Labour and football fans: Not going far enough

This week, the Labour party announced plans to give football fans a place on the board and a minority stake in the clubs that they support (all links open in new window). This would improve, but not go far enough truly to address, the problems in the game. Unfortunately, this seems to be a move based more on rhetoric and winning votes than considering what is best for football fans and their clubs.

As Mark Ferguson, of Labour List, explained the decision, he talked of “putting comunities at the heart of decisions” and “questioning the untrammelled power of money”. These sentiments should be welcomed – football should be a game for the people – but they are not enough. A Labour official told The Independent this week that the decision would not constitute an overhaul of the power structures within the game”:
“The present owners would retain control. We are not saying football is a broken model. It is a hugely successful export. We are not going to rip it up, but we say it can be improved.”

The problems

He’s wrong – football is a broken model. There are several major problems which, when taken together, show a game which has forgotten its fans entirely. Though money has always played a role in the game, it now dictates its course.

The game is far too over-commercialised. Broadcasters prioritise ramming as much football as possible down the public’s throats, over-hyping it at every turn. Where fans used to be seen as making an emotional investment, wishes are seen as a vehicle for money-making, rather than the reason why the game exists. The absurdity of broadcasters’ views on football is beautifully illustrated by the following Mitchell and Webb sketch:

Decent competition is also now a hollow notion. Where the money goes, the best players follow, with TV companies and the global fanbase rapidly moving in behind them, concentrating the wealth even further and creating an undesirable cycle. For competitive value, one might as well watch the stock exchanges go up and down each week, rather than the Premier League; for Manchester City and Chelsea, read Apple and Google. It is obvious that those businesses are going to outperform their competitors, as their enormous resources give them every advantage. The football authorities have failed to take action to prevent such a pattern emerging, forgetting that much of the value of football lies in its ability to throw up unpredictable scenarios and to give everyone their dream of being King for a day.

Worst of all, clubs are at the mercy of their owners. A businessman able to afford the club’s shares but with no links to the community can now wander in to a club, buy it up and turn it in to his plaything. Fans of that club will tend to accept this if he accompanies it by spending millions of pounds on the team, but they are losing something special – the ownership of the club. Even if the owner’s investment brings results on the pitch, it means one person – or small group of people – buying prizes which should belong to wider communities. If clubs are – as they should be – defined by the collection of fans that support them, it cannot be claimed that a club has won anything in these cases. Clubs like Portsmouth, who were gutted by a series of foreign owners apparently interested only in making a quick buck from them, have seen the opposite side of the story, plunging down the divisions with their fans powerless to stop the carnage around them. Clubs such as Rushden and Diamonds, Chester City and Luton Town are among the many who have suffered from unstable ownership under the current model.

These problems seem likely to get worse. Premier League chiefs have softened the ground for clubs to play competitive matches abroad – a slippery slope taking the game closer to an American-style franchise model. The idea of local players coming through youth academies and in to first teams, learning from but equal to the occasional import, is an anachronism.

The flaw in Labour’s plan
A 20% stake and seats on the board will give fans little more than they have already, and Labour have made clear that fans will not have the power to veto takeovers. This means that they will have little more than they already have; they will be seen as a nuisance in the boardroom, to be patronised at every turn and given tokenistic victories to keep up the appearance that they matter.

Ferguson referred, in his article, to the name of Newcastle United’s stadium being sold and Cardiff City’s owner changing the club’s strip from blue to red. Unfortunately, his plans would not have stopped these things from happening. Directors, in these cases, would have been as unlikely to listen to fans with a 20% stake on the board as they would to listen to fans who march on the stadium or hold up banners for the cameras.

The solution
The German model of fan ownership is straightforward; fans must own at least 51% of the club. The clue, of course, is in the numbers – 20% is not enough.

The football authorities – and this shouldn’t be left to politicians, who have better things to worry about – should be brave enough to introduce a similar measure in England. The success of football as an export is not the most important point here; fans deserve a game that they can identify with and in which they feel a sense of belonging.

Supporters are not simply people who turn up to watch rich men’s armies slug it out and who deserve an occasional pat on the head; they are the club. The emotional investment that they make is more valuable than any financial one.