Why fan ownership won’t set us free

If Labour really wants to give football back to the fans, it should stop treating us like naughty, sweary children.

Duleep Allirajah

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Should football fans have a say in the running of their clubs? The idea of fan ownership has gained currency in recent months as a number of clubs have been brought to the brink of financial ruin by mismanagement and unsustainable debt.

And we’re not just talking impoverished football league clubs like Crystal Palace or Stockport County. Even the big boys are feeling the pinch these days. In February, Portsmouth became the first Premier League club to go into administration with reported debts of £60million. Manchester United fans have taken to wearing Norwich City scarves in protest at the leveraged takeover of the club by the Glazer family. Liverpool fans have also held demonstrations against the American owners who have saddled the club with debts worth £237million.

Now, the government is set to unveil a raft of proposals designed to give clubs back to the fans. Supporter groups would be given stakes of up to 25 per cent in their clubs and preferential bidding status when football clubs are put up for sale. You’ll note the timing of this story. It’s shameless electioneering, of course. New Labour politicians have never been shy to parade their club allegiances in order to connect with voters – from Tony Blair playing keepy-uppy with Kevin Keegan to Gordon Brown’s oft-professed passion for Raith Rovers. However, while Labour ministers talk a good game, they have repeatedly resisted demands for the state to interfere in the governance of football. Shadow sports minister Hugh Robertson dismissed the plans as a ‘pre-election gimmick’, but the Tories also want fans to be given a greater say in the running of their clubs.

No self-respecting fan wants their club run by absentee owners who are only out to make a fast buck. Portsmouth are probably the most extreme example of this, with ownership changing hands four times this season. Leeds fans, too, are unhappy that the identity of the club’s owners remains hidden. As Leeds’ promotion charge has run out of steam, increasingly disenchanted fans have demanded the outing of the mystery shareholders. But is fan ownership the answer?

Real Madrid and Barcelona are lauded as models of democratic ownership. Barca’s 170,000 members own the club and elect the president. However, scratch this democratic façade and the truth isn’t quite so rosy. Television broadcasting rights in Spain are not sold collectively, but are negotiated by individual clubs. And the two biggest clubs get the lion’s share – between them, Barca and Real Madrid receive 55 per cent of La Liga TV revenues. Both clubs are big spenders on transfers and wages and, invariably, both are heavily in debt – Madrid have debts of €683million while Barca’s debt is €350million. How are these debts sustained? The clubs are subsidised by regional patronage. In 2001, the city council wiped out Real Madrid’s €278million debt by buying the club’s training ground. In order to fund Real’s most recent galactico shopping spree, president Florentino Perez persuaded two local banks to loan the club €151million. Nice work, if you can get it.

A less debt-ridden exemplar of good governance might be found in the German Bundesliga. The 50-plus-one rule gives members a majority stake in the club. Private investors can put money into the club, but they cannot ever gain outright control. The advantage of the German ownership model is that it would prevent a Portsmouth-style ownership fiasco. The drawback, however, is that German clubs, without filthy-rich oil tycoons to bankroll them, struggle to compete financially on the European stage. This might, you could argue, be a price worth paying to bring some stability to the running of football clubs.

The German ownership model might put a few checks and balances on the reckless profiteering that has plagued English football. By contrast, Labour’s plans, if they ever see the light of day, would be a watered-down version of the continental models of fan ownership. Supporters would only get a seat at the top table rather than a controlling stake. In effect, fans will have a right of scrutiny, but the real power will still rest with the big investors.

Ultimately, a seat on the board won’t give football back to the fans in any wider sense. Football is not just a quest for trophies – important though that is – it’s also a social activity. And the social experience of watching football has been badly damaged by a battery of rules and regulations governing fan conduct. Football was once a simple leisure pursuit where people went to shout, swear, sing and generally let off a bit of steam. The pleasure of being able to behave like overgrown kids for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon has been taken away from us. If we want to reclaim football we need to sweep aside all the petty regulations. Will the government announce a cull of the shackles on fan conduct? Don’t hold your breath.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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