Fan-owned Football Clubs: Is it pragmatic or just a fairy-tale?
By Michael Huang
In light of the recent European Super League saga, the corporate culture in football has once again shown its ugly face, resulting in an eventual fan victory. The initiative, incentivized by the potential financial benefits of an elite competition and fueled by the pandemic’s hard-hit impacts on many clubs, has once again questioned if modern day football is true to its working class origins.
Despite this, the success of corporate football in the 21st century is simply undeniable. The rise of Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City are prime examples of this, as both clubs are now iconic symbols for their leagues, much owing to the financial support of their owners, Nasser Al-Khelafi for PSG and Sheikh Mansour for Man City. As finalists of the last two UEFA Champion Leagues, the future of both clubs is certainly looking bright, especially when their reliance on corporate funding makes them less vulnerable to financial shocks, as the pandemic has done to many other top-tier clubs.
However, such success only keeps raising the playing-field for the rich, undermining football’s humble origins. A solution to this growing problem is to make football clubs fan-owned – a phenomenon that is seen a lot more than one may expect. For instance, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are both owned by the clubs’ members, the socios, and as of July 2021, Barcelona consists of around 141,000 socios and Madrid with around 90,000. These members have the rights to vote for their presidents and have a say in the club’s future directions to an extent. However, the process to which someone runs for president is a lot less democratic. In order to compete for presidency, Barcelona requires its candidates to put forward a deposit of over 71 million euros, and Real Madrid similarly demands 55 million euros from its candidates. Therefore, in the 2009 Real Madrid presidency election, Florentino Perez was undisputedly elected the president of the club for a second term because no other candidates were able to provide the financial backings required. Evidently, such electoral systems at these clubs are still largely influenced by powerful corporate businessmen, so it is not surprising to see instances of corruption, such as the recent “Barcagate” scandal at Barcelona under the presidency of Josep Maria Bartomeu. Furthermore, removing these presidents also require a huge amount of effort and time, with Barcelona’s vote of no confidence on Bartomeu only forced by the attempted exit of Lionel Messi. In a nutshell, such “member-owned” clubs are not fully structured for the benefits of the fans, and neither do they receive the financial support that a privately-owned club may receive, making such business model unpopular especially for clubs of smaller sizes.
Despite this, a trend that we do see within lower-level clubs in modern football are fan-owned clubs – clubs where often a “trust board” is set up and the club’s finances are heavily reliant on the fans’ donations. The origins of these types of clubs vary and they often operate under a “one member one vote” basis. Firstly, there are phoenix clubs, such as Bury AFC being established to replace Bury FC following the club’s expulsion from the English Football Leagues due to its longstanding financial difficulties. Secondly, there are protest clubs, such as AFC Wimbledon that were founded following the fans’ discontent with the leadership of the club (as FC Wimbledon controversially moved its grounds to Milton Keynes, now known as MK Dons). Lastly, there are instances where supporters gathered enough funds to takeover a club by buying out the majority of its public ownerships, with examples such as Aylesbury United FC with its Aylesbury United Supporters Trust, as well as Bath FC.
As fans are often emotionally connected and invest a lot of time into their clubs, making them effectively the collective owner of their club makes sense: there is an incentive, other than financial gains, to help the club grow and achieve glory. It also offers a lot more transparency in its governance, potentially making the fans even more invested since they have a responsibility in the club’s operations and a voice that matters. In the end, making the people who truly care for the club to run it may arguably have completed football’s objective as a working-class game.
But there are also many complications to make this ownership mainstream in the modern footballing world. As you may have gathered, all the teams listed above are amongst the lower levels of the footballing pyramids. Since a significant disadvantage of such ownership is that the club would gather limited financial support, this is hard to implement on the higher levels, since, firstly, it would be hard for fans to form a protest club unless there is a huge momentum gathered, and secondly, losing great financial support may ultimately make the clubs perform worse. Such enormous changes can only be pragmatic if the system changes as a whole, i.e. when a whole league, such as the Premier League, implements this system as a rule. This is already seen in the Bundesliga, where the “50+1” rule states that no firms or individual investors can own more than 49% of a club, reserving the ultimate voices to its supporters. But these changes look unlikely to be made, since politics and corruption in football will no doubt prevent it from happening for the personal gains of corporate-men.
Although the Super-League saga has ended for now and the voices of the fans have been raised, the light for fan-owned structures within clubs are only ever-dimming. As football gradually loses its beauty as the people’s game, the corrupted nature within the footballing system will no doubt prevent such changes from happening. However, never underestimate the power of the people. As the working-class origins are slowly dimming in football, the working-class may well set fire to the corporate nature of the game one day.