Football + Business = Oil + Water?

So do Football and business mix? Clearly the quick answer is yes, almost all of our clubs are now run principally or exclusively as a business. Our top clubs talk in terms of “brands”, of revenue and no doubt think of us not as fans, but as paying customers. Many clubs are now floated as PLCs.

The tussle between business of football and the fans!

And when the business side of things goes wrong, as it has recently for my club Plymouth Argyle then it can be heartbreaking for fans. I’m sure we all find it difficult to understand how our clubs can be run so ineptly; how such massive tax bills can be stockpiled, how fans can be treated like such rubbish.

And I think a big part of it is how we look at our clubs, their governance, and their status. Whenever it suits clubs and football generally they like to make a big point about how they are businesses and “that is the end of it”. But football likes to have it cake and eat it, with special pleading based on the “different status of football”. Illustrated say in this case around football TV rights distribution, or wanting different rules around free movement of workers in terms of young players.

But of course they are entirely right to engage in special pleading. Football (any sport really) is *not* just any other business. Sport really does have a special status, it is different.

Football effects us on an emotional level, I am *not* a customer, I am a fan. I have a sense belonging, like I am an active participant in what happens. I believe, as do all fans, that in a sense that we are Plymouth Argyle (even though I am apostate fan who doesn’t go nearly enough 😉 !) , and that the team on the pitch, the stadium, the construct of a club is an extension of the same thing.

People don’t react like to business’ in this way (well maybe the awful scary cult of the “Apple Mac”), and whilst business come up with bullshit “corporate social responsibility” plans and talk about being at the hearts of their communities this isn’t really true. But for football clubs it really is, clubs are rooted in geography, in places, in people and in history. They are different and need to be treated as such.

Now the reality is in terms of football being a business the genie really is out of the bottle. There is no real way of going back to some Corinthian ideal of football a sports clubs just for the competition with money unimportant. Even if it was what everybody wanted (and I reckon a fair few fans would disagree, we want to see the best possible players in action in England) it just isn’t going to happen.

So what we need, IMHO is to find a better accommodation between the sporting side of football and the business side, then some changes might happen that will make things better. Here are some of my suggestions about some changes to make football more sustainable and governed better.

1. Statutory recognition of properly constituted fans groups.

One of the biggest frustrations for fans is the feeling that they are ignored or brushed aside by the club. I think that where fans form properly constituted, democratic, transparent fans groups then football clubs should be required to recognise them. This would involve proper consultation, and access to information. Not enough in itself to make clubs responsive but it is a start.

2. Fan representation on football club boards.

I think it is absolutely essential, insofar as fan ownership of fans isn’t immediately possible (more on that later), for fans to be properly represented by voting members in football club board rooms.

I can imagine that there might in some quarters be opposition based on the responsibilities that board members have in terms of company law, commercial confidentiality etc. But frankly I can’t see it. It could work in a similar way to pension fund trustees elected by workers who have clear lines of responsibility in terms of what is legally required of them.

These board positions could be put to regular elections, made easier via the statutory recognition of fans groups which would allow a kind of formal accountability of the club board to the fans.

3. Fan ownership.

I blogged last year about how I felt that football needed socio style fan ownership of clubs. For me the idea that clubs should be owned in full, or in part by its fans is a no brainer. Given that clubs as massive as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have fan ownership on the one hand. And on the other small non league clubs like AFC Wimbledon, FC United and Ebbsfleet United are also successfully in fan ownership demonstrate there shouldn’t really be a barrier to fans owning their clubs.

Of course getting to a position where fans own clubs is the big hurdle, and I’d hate for it to take a “franchise FC” type situation to enable it to happen. With a club like Manchester United not even for sale for A billion and a half pounds how could ordinary fans hope to make the kind of money required to take their clubs into fan ownership?

Well the first thing to point out I suppose is that the reason a football club is worth whatever it is worth is because we, as fans, put that money in. At the turnstile, in the club shop, via our TV subscriptions. If the mechanism existed that facilitated fans becoming, maybe gradually, fan owned then in all probability over time the amounts of money become less of an issue.

I think the first step should be that either by football changing it’s rules, or by legislation, a fan ownership supporters trust should always have first refusal on any shares in a club that the owner is prepared to sell. This would have have the dual effect of giving an avenue to supporters trusts to buy clubs. But also hopefully reduce club value inflation and stop Gillette/Hicks-esque vultures and venture capitalists buying clubs in the hope of making easy money from selling the club on.

How this could be built upon i’m not too sure if I am honest. I think in the long run the football authorities would need to put in place some mechanism which would make it easier for fans groups to raise money to buy their club. Possibly using the financial power of English Football as a whole to help borrowing for fan buyouts.

When you look at how well organised supporters groups can be. For me a leading light is the “Spirit of Shankly” Liverpool supporters union. They have demonstrated how a fans group can effectively organise to impact on the running of their club and make significant improvements. I wish them well in their attempts to take their club into fan ownership. Obviously for me, as an Argyle supporter I have high hopes for the newly established Argyle Supporters Trust.

4. Closer scrutiny of club finances.

The directors bleeding our clubs dry.

As wave after wave of stories get published about the extent of Argyle’s debt to the taxman, and with multiple winding up order facing the club (we now seem to be facing bigger battles in the court room than on the pitch) I cannot help but think the one thing.

“How could this have been allowed to happen?”

