III. Contemporary perspectives on international sport: governance, ownership and sporting cultures
The political environment and supporter ownership in football: a comparative analysis between England and Germany
In the professional game in England,1 alongside the aforementioned commercialisation of the upper echelons of the game and its unregulated nature, there are also recent examples of clubs, formerly owned by supporters’ trusts, being bought out by private investors, a sign that the mutual model of ownership has worked but also remains vulnerable as it creates stability and sustainability that in turn makes clubs attractive to buyers. In addition, there are some concerns over the longevity of the supporters’ trust and supporter ownership model in England due to the recently approved merger of Supporters Direct, the organisation responsible for overseeing trusts and supporter ownership, and the Football Supporters’ Federation.
In Germany, the tide of potential drift into private ownership has been stalled, albeit in what is likely to be a temporary respite, as the game seeks to repel the investment of Middle Eastern states and Russian billionaires it has seen its counterpart in England succumb to.
The contention of this chapter is that the potential crisis facing football is as a direct result of the hegemony of neoliberal views, the dominance of capital and a drift away from the ideas of mutuality and cooperation that have resulted in the aforementioned takeovers. Furthermore, the continuing pressure on the 50+1 model in Germany and the drift of formerly supporter-owned clubs in England back into the hands of private owners is potentially catastrophic for the future of many clubs. Here, an unsympathetic government that sees the Premier League as another successful export potentially stands accused, alongside the game’s governing bodies, of neglect of the rest of the game as detached speculators take over and jeopardise the future well-being of clubs.
This is due primarily to the precarious nature of football finances as owners whose involvement is predicated primarily upon the high level of television money only serve to increase the vulnerability of clubs without supporter involvement, a situation that will continue unless regulation around governance and supporter involvement is brought in.
Supporter involvement and ownership in England
The recent full takeover of Arsenal Football Club by KSE, an organisation owned by the American billionaire, Stan Kroenke, is just the latest example of a club being taken into full private ownership in the English Premier League. Where previously checks and balances existed in the form of supporter shareholding in the pic, now no significant supporter involvement remains. The political environment that has allowed this and other similar takeovers at Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool indicates that Premier League clubs are now often the preserve of those with no previous connection to the club and its community and are primarily interested in the riches offered by broadcasting rights or as an opportunity to gain “soft power” (Brannagan and Giulianotti, 2015; Grix and Lee, 2013). The situation in the Premier League is that, at the time of writing, 13 of the 20 clubs are now owned by foreign investors with, in addition, clubs like Newcastle United currently owned by Mike Ashley, a disinterested speculator.
This involvement has also come about due to a continuing lack of regulation, particularly at this upper level of the game in England, where a lack of competitive balance has also developed with supporter-owned clubs facing a potential glass ceiling, seemingly unable to rise anywhere above the League One (third tier) level of English football. Supporter-owned clubs have developed for a number of different reasons, and there is clearly a groundswell of support for supporter involvement, particularly at the lower levels of the English game as supporters become increasingly aware that the community asset that is their football club is becoming less and less about the community itself.
The first example of a successful supporters’ trust taking over a club in England came at Northampton Town in 1992. This case proved that, with the willing participation of a supportive community, fan ownership can work as a solution to misgovernance at a club forced into administration by its previous owners. This was achieved by forming a trust, liaising closely with the local council, placing a supporter permanently on the club’s board of directors and then, finally, taking full ownership of the club. In this case, as Lomax (1999) contended, a club can not only be saved but be sustainable as a mutually owned, one member, one vote organisation.
The seminal study of football governance by Hamil, Michie and Oughton (1999) set out the myriad problems facing the game. Their critique championed the mutual ownership model and proved a watershed in the study of the governance of football at a time when the Labour government was preparing to set up Supporters Direct to oversee the formation of supporters’ trusts and promote good governance in the game. This work was followed by extensive critiques of the failures of the governance of the game including Banks (2002), Bazell (2008), Bower (2003), and Samuels (2008) and, more recently Ridley (2011), Lovejoy (2011) and Bose (2012). Conn (1997 and 2004b) also looked extensively at the influence of supporter
Supporter ownership: England and Qermany 153 ownership and the transformation from what was “seen until recently as a combination of wonky detail and pie-in-the-sky idealism” (2004a) to a serious issue addressed by both government and the governing bodies of football alike.
