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From the terraces to the boardroom

Over the last twenty years the notion of what it means to be a football fan has undergone a radical transformation in this country. For most of the game’s history fans were customers, happy to limit their involvement at the club to paying at the gate. The board were free to run things as they saw fit, without oversight.

Although there are plenty of supporters who still adhere to this traditional relationship, for many others the idea of being a customer alone seems horribly archaic. These fans see themselves as a vital part of the community of the club, with a voice that demands to be heard.

During the past twelve months I’ve been writing a book on supporter activism. It struck me while working on this that anyone who wants to chart the way in which fandom has changed and also understand the issues that face this more activist type of supporter, would do well to take the time to look at United’s recent history.

After all, this is the club where the Independent Supporters Association took on and beat Rupert Murdoch, where the idea of supporter ownership first took hold in the top-flight and where a section of the faithful decided to up-sticks and start a new fan-owned club of their own. In many ways, the supporters of the club have been at the forefront of developments in activism over the past two decades.

A key factor in this has been a growing sense of disillusionment at Old Trafford. Although this might sound odd considering how spectacularly triumphant United have been over the past twenty years, it’s a truism of the game today that success on the pitch is not everything.

Supporters have become tired of a board that appears indifferent to the concerns of the fans and in recent years an owner that’s played fast-and-loose with the financial fortunes of the club. In fact, it would be fair to say that almost every single problem associated with modern football has at some point been evident at United in the last few decades. Ticket price rises that have reached ‘banana republic’ levels of inflation, the restructuring of the stadium in favour of the corporate demographic, the creation of debt to an almost terrifying level; the list goes on and on.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that this has elicited such a strong response from an element of the supporter-base. But what does it mean for the future of the club and its relationship with the fans?

Although they both disagree on the action the other has taken, those involved with FC United of Manchester and those who have remained with the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST), each contend that supporter-ownership has a role to play in modern football. But is such an outcome feasible or even desirable at Old Trafford?

There exists a vein of thought that the prospect of fans gaining a significant minority shareholding or even becoming majority shareholders at a big Premier League club remains unlikely. Not only do the costs involved in share-ownership appear staggeringly large, there is also a fear that the collective finances of ordinary fans will not be significant enough to sustain the club in the face of competition from rivals backed by deep-pocketed owners.

There is hope amongst those who would like to see more examples of supporter-ownership at the top that the various financial regulations recently introduced by UEFA and the Premier League to control costs, losses and debt could be the key to solving this problem. Should they work, then with a more level playing field, the ability of a club with an element of fan-control to compete might increase. This could make the prospect of trust ownership, whether partial or total, more palatable to fans previously put-off by the possibility of stagnation or decline.

But should these regulations work (and there’s no guarantee that they will), without membership numbers, even this potentially more benign environment wouldn’t be enough to either establish a degree of supporter-ownership at a big club or ensure long-term financial sustainability. Where trusts have been forced to sell-up elsewhere in the game, such as at York City, Notts County and Brentford, a contributory factor in their failure has been a lack of members and because of this an inability to support the club financially.

If a degree of supporter-ownership is ever one day to become a reality at Old Trafford, then MUST needs to establish a strong presence amongst the fans to ensure that it has the necessary volume of membership to take a shareholding in the club (should the opportunity ever arise) and help support the finances in the long-term.

At the moment, the Trust has over 200,000 members, making it the largest supporters trust in the country. But even the impressive thousands gathered by MUST represent only a fraction of what would likely be needed to make a degree of supporter-ownership a reality.

However, gathering many more members is possible. A recent survey undertaken by the club estimated that United currently has 659million followers, or in more dramatic terms, nearly a 10th of the world’s global population. Although the nature of modern fandom would suggest that not all of these are willing to ‘bleed for the club’ or put their hand in their pocket to create a supporters utopia, enough might.

As big clubs elsewhere in Europe have proven, such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, supporter ownership is compatible with success at the highest level. In the Premier League at the moment, we seem to be light years away from establishing some kind of supporters’ utopia.  But that’s not to say it can’t happen. At worst, the trust model offers the best medium for fans to unite together to express their views and attempt to hold the club to account. At best though, with enough support behind it, it could become the medium that one day ushers in a new age where the fans have a much stronger voice than they do today.




