Time to talk about supporter ownership ?

CAS Trust member Samantha Mason gives her view on alternative ownership models

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A call by Newcastle fans to boycott the game against Spurs on 19th April in protest against owner Mike Ashley is gaining momentum. And not just from the Toon army. David Cameron is throwing his weight behind the issue -  announcing a review of football club ownership. And Ed Miliband has equally confirmed a Labour party manifesto commitment for greater fan involvement in their clubs (see the Clive Efford interview in Trust News 8). Sounds familiar?

Parties made similar commitments prior to the 2010 election following financial meltdown at Portsmouth and controversial buyouts at Liverpool and Manchester United. A recent review carried out by the coalition government to look at how fans could be given a greater say in how clubs are run was not made public. But fans know better than to wait for politicians to tell us the answers.

This week – 11th to 18th April - supporter ownership is being promoted by Supporters Direct - the organisation established to help fans set up “democratic cooperatives” or supporters’ trusts in order “to gain influence in the running and ownership of their clubs.”  As fans feel ever more disenfranchised from their clubs, this is an idea that deserves more attention if we are to re-assert the key role fans play in our clubs – and not just through our pockets on match day.

Supporter ownership is  the most democratic form of ownership.  It means fans having majority control with a minimum of 51% of the voting rights of the club, and all profits being reinvested  into the club rather than to shareholders. This may sound a recipe for financial meltdown but being committed to run a sustainable business is a key principle. As examples at League Two Exeter City show, it doesn’t remove all existing tensions between the owners and the board running the club on a day to day basis. However it is a better relationship than being shut out altogether.

Currently there are over 30 majority supporter-owned football clubs. Among the most famous  is FC United of Manchester - set up in protest against the Glazers' takeover of their Premiership parent club. Others such as Portsmouth were established when fans stepped in to save the club after it entered administration for the second time in 2012.

This may seem fine for clubs languishing in the lower leagues and some no doubt think they will never achieve success apart from the odd glory of an underdog cup run.  However,  what success looks like remains a contested issue. If it is Premier League status then Swansea provides yet another model for a club which had to fight for its financial survival but is now seen to have broken the rules of Premiership membership. Swansea isn’t majority supporter owned but the Swans Trust currently own 21% of the club and has an Executive Director and Associate Director on the board from among its 800 members.

At the CAS Trust public meeting in February a range of views were heard on the current ownership structure.  Some still have faith in the Duchatelet network model and the turn of results since the public meeting may indeed have reaffirmed that faith.  However others, including me, wait to be convinced as, despite mid table safety, there is still the fear of a new summer upheaval of players and manager.

While we may not own shares or sit on the board many of us do feel a moral or emotional ownership of our club.  Clubs are part of our community and unfortunately, once afflicted, our commitment tends to define our lives as football fans.  It is not a client relationship as the new oyster style season tickets seems to suggest.  So when fans cry out against owners– across the country from Blackpool to Cardiff via Leeds and Newcastle  – it’s clearly time for us to think how a different type of supporter involvement can keep fans at the very heart of their clubs.

Fans’ boycotts and protests all have their place but real change only happens when we have an alternative to put in place.  No one wants financial meltdown or expects some utopian fix but we need to be looking beyond the Duchatelet reign and ask – what kind of football club do we want?

Charlton fans should never forget what was achieved through the Back to the Valley campaign of the 80’s and 90’s. Rightly hailed as one of the most successfully organised fans’  groups it showed what is possible. Having reclaimed the Valley, let’s not lose it again. Let’s start talking now about supporter ownership and its place in the finance and democracy of our club.