I expect that fans of Leeds, Portsmouth, Palace, York City, Cardiff, Sheffield Wednesday…etc etc etc ad infinitum have all thought the same thing. Maybe it is just because I am an ordinary Joe wage slave who pays my Tax by PAYE, but the idea that these clubs can wrack up these ginormous tax bills without anyone doing anything about it until the club is on deaths door just seems utterly crazy to me. I think the football authorities need to take a much tougher, and much more proactive role on football finance for our professional clubs.

I think a month prior to each transfer window all clubs should have to submit their finances to the FA. Additionally “wounded parties” such as the HMRC, or the PFA would be able to lodge evidence of any money they say they are due. If the FA believe a club is in serious breach of it’s financial responsibilities then a transfer ban for that window should be implemented and the club should be required to lodge their plans of how to deal with the unpaid bills.

If in subsequent transfer windows the clubs have not followed their financial plan, or had at the same time accrued additional unpaid, and un-repayable debts then the FA ought to increase penalties including the possibility of point deductions. This may sound harsh, but for well run responsible clubs it will have little impact. And for clubs like mine it may well have saved us from getting into awful positions, that threaten the very existance of football clubs.

UEFA’s “Financial Fair Play” regulations are predicated on the basis of saving Europe’s elite clubs from themselves. For me as a fan of a football league club I see the pressing need to do that further down the football pile.

5. Time for a rethink on directors of Football?

Received wisdom in English football is that the structure of European football clubs with the “Director of Football/Sporting Director” providing long term vision with a “First Team Coach” handling day to day management of the first team, does not work. That our clubs and way of doing things is unique and the manager has to have absolute control.

It is a view that I used to subscribe to myself to be honest but I have increasingly come to question it. Where a manager is in place for a long period of time and is able to have a strategic long term view for the football club in the Fergie/Wenger or even David Moyes way then there is an argument for the old fashioned English way of doing things.

But the reality for most of our football clubs is the average tenure of managers is getting shorter and shorter with obscene amount of changes in the managerial department at our clubs. If the average manager is only going to be in post for 12-18 months then they don’t have any ability to put in place a long term vision for a club. Because they are not going to be there that long.

And why would they? If they are judged in the here and now by results over a very short period of time why the hell would they care about careful youth development, buying players for the medium and long term and having a club philosophy? I wouldn’t, I do what was necessary in the short; because I’d know there was no chance of getting the benefit of the doubt if things take a temporary turn for the worse.

If we want clubs to be sensibly run in terms of playing staff, to develop youth, to have a philosophy about playing and development then perhaps Directors of Football are the way forward and what we have been doing in England is knuckle dragging?

There is no magic wand and none of these changes are going to be able to happen without some sort of miraculous change at the FA, or via government intervention. I was pleased that at the last election Labour pledged in their manifesto

32. Registered Supporters Trusts enabled to buy stakes in their club

bringing mutualism to the heart of football.

Hopefully there can be a consensus in our political system that football is special, different, unique and it’s governance needs to change to stack the deck in the favour of the supporters of football teams.

Lastly for supporters of Argyle the second meeting of the new supporters trust is taking place this saturday form 10:30AM to 12:30PM at the lower guildhall. I hope that fans who agree with this can try to get involved.


12. January 2011 by Ralph Ferrett
Categories: Activism, Sport | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 comments

Comments (4)

  1. Great blog Ralph as usual. The fundamental thing you have missed IMHO is that the companies that own the clubs really don’t care about football! Footballers are not players but are commodities that have to be protected because of their “perceived” value. For example during the “snowy” period a lot of premiership games were called off due “to the weather/H&S to fans, etc”. But rugby games were played and the same conditions applied. A player nowadays when injured is out for months and months and months – I believe this is more to protect their value than for anything else. Fabregas for example was out for months – I don’t think his lack of playing has devalued it was protected.

    I could go on and on – but I won’t. Sadly I believe that the owners of clubs don’t care about the fans, don’t care about traditions or roots of football.

    Football clubs are cash cows and predominantly an easy way of laundering money through the system (controversial!)

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  3. like football the business side is a funny old game. In the past clubs have been destroyed or destroyed them selves by dodgy deals and borrowing against there future, leeds utd springs to mind.
    Any can run a business but not everyone can run a football club for example (surprise surprise) Mike Ashely. He took over at a club who spent 15 successful years in the premier league, did not invest in the team and still expected success. To get a profit out you must invest in but mike and the cockney mafia have other ideas. Relegation soon follow of a team with no stability after famously falling out king Kevin keegan and bringing in Joe kinnear, who had been out the game for a good 5-6 years and didn’t have a clue about the players. He done nothing much then fell ill.
    So mike tried to save face by employing legendary number 9 Alan shearer close to the end of the season. Too little to late Newcastle went down and then mike weeped the benefits by selling all the stars for millions and pocketing the profit.
    Chris hughton stabilised the club and brought it back to the big time then he stuffs our rivals Sunderland 5-1. Guess what not enough mike decides to sack Chris for his mate Alan pardew another cockney.
    With the January transfer window in full swing looks like no money again and mike probably looking to sell our star striker for a mega profit.
    This shows that not every businessman can run a club and especially the userless greedy bloke.
    I agree that clubs should have a input in the running of a club as they are the only people with the best interests of the club.

  4. Just read it mate,

    What we need is a national campaign to put pressure on our legislatures! You know how MPs like to jump on a local good cause. On the blog, I wouldn’t disagree with any of it.

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