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About Jim Keoghan

Jim is the author of Punk Football: the rise of fan ownership in English football which is published by Pitch Publishing. Follow @jimmykeo on Twitter.

View all posts by Jim Keoghan »

 

16 Comments

  1. Jackie Spain says:

    I think this book is going to be pretty biased as far as United is concerned – and against Glazers.

    “Ticket price rises that have reached ‘banana republic’ levels of inflation” – will the book graph United’s ticket price rises against other clubs and inflation?

    “the restructuring of the stadium in favour of the corporate demographic” – what is the % return on this restructuring compared to before? What is the capacity of the corporate boxes of the overall attendance figure and what is the ratio of the revenue generated?

    “the creation of debt to an almost terrifying level” – I’ve yet to see where this debt has actually affected United on the field. Everyone moans about it but it doesn’t seemed to have impacted our trophy haul or transfers.

    “the list goes on and on.” – hopefully the book will expound on these.

  2. Blacksocks says:

    Interesting article Jim thank you.

    I haven’t read your book (yet!) but I believe the rise in fan ownership has as much to do with clubs that have gone bust leaving only the fans to prevent the club from becoming extinct as anything else. However, our model of professional football in this country is very different to that on the continent. We have far more professional clubs – possibly too many to sustain in this age of austerity in comparrison to the other large European leagues.

    From a United perspective, whilst I have no ill feelings towards FC United, my support is for the club I love regardless of who the owners are. That’s not to say I have any liking for the Glazer family either and I hate the fact that they were able to take over the club whilst at the same time leveraging a huge ammount of debt against the club. But sadly they were allowed to do so and the fact that they were able to do so is the problem that needs addressing.

    I don’t believe MUST will ever be in a position to buy out the Glazers. Firstly, its membership needs to be in the many millions with an income to match. Even then the Glazers need to be willing to sell and when that does occur (if ever) I suspect they will sell to the highest bidder, be they Russian or Middle Eastern. That said MUST do invaluable work raising fan issues with the club and I hope they continue to do so.

  3. Blacksocks says:

    @ Jackie

    Since the early 1990′s ticket prices have gone up 700% at OT according to the link below although it is much the same at other clubs.

    http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/news/article-2027382/Premier-League-football-tickets-soar-1-000-decades.html

    You have a point regarding the satdium, it now seats more than ever and the Leverson enquiry has much to do with the all-seater stadium we have to put up with. How I miss terraces!

    Debt – the million dollar question (sic) – the counter argument to your point is that United would have been even stronger in the transfer market, able to compete with any club for any player. We might have been able to keep Ronaldo and sign the likes of Bale etc if huge amounts of money hadn’t been taken out of the club. Who knows, it is something that could be argued about all day!

  4. Imran says:

    the glazers took a risk, it paid off. Manchester united have come through that phase. At the same time the revenue rise has been substantial. The fans have a right to be angry because the debt payments come out of our pockets in the end, but hold on because the storm has passed. Next year could be the landmark year for kit deals, If we get a Good season. But the ticket prices will always be a problem.

  5. edcunited1878 says:

    Increase in ticket prices is a reflection of an increase in player wages and high/strong demand.

    Ticket sales is the only immediate blood line over the course of a season. There are 19 home matches in the Premier League that you are guaranteed and you get to keep the vast majority, if not all gate revenue. Then you take into consideration parking, concessions and merchandise sold at Old Trafford.

    Sponsorship revenue and TV revenue payments do not come in as frequently as match day revenue, however they are much, much larger. But there are such large overhead and immediate payments that must be made in such a global franchise that is Manchester United – business employees, infrastructure, maintenance, etc.

  6. Phil Crowe says:

    I think its a lot of smoke and mirrors when it comes to fan owned clubs. Clubs like barca vote on what the board say they vote on, “do you want a big stadium expansion?”, “YES!”. Its an illusion to improve a clubs image. I went to a Chester game with a friend where I had to pay to get in to the bar, then pay £16 to watch none league football… But people are happy because of the illusion that they own it. FC Utd is basically andy walsh pushing for his dream job by convincing others of it being fan owned, yet after 10 years he’s still the senior man at the club, unelected to a position, telling others what they can vote on. Not very democratic imo.