Football clubs are, after all, “cultural and community assets” (Oughton, 2003, p. 7) unlike any other and need to remain so if the current fabric of communities is to be maintained. As Conn has argued (2004b, p. 88), football is also so much more than a business and, “as other collective institutions disappear, football clubs are becoming an increasingly central part of people’s identity”. Unfortunately, despite the community and social benefits of clubs, Grant (2007, p. 74) identifies the fact that football, especially at the time of the flotation of clubs on the stock market, had become “an exemplary model of capitalism”.
To date, the greatest successes of the supporters’ trust and fan ownership models have, arguably, been at AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester (Keoghan, 2014) and Exeter City (Treharne, 2015). Each of these situations was a different variation on a similar theme. At AFC Wimbledon, the intransigence of the governing body, the Football Association, in allowing the original club to be moved over 60 miles north to Milton Keynes and the formation of a “franchise” club, as a result, led to disgruntled supporters forming a club at the very lowest level of the football pyramid in England in 2002. At Manchester United, the takeover of the club by the Glazer family from the US, using a controversial leveraged buyout that effectively made the club pay for the takeover, also led to the formation of a new club, FC United of Manchester (Mitten, 2015) in 2005, with clear democratic principles, once again at the lowest level of the football pyramid in England. The same happened at Exeter City, where the familiar story of a succession of inappropriate owners had led the club into administration and an eventual supporters’ trust takeover in 2003 (Treharne, 2015).
In a review of the progress of the supporters’ trust movement Tobin (2016), however, asserts that the idea of supporter involvement is still alien to supporters in the UK whereas it is much more of a fact of life in, for example, Germany and Sweden. However, a Supporters Direct Europe survey in 2013 (Supporters Direct Europe, 2013) contradicts this, revealing that 55 per cent of UK fans are, in fact, interested in fan ownership.
The “Third Way” of New Labour politics (Blair, 1998) in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the UK, saw the creation of Supporters Direct following their “Charter for Football” (The Labour Party, 1995) which was part of the new stakeholder economy they were trying to create (Jackson and Maltby, 2003; Martin, 2007). Unfortunately, this “Third Way” doctrine was rather short-lived, and despite the fact that there is conclusive proof that cooperation outstrips competition (Williams, 2007), the current political climate, fostered under successive coalition and Conservative governments, is not conducive towards the success of the movement, a factor surely contributory to the lack of supporter ownership of clubs at a higher level.
More recently, at clubs such as Brentford and Portsmouth, formerly supporters’ trust-owned clubs have been taken back into private ownership following votes by the majority of fans in their respective trusts to, in the case of Brentford, sell to Matthew Benham, a lifelong fan with money made as a professional gambler and, at Portsmouth, sell the club to the former Disney CEO, Michael Eisner, who previously had no connection to the club (BBC Sport, 2017).
These moves have undoubtedly met with success in terms of the league positions of both clubs in the short term, although, at the time of writing, Brentford are beginning to face some challenges in the Championship where they currently lie just above the relegation places and, with the prospect of their new ground opening at the end of 2019, they now face financial constraints that may limit their progress further. The situation is, though, a great deal better than that which the club found itself in when selling to Benham. As Brian Burgess of the Bees Trust and formerly chair of Supporters Direct told me, the sale to Benham after the financial crisis of 2008 was essential for the club to remain in business (Personal Interview, 13 July 2018). This does, however, contrast sharply with the view of Ashley Brown of the Portsmouth Supporters’ Trust (and CEO of Supporters Direct until December 2018), who told me that the involvement of Michael Eisner had been incidental and that the club, with its significant support, would be performing just as well under trust ownership (Personal Interview, 4 March 2018).