This week’s episode of The Rail focuses on everything concerned with fan-owned football clubs; How they are made, what they mean, and what role they play in the modern era of football. Fan ownership is about returning to a time where clubs were part and parcel with the supporters who followed them. We sat down with Copa Collective member Supporters Direct to ask them about the importance of fan-owned football, and how it has grown in recent years.
When did the tradition of fan owned football clubs begin?
Well over a hundred years ago! Many football clubs originated from a similar model set up by furniture makers, railway workers or simply to give people something to do when they couldn’t play cricket. As clubs needed money to expand facilities and then more recently as more money came into the game the vast majority became companies where the person with the most money had the most say. In the past decade things have started to change. Just over a decade ago, led by the likes of Enfield Town and AFC Wimbledon, football clubs were being reformed as supporter owned after supporters had endured enough. Around the time of the ITV digital crash we saw a number of clubs in crisis with Football League clubs spending TV money that didn’t materialise, which resulted in clubs being saved and owned by supporters. Many such as Notts County, Stockport County and Chesterfield have since passed back to private ownership. What is really encouraging now is that a number of non-league club owners are recognising the benefits of the model and working with Supporters Direct to convert to supporter ownership. In the last 10 years, there has definitely been a noticeable change from people asking what it is to how can they do it.
Why do you think people are so interested in fan ownership?
Everyone feels like they own their club in some way, with the memories and place a club can hold for individuals, families and friends. To then actually own it together is very powerful. It’s about getting closer to the club, knowing that you have some control, a voice, the ability to dictate your own destiny. It just feels like the most appropriate legal clothes for something loved and cherished by so many, no matter how much money they might have.
What has been the greatest success story so far?
This is impossible to answer, as each club has its own incredible story to tell. Often in the past, it has been adversity with communities pulling together against all the odds to save and rebuild a club. Now it is as much about opening up the ownership to help a club find a new place in the locality and redefine the relationship. When Pompey took control, it was a landmark moment given the years of guessing and unpicking what was going on, but you can’t say that’s any more successful than FC United of Manchester building their own £6.5 million facility, Exeter City and their academy, or AFC Wimbledon working back from park football to the Football League. There really are 40+ stories that are just as compelling.
What is the greatest challenge to fan ownership?
The uneven playing field. Much to some peoples surprise (who envisage supporters making decisions led by their heart than their head), supporter owned clubs are run sustainably, which can be at total odds to their rivals who are able to lose significant money and may have owners who, unlike the supporters, aren’t going to be sticking around if the gamble doesn’t pay off. If clubs on average are losing more than 500,000 in League 2 and three times that in Football League 1, that’s a lot to make up if you are a supporter-owned club. Financial Fair Play initiatives make a difference, but supporter-owned clubs are likely to still be at a disadvantage, which can make it hard for some supporters who think that winning is everything no matter what the cost to the long term future of the club. We have no doubt that with a level playing field, supporter-owned clubs will flourish and punch above their weight. We will continue to lobby for changes to the game to help supporter ownership compete on a level footing.