As supporters around Europe settle into another soccer season, there is a growing sense from the grassroots, even in traditionally conservative quarters that a tipping point may be fast approaching. This battle though is not on the pitch but, rather, off it.
The consensus is that some sort of fight is necessary against what is seen by many as a corrupt corporate hierarchy that has been allowed to do whatever it wants for far too long.
Look no further than the crisis that has engulfed FIFA, the world governing body of football, for evidence of this.
It has totally undermined what many still fondly regard as the “beautiful game.”
For years, the prevailing view among football’s ruling classes was that the only clubs supporters could run were “phoenix clubs”, effectively the fans of deceased teams, starting again in the outer reaches of the non-league galaxy.
One good example is the English team Portsmouth, which fell down the leagues and went through financial meltdown before being resurrected by, yes you guessed it, their own fans.
Even so, the thought of fans in boardrooms, and owners in the stands, has been previously dismissed as unworkable and arguments that it seems to work OK for Barcelona, Real Madrid and most of the Bundesliga were usually met with talk of different starting points and footballing traditions. Hence, the reason the idea was so slow to gain traction in other footballing nations like Britain.
But now the mood regarding fan participation in clubs appears to be changing, and fast, not least right here in Belgium where YB SK Beveren, a team that plays in the Belgian provincial leagues, is leading the way.
After a long period of financial struggle and a very likely relegation from the Belgian Second Division, the board members of K.S.K. Beveren took the drastic decision in May 2010 to terminate all footballing activities for the next season.
Fortunately, a new club emerged, established by supporters of the “old” club (former Belgian champions) after the unofficial merger of their team with Red Star Waasland.
That was back in 2010 and YB SK Beveren is the first and currently the only Belgian team that is completely fan-owned and applies the principals of Supporters Direct, an organisation set up to encourage fan participation in football clubs across Europe.
More Belgian clubs could soon follow suit. The Federation of Antwerp Supporters Clubs (FASC) and the Antwerp Community Trust announced earlier this year that they are “engaging constructively” with the board of the Royal Antwerp Football Club with a view “to work closely together in the future.”
At Royal Antwerp, there are plans to establish an ombudsman service, where questions and remarks from the fans towards the board could be submitted and other proposals, such as a right of veto concerning the club’s name and even the team colours.
Although fan participation is still a relatively unknown concept in Belgian football, YB SK Beveren has received praise from several other clubs and fan groups in Belgium.
Real Madrid and Barcelona are their source of inspiration, as both these Spanish powerhouses include their supporters in boardroom decisions.
The idea is also catching on fast in places like soccer-mad Argentina where every football club is owned by its fans, and the UK where, for instance, the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (formerly Shareholders United) is the official supporters’ trust of the mighty Red Devils.
It too is recognised by Supporters Direct, a group that, like other supporters’ trusts, seeks to strengthen the influence of supporters over the destiny of their clubs through what is loosely called “democratic supporter ownership.”
With a membership of over 200,000, the Man United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) is the largest supporters’ trust in the UK. MUST’s members hope to be able to pool their funds to buy a meaningful stake in the club at a future date if the opportunity arises.
Elsewhere in the English Premier League, the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust has been created to promote the interests of supporters who own shares in the Gunners and facilitate wider supporter involvement in the North London giants.
A spokesman for the Trust said, “We have been established since 2003 and have made good progress in developing a working relationship with the club and raising the profile of financial and ownership issues. Membership has continued to grow and we now have more than 850 members, many of whom are individual shareholders in Arsenal. Approximately 4.5% of the club’s equity is owned by small shareholders like us.”
The AST also established Arsenal Fanshare, a scheme designed to give more supporters a chance to own part of a share in Arsenal. Almost 2,000 supporters are now members.
At once mighty Leeds United, a club which itself has suffered crippling debts and seemingly terminal decline, the same is happening with local entrepreneur Dylan Thwaites behind an innovative scheme designed to get its fans more involved in the running of their club.
He said, “In early April we launched what we hope will be the biggest fan fundraise ever seen in the UK. We want to raise £10 million to purchase a stake and get supporters on the board, who will have a say in the future of our football club. All supporters will be able to invest between £100 and £10,000 into a Community Benefit Society (CBS) that will used to purchase a share in Leeds United.”
He went on, “In 100 days we have developed from an idea, to a concept, to a fans movement with a detailed and legally robust structure to make fan ownership a reality. As a group we are very optimistic of the chances to accomplish our goal of fan representation at board level. The legal and financial challenges have been a learning curve for us all. We’ve also spoken with many groups, including Rangers First, Foundation of Hearts and the Wrexham Supporters Trust, who have helped make the journey easier.”
Thwaites added, “We can’t say that it’s a surprise that Leeds fans want a say in the club they love, but the levels of support have been overwhelming. We believe that fans need at least 25% of the voting rights to make a real difference, but we may buy less than 25% if in the process we get fans an extra voice in the club–such as one or more director on the board, or bigger voting rights on things that are really important to fans. This could include things like the club name, or the shirt colours or the stadium.”
He says fan ownership has saved a lot of clubs, adding, “Leeds may not be threatened with administration at this time, but we want to be represented at board level to make sure that fans’ interests are considered by the club. Some political parties will be promoting fan ownership in their manifestos.”
Whether greater fan participation has a genuine future will, eventually, be down to the fans themselves and whether they support innovative schemes like at Leeds, Royal Antwerp and elsewhere.
But most in the game agree that this is a potentially revolutionary concept that might just be catching on.
By Martin Banks