Ben Shave from Supporters Direct writes about the achievements of supporters’ trusts and how they shouldn’t be underestimated.
Some of the defining images of the recent Premier League season were provided by Blackburn Rovers.
Finally relegated after a 1-0 defeat by Wigan on April 7th, the club have been held up by all and sundry as an example of how not to do it, both on and off the pitch.
Understandably, supporters have spent much of the season voicing their displeasure, with one group invited to meet the sports minister Hugh Robertson next month.
This will provide a welcome platform to air some considerable grievances, but the very fact that a government minister feels the need to involve himself in football reflects the plethora of problems that have plagued the national game for many years.
Since 1992, there have been 92 instances of insolvencies in the top five divisions of the English football pyramid from the Premier League down to the Conference Premier. According to Deloitte’s latest annual review of football finance (published in June 2011), the net debt of the 20 Premier League clubs stood at £2.6 billion (2010’s figure was an even more eye-watering £3.3 billion).
Recent research by Dr John Beech of Coventry University places the figures in stark context, and illustrates the often-crippling price of remaining at the top table. Recent history is littered with examples of unsustainable spending, reckless (mis) management, and lack of regard for the importance of football clubs to their local communities.
A profound disconnect between supporters and clubs is an almost inevitable result. There are no simple solutions to these problems, but since 2000, Supporters Direct has been working to counter football’s most rampant excesses.
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With a stated mission “to promote sustainable spectator sports based on supporters’ involvement and community ownership”, SD promotes the value of supporter ownership and stakeholder models of governance to sports fans, empowering them to set up supporters’ trusts.
Like SD, these are registered as community benefit societies, regulated by the Financial Services Authority and owned by their members. More than 300,000 people in the UK are members of a supporters’ trust.
The supporters’ trust movement has made inroads at all levels of the game, as well as in both codes of rugby and ice hockey. Currently there are 25 football clubs owned or controlled by their supporters’ trust, including AFC Wimbledon, formed by supporters after the original Wimbledon FC was relocated to Milton Keynes in 2002. Within nine years the club won five promotions and returned to the football league.
In addition to ownership, supporters’ trusts have also been able to leverage influence via minority shareholdings and directorships. In 2001, the Swansea City supporters’ trust was formed, with assistance from Supporters Direct, in response to the club’s financial crisis.
As well as raising an initial £50,000, the Trust convened the consortium that would eventually purchase the club. Today they retain a 20% shareholding and a director on the board – just one of over 60 trusts to play a key role the decision-making process at their club.
In total, supporters’ trusts have raised over £30 million since 2000, a significant return on the £4.5 million worth of funding that SD has received. Research undertaken by SD has indicated that as well as having an unrivalled understanding of football’s social and community value, supporter involvement and ownership has a number of tangible business advantages too.
Since 2000, many of the arguments raised by SD and the supporters’ trust movement have become part of the mainstream debate – with the need for financial stability and the involvement of supporters at their clubs now a widely-accepted premise.
It is now a question of when, not if. The latest example of this was the recent vote by football league clubs to introduce Financial Fair Play regulations – a long-overdue attempt to change the financial landscape, and to make clubs more sustainable.
In short, football is a better place when clubs listen to their most important stakeholders, and include them in discussions about the future. In their 2011 report on football governance, the select committee for the department of culture, media and sport declared:
“The examples of bad ownership are sufficiently numerous to point to systematic failure. A case can be made that rather than tighter regulation, a more fundamental ownership change is required.”
In their October response, the DCMS welcomed:
“The committee’s focus on increasing the ability of supporter-owned clubs to raise funds and increasing the opportunity for supporters’ trusts to achieve a share in their clubs.
“A solution to provide funding for the long-term future of Supporters Direct and other high-profile supporters group representative bodies should not be beyond the skill of the football authorities, working closely with the bodies concerned.”
Whilst the subsequent response from the Football Association, Premier League and Football League contained a number of positive points, it failed to address many of the structural problems outlined above. As any supporter of the Premier League clubs who attended our recent Premier League supporters’ trust meeting could tell you, the issue of football governance remains very much on the agenda.