Can 50,000 Football Fans Be Wrong?

Kevin Pearson
Leeds football fans.

A 'new democracy' is one way to describe MyFootballClub — no other team has ever been run via Internet voting alone — yet fan-powered schemes have secured control for supporters at countless sporting clubs.

"A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine."

--Thomas Jefferson

In 1989 a British property tycoon named Michael Knighton bought Manchester United for a then record £20 million. By today's standards, where individual players can cost as much (if not more), it doesn't seem like a lot of money. Even at the time, it wasn't considered a fortune. After the deal, Knighton was paraded on the Old Trafford pitch wearing a replica kit and performed an elaborate set of kick ups. The honeymoon, however, didn't last long. Shortly after showing off his skills, Knighton's backers pulled out for unknown reasons. In retrospect, they should be kicking themselves. Sixteen years later, the club was sold to American businessman and Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer, for £790 million pounds. In less than two decades Manchester United's value had increased 3,950 percent.

Earlier this year former football writer, Will Brooks, also decided to buy a British football club. He did not have Malcolm Glazer's monetary means, but he did have an idea. What if he could persuade 50,000 people to pay £35 (the average price of a Premier League ticket) towards purchasing a team? Each individual would act as joint owner, voting en masse to decide tactics, transfers, and even, perhaps, how often the players trained. Based on simple democratic principles (one member, one vote), each decision would be settled by a majority, the Internet used as a resource for constant and instantaneous involvement. It may seem like a far-fetched plan, but since launching in April of this year, Brooks has received, on average, 400 new members a day -- many from as far off as Brazil, New Zealand, and Argentina. A mere three months after its inception, the site reached its quota.

We shouldn't be surprised at the site's success -- sports fans have always dreamed of running their own team. Why else would we invest so much time in fantasy leagues? But can such an endeavor -- 50,000 bosses -- do better than the tried and tested talons of traditional football ownership? Brooks, a 36-year-old Fulham fan believes it can. "I think fans tend to get things right as a group," he explained in a recent interview. "Some managers are extremely stubborn but when they listen to fans -- by changing formation or dropping certain players -- results change. Fans are not as stupid as people in the game think they are."

Fan power has, despite the aforementioned connotations, prevailed throughout football history, via vigorous protests that have led to the sacking of managers, the ousting of chairmen, and the changing of tactics. Systematic campaigns (unofficial fanzines, sloganeering game day signage) and terrace chants have long been the fan's favorite weapon of choice, but members of MyFootballClub will be able to voice their opinion via the click of a button while wearing their underwear. Using the Internet as its primary tool of interaction means participants can vote on a secure, fan-only forum -- any time, any place, anywhere -- on anything from team formation, to new signings, to the price of match day programs.

But how do we label this scheme? Is it a website, a movement, a company, a board of directors, a loose band of footballs fans flailing for an alternative to the current team ownership set-up? Brooks calls it a trust. Members become part of the MyFootballClub Trust, which, when sufficient funds are raised, will purchase a controlling interest in a football club (51% or more) -- in effect, giving autonomous, democratic control of a football club to 50,000 fans. And although their total monies (£1.35 million and counting) couldn't afford David Beckham's dodgy ankle, they are already in talks with four lower-league clubs. A sponsorship deal with computer game giant EA Sports has also added to both the Trust's cash and cache.

In the practice of full disclosure, I am a member of MyFootballClub. I joined thinking it was an unusual and unique idea. Further investigation, however, has me questioning my decision and wondering whether the proposition is as good as I first thought it was. While the idea is certainly novel (the website states "for the first time in history, fans have the opportunity to buy and then take control of a professional club -- both on and off the pitch") it is not new. The Internet (as a tool for asserting fan authority) was first mentioned by the University of Leicester's Sir Norman Chester Center for Football Research in a 1995 report entitled,Fan Power and Democracy. Speaking about future developments with regard to fan power, the report stated: "There is the continued expansion of the Internet. This would seem to be an ideal forum for a search for a new 'democracy.'"

A new democracy is one way to describe MyFootballClub -- no other team has ever been run via Internet voting alone -- yet fan-powered schemes have secured control for supporters at countless sporting clubs. Several European teams (Barcelona FC included) are member-owned, while fans of American Football's Green Bay Packers own shares in the team (as of June, 2005 111,921 people -- representing 4,749,925 shares -- could lay claim to a franchise ownership interest). While these member-owned clubs offer their fans a stake in how the team is run, MyFootballClub has the potential to not only offer a stake, but also the steering wheel. The question is, should 50,000 people, with no personal allegiance to a club, be responsible for running it? And how is this any different from foreign businessmen buying up British clubs as possible financial investments or weekend hobbies?

The increasing influence of foreign owners is a worrying trend, one that concurs with comments made last year by the Union of European Football Associations' (UEFA) Director of Communications, William Gaillard, who urged the UK Government to investigate and stated that: "The trend is going against what we want to see -- more clubs being owned by the community and the people who really care for them. This is a wake-up call and the UK Government have a responsibility to start investigating." Gaillard's comments were backed up by a report released last year by the Football Governance Research Center, titled The State of the Game – The Corporate Governance of Football Clubs, which stated that: "it is clear that the tail that wags the dog -- namely the Premier League clubs -- have actually moved in the wrong direction over the past year, with takeovers resulting in many of these clubs now being owned by multimillionaires who have no connection with or allegiance to the club, its local community or its supporter base."