  7. Tommy says:

    The most important people in any football club are the match going supporters make no mistake about that, without them their wouldnt be a club, however its just a pipe dream for the fans to own United, the Glazers wont sell and thats the end of that and the ticket prices in ths country (Not just United) Are a disgrace and the premier league need to do something about it, I pay 4 times more for my ST than a bayern munich fan does, we get treated like shit in this country by our clubs in comparison to our German counterparts

  8. Tommy says:

    @edcunited1878

    Its not nessecerily a reflection of players wages going up so ticket pruces go out, Munich dont exactly have a small wage bill yet they dont charge extortiate wages, Shactar Donetsk are one of the clubs around Europe with a hugh wage bill yet when I paid to see United in the Ukraine, the match ticket cost me £7, the clubs makes enough to charge cheaper tickets, although in the last couple of years the prices have been frozen, it remains to be seen if we spend a fortune this summer if the following seasons ticket prices go up

  9. edcunited1878 says:

    Germany is a model for football financial efficiency at the high levels. But it’s Bayern and they are a financial/brand powerhouse. They understand how important their fans and culture and match day experience is to the players, so they won’t price them out. Credit to them, it’s better than United and all top English clubs.

    Shaktar and Ukraine’s currency isn’t the Euro nor the Pound nor the American Dollar. It is weak when compared to the Pound, Euro and American Dollar. And the tax system in Ukraine is extremely advantageous for players. It’s relatively price fair for Ukraine, the footballers and fans. Their costs, aren’t extravagant.

    This from an Ernst & Young paper:

    ‘Hot’ countries like Turkey, Russia and Ukraine have relatively low tax
    rates for their football players and actively use their tax system in
    various ways to attract and retain the best players in the world.

  10. Tommy says:

    @edcunited1878

    Its a premier leagie problem mate, all the clubs in Germany are exactly the same and if 1 top club decided to charge a lot cheaper STs i reckon the rest would follow suit, what really annoys me about United is full price for capital one cup games, its rediculous £37 to see United 2nd string play against Norwich 2nd string, that really needs sorting out

  11. edcunited1878 says:

    @ Yeah, I agree with you. It’s a Premier League problem. I’m in America and there are loads of professional sports that are pumping up ticket prices. For instance, hockey is huge here in Chicago with the Blackhawks and tickets are damn expensive and prices are always increasing…but then the team is very successful.

    The cup scheme at United is horribly wrong. They should price the weekday, lowest priority Cup match for local families and young kids to go out and support, not price gouge people. If they can support for a Capital One Cup that’s fine and it’s appreciated when knowing they can’t afford or just have the time to do it for a Premier League match.

  12. m09538061 says:

    Breaking News:
    Valencia just got sent off for ‘showing his studs’

  13. Tommy says:

    @edcunited1878

    Yea mate the cup scheme is all wrong mate, I have a ST and you have to buy champions league (Obviously not this year), and FA cup tickets and they will send you a text on the monday saying the money will go out of your bank on the wedensday, so not long notice, You can opt out of capital one cup games but if you do you cant apply for away tickets, bu its the prices for those games that annoy me, last year I paid £37 for Norwich in the capital one cup and thben same night it was Arseanl against chelsea in that cup anmd they charged something like £10 for adults, £5 for children and thats a game between 2 traditional expensive clubs now if they can reduce tickets for COC so can we, I know the supporter groups have been campaining for cheaper cup tickets but the club does not listen, they always rfaise champions league tickets for knock out games so they should have the decentcy to reduce domestic cup matches

  14. John says:

    Anyone out there who don’t know yet: Tommy has a ST!! :) :) :) :)

    Sorry Tommy, I am just jealous. :( :(

    Why?

    Because you have a ST ;)

    :D :D :D

  15. Tommy says:

    @John

    Hahaha, are you trying to say I go on about it too much mate lol, well when you get sick of tocos and pancakes for breakfast and fancy moving to England and having bacon and sausage instead for breakfast you could get one too lol, in fairness you could actually just do that now if you wanted, anyone can buy them now back in the day they used to be a waiting list but now sadly a lot of the loyal fans have been priced out which is another damning evidence of stupid prices, Good luck to the USA tomorrow mate, ive got a feeling for Ghana but hope the USA advance, maybe Jurgan and Germany have got an agreement inplace where they play out a draw to suit both parties, it happened before with the Germans and Austria pal so could it happen again?

  16. dazbomber says:

    Athletic Bilbao reject Manchester United £28.5m bid for Ander Herrera

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