Fans must control football clubs for communities to thrive
Originally published in The Times, Red Box | 29 April 2021
As a child growing up in Wimbledon, I remember the excitement felt by the entire town when the crazy gang of Vinnie Jones, Dennis Wise and Dave Beasant won the FA Cup in 1988. The parade through the town centre was like nothing our small suburban bit of London had ever seen.
Years later, Plough Lane, the home ground of that famous club, lay empty; the team ripped out of the town and shipped off to Milton Keynes. Now, the original stadium is flats but AFC Wimbledon, the club reborn to take on the name of the town, has finally returned home.
This story from my childhood is just one example of how football as a business has come to dominate the business of football. The proposed European Super League was a dramatic illustration of the same thing. You only need to look at the financial vulnerability of clubs in the lower leagues to see the deep structural problem created by a business-first approach to managing football clubs.
But football – the clubs and their grounds – are about far more than business. They sit at the very heart of many communities. They are vital assets that bring communities together, build identity and pride and make a significant contribution to the local economy. They are the ultimate community business. The owners of football clubs should act as stewards of these important assets, custodians for the real moral owners of football – the fans and local communities.
This has not been our direction of travel for the last 30 years. The anger prompted by the Super League creates the space for serious consideration to be given to greater community ownership in football, as we find in other countries such as Germany. It has the potential to create both a more financially sustainable approach to football that protects these vital local institutions into the future, and importantly also reconnects them to local fans and communities – without whom there can be no beautiful game.
So, this week Power to Change sets out a plan. At its heart is a ten-year, £400 million Community Club Ownership Trust to help fans take control of the clubs they support. That would be big enough to set off a true fan ownership revolution, yet the whole thing could be financed with just 1 per cent of TV revenues — or a tiny fraction of the profits the gambling industry makes from football.
Now is the time. If the game is going to change, and it needs to change, then this is the scale we have to think about.
The fund would help supporters’ trusts buy their clubs by providing loans to cover the day-one capital that community organisations can struggle to raise at speed. To understand how the model could work, you only need look at Hearts where a local businesswoman has provided exactly that sort of backing to help bring a club that recently played in the Champions League into community ownership.
We think this is an idea whose time has come; here are three reasons why.
First, we all saw the giant backlash at the ESL proposals. That energy is still alive, and reform in some form is coming through the fan-led review. Putting Tracey Crouch at its head is a clear sign that government is serious.
Second – the status quo cannot hold. Our research shows that Championship clubs were on course to lose £2 billion in six years before they were hit by Covid. League clubs are losing more and more every year. The casino culture is at risk of driving many more clubs into the ground. Without change there is no question that more will face the same fate as Bury and Macclesfield, and local communities will lose their team and everything that comes with it.
And third – fan ownership is aligned with the government’s wider agenda. In many towns around the country, the football club is the biggest and most important asset. It is a community centre, a generator of jobs and investment and ultimately a source of civic pride for the whole community. When clubs controlled by distant, unaccountable owners end up going to the wall or selling the ground, that’s not levelling up – it’s levelling down.
The more these clubs are controlled by fans, the greater the chance of retaining these vital social and economic assets in our local communities.
Ultimately, football has to change to survive, but our ambition should be greater than that. The ESL farce can be the moment we take back control of our game and help level up the country. The lesson of the last fortnight is clear. These clubs don’t belong to remote owners; these clubs are ours.
Download the full report: These Clubs are Ours: Putting football into community hands.