It's difficult though, to understand why anyone would want to own a football club, as historically, they don't make money. Manchester United's ascension aside, most clubs struggle to break even. Even Roman Abromavich, Chelsea's billionaire chairman, exclaimed that football is not about making money, adding that he had "many much less risky ways of making money than this." Brooks' idea however, is not for financial gain. All capital raised will be put back into the club with members deciding what to spend it on -- be it new players, a new kit, or a new concession stand. Conceived not as a stinging riposte to the takeover of football clubs by foreign businessmen, MyFootballClub bills itself as an "interesting alternative and an attempt to see what fan power can really achieve." With this in mind, the Trust plans to pump £1.35 million (from subscription renewals) into the chosen club every year.

This is not the first time that fans have backed a club financially. One could argue that fans provide the financial backing for all football clubs, yet a report published in February 2004 by Biz/Ed, an educational business website, concluded that revenue from supporters of Premiership teams accounted for less than one third of the club's total revenue, while in lower leagues this number was even smaller -- less than a quarter. The report concluded that: "fans cannot hope to have much of a say in the running and control of football clubs as long as their 'stake' in the club is limited to what they pay to watch their team play."

These limitations have been pushed in recent years through the creation of Support Trusts -- fan-founded legal entities that represent the interests of supporters in the running of football clubs. Similar schemes were first mentioned at the turn of the 20th century, when local people in Leicester, England were urged to "raise a working man's subscription to create a financial committee outside the directorate to help the club buy the services of capable players." Reporting this in his 1992 book Football and its Fans, Rogan Taylor concluded that, despite this financial investment, the fans were not consulted in the running of the club.

The level of fan involvement, however, has changed over time. Currently, more than 60 Supporters' Trusts in the UK hold equity within their clubs, while four football league and nine non-league clubs are wholly owned by them. Unlike MyFootballClub, which gives complete team control to its owners, Supporters' Trusts still defer to a manager and, more often than not, a chairman. Their aims are the still the same -- to promote and support the concept of democratic fan ownership and representation through mutual, not-for-profit ownership structures. However, the idealistic and covetous vision of fan ownership as presented by MyFootballClub is out of step with Supporters' Trusts faith in old-fashioned football club management. Not that MyFootballClub is doing away with such structures altogether. They are, instead, re-structuring them. For example, a Head Coach, who trains the players but defers team and formation choices to the club's members, will replace the traditional management role.

To understand how we came to this democratic crossroads, with fans attempting to take more control of the clubs they support, we have to take a quick look at the history of football club ownership and, in correlation, the relationship between owners and fans. Like any business model, football ownership evolved over time. The game started out in the mid-19th century as the 'gentleman's sport', and, as such, the ruling classes deterred the payment of players and the gathering of crowds as it could (and eventually did) lead to rivalry, excessive drinking, and gambling. Despite this, the sport gained a growing fan base with the working classes of Northern England and the Midlands, and, in 1885, due to its popularity, professionalism was adopted. Three years later the Football League was formed. This change in status from amateur to professionalism, in turn, led local businessmen who ran the clubs to begin listing them as limited companies.

As a rebuttal to the burgeoning influence of businessmen, a National Federation of Supporters Clubs (NatFed) was formed in 1927 under the motto "To Help Not Hinder", with fans raising money for their clubs but still receiving no recognition in return. However, as football's fan base grew, so did the sport's commercial appeal. The stock market was the next logical step, helping clubs generate more wealth and, in turn, grow as a footballing force. This led to some clubs prioritizing profit over glory, and, in response, fans began to voice their displeasure through a variety of mediums -- from fanzines to radio talk shows, and, eventually, to the creation of Supporters' Trusts.

In 1985 the Football Supporters Association (FSA) was born, which, unlike the NatFed -- which was an umbrella organization for club-based supporters groups -- claimed to represent the views of supporters on a national level. It wasn't until the establishment of Supporters Direct in 2000 though, that this consistent increase in fan power began to crystallize. Formed following a government report on club ownership, Supporters Direct offers funding support and guidance to fans wishing for a more direct involvement in the running of their clubs. Through this, Supporters' Trusts have gained control of clubs through share acquisitions and, in some cases, direct board representation.

Despite this, it is true to say that, prior to Will Brooks' scheme, fans have been denied the autonomous power granted to those that have signed up for MyFootballClub. Yet, the grassroots nature of Supporters' Trusts (despite the limitations, monetarily or otherwise) seem more grounded in reality and a truly altruistic desire to not only save their club, but set it on the right track. Some say that the clear disconnect between the MyFootballClub members and the chosen team may lead to catastrophic results. On August 8, The Guardian Newspaper's Dave Lee stated that, "It has disaster written all over it ...potentially putting the fate of a football club in the hands of a mob," and adding, "It won't last forever. If the side suddenly has a bad run, drops a league and wins nothing, I doubt many of those 50,000 will be renewing their £35 yearly subscription -- leaving a gaping, possibly fatal hole in finances."

While the arguments both for and against such a scheme are sailable and solid (I myself question the idea of 50,000 people uniting as one to choose a starting 11), we have to consider the alternatives. Football, as exemplified by its ever-widening global reach, is no longer a local sport, and attempts by fans to take control of their hometown team have had limited success. Nothing prior to this, as far as giving full democratic control to the fans, has worked. Supporters often feel empowered, but never in charge. Sure, it could go wrong; realistically, if half of this year's members lose interest and unsubscribe, the club's income would drop drastically. Yet, with so many clubs making financial losses or facing receivership, why wouldn't one of them take a chance on 50,000 fans? Maybe they weren't born fans of that team per se, but are, deep down, fans of football as a sporting institution. Then again, who's got more to lose -- the football fan with £35 in his pocket, or the club that is bought? Let's just hope that in this mob rule we call democracy is correct and just in its decision making. MyFootballClub's members don't want to end up like Michael Knighton -- kicking themselves, instead of a football.





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