. If any sceptics doubt the financial sustainability of a club being fan-owned, just look at how the two Spanish giants are performing in all the sporting rich lists. Premier League clubs could easily make just as much profit, and that is without businessmen, who claim to care about their clubs, tidying off some financial profits for their own pockets, such as the Glazer clan at Manchester United.
All this evidence of success with fan ownership, both on a local scale and a much larger continental one, points to one big question; why haven’t Premier League clubs followed? To put it simply, it can be blamed on our culture in the UK, where we have accepted businesses, and therefore football clubs, to be run by the richest in society, without the workers or the customers having a say. We used to have a very strict social order, and in many ways we still do, in which we won’t stand up for what is right when those better off than us act against our will. Just look at all the owners of Premier League and Championship teams; I can assure you that none of them came from low income backgrounds. So by this logic, apparently being rich should guarantee you more opportunities and make you immune of any wrongdoing. It’s time we took a stand against such a brutal and pre-determined world by lobbying for more lower-league clubs to follow the examples of FC United of Manchester, AFC Wimbledon or Lewes FC (of course). It would be unrealistic to imagine any BPL clubs adopting this method within the next five years, but I know that there are a lot of disgruntled fans at non-league level who want to change their club; and I encourage them to do it. They could make a real change. After all, football isn’t all about spending and winning; it’s about community, heart and enjoyment; for anybody to win anything, there needs to be runners-up and losers.
Fan ownership means closer community links, more opportunities for fans to be involved in what is ultimately their club and more controlled finances. It is something to be celebrated; it’s a form of Western democracy and equal rights in a world of traditionally totalitarian Russian, South-East Asian and Arab ownership. It is an opportunity to escape from all the doom and gloom of modern day ownership and create a closely-bonded set up between the board and fans, allowing everybody who has been loyally paying the players’ wages every week of every season. Fans have the right to have their voices heard, to have people who represent the views of the regular fan on the board, to know that the club they have grown up with is in safe hands.
If this method grows in the lower leagues and proves successful, there could be significant pressure on future governments to follow Germany’s example. This would obviously never happen under a Conservative Sports Minister, but with another government it could be possible, and I personally believe it could reflect the game in a more positive light; take it back to what football is really about. To put it simply, ownership and investment is a question for the fans to pressure board members on the future direction of their club. Do they want short-term, risky, unguaranteed success, or would they prefer a more stable, community-friendly approach that has shown to be less successful in terms of trophies? It’s a difficult decision and depends on your values and ambition, but I know which side I’m on.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!