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Football: We Own the Park

What’s the point of a football club? If we look at the motives of its owners, we’d get some strange answers. It could be a millionaire’s pension fund, a property development opportunity, a shot at a capital gain, a millstone, a tax dodge, an ego-trip, a nest-egg, a birthday present, a promotional tool, a political tool — the list is far from exhaustive.

Football: We Own the Park

Dave Boyle
STIR
October 2012

What’s the point of a football club? If we look at the motives of its owners, we’d get some strange answers. It could be a millionaire’s pension fund, a property development opportunity, a shot at a capital gain, a millstone, a tax dodge, an ego-trip, a nest-egg, a birthday present, a promotional tool, a political tool — the list is far from exhaustive.

No club was ever founded with this in mind, of course. They began life as genuine clubs, open to membership from the community of players, and later supporters, who had an interest in their success.

But over time — mainly for the need to raise capital to build stadia — clubs became companies, and lots of members gave way to a smaller number of shareholders. They coalesced over time and soon clubs were dominated by a small handful of people, most eventually becoming the private property of a single person.

So what is a club then? It is, of course, about the team and the matches. But to say a club is some people who play football is like saying a marriage is about two people who know each other, or a family is group of people who live in the same house. All true, but getting absolutely nowhere to the heart of what really defines them.

If you listen to someone of the loudest and most powerful voices in the game, the only thing supporters want is results, pretty football and star players. Of course, it’s a truism that no-one wants to see their team lose each week, but to narrow the focus so much misses a more fundamental truth.

What we also want — and get — is much more enduring and personal: solace, joy, remembrance, hope, relaxation, distraction, anticipation, communion and energy. And that’s just the person next to you in the ground.

But the magic of football is to take that personal story of what the club means to you and make it the same as that of every one of the hundreds, thousands of millions of people who share an allegiance to a club. As you look upon the face of a fellow fan at a moment of joy or despair, you know you are looking at someone just like you. That desire for communality, for community, is one of the most important human needs, and is why the game is so successful, so ubiquitous and so important. We love clubs because of what they are, not for what they do.

This core community of fans have always felt a sense of ownership of their team, reflected in the commonplace use of ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ to talk about the exploits of 11 people kicking a ball about.


Fans of the cooperatively owned club FC United of Manchester, by Matthew Wilkinson via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

That sense of ownership, critical to all spectator sports clubs, was maintained by cricket and rugby clubs, who chose cooperative forms of incorporation to ensure that the members — the supporters — retained control of the enterprise, and made the key decisions about the club’s strategy.

Unfortunately for British football fans, their founding fathers did not have similar foresight and chose privately owned companies. That’s why we have the eclectic list above, because those private objectives reflect not the commonly agreed plan of the core community of fans but instead the individual wishes of the club’s owners.

How much those two overlap — or not — is perhaps the enduring tension in British football. For if a club is a means for people to commune with each other, it seems odd that they can be owned by individuals, or small consortia. The President of Real Madrid Florentino Perez agrees, having said that football “belongs in the sphere of human emotions. Real Madrid is a kind of religion for millions all over the world. You can’t have that in the hands of one individual. It’s as if the Catholic Church belonged to one person. It wouldn’t be right.”

And yet that’s the reality for most fans; tied emotionally to a club which you care more about than it in reality cares about you. It’s a problem well understood by the relatively unknown US economist Albert Hirschmann who perceptively analysed how companies and institutions learn and improve.

He wrote that organizations and institutions needed to be told that they were going wrong in order to make adjustments necessary to get back on the right track. The two means in which people signaled their dissatisfaction were either through exit or voice.

Consumers exited a relationship by switching their purchasing to other products which were better priced of better quality. Those companies who heeded the message could make improvements (lower prices, improve quality) and win those customers back. If they didn’t, then they were on a fast track to oblivion.

But what of those things which didn’t allow for exit, where the relationship wasn’t that of a consumer of a product? Here, Hirschmann said, we had voice instead. The key element of democratic societies is the right to remove a government who we no longer believe are coming up with the goods. The less real choice we have over our relationship with an organisation the more we need to have a voice.

But what if you had no voice, and exit was not possible? This is the problem faced by supporters of the vast majority of British football clubs, and a key part of the problem has been the framing of their clubs as companies instead of institutions. If clubs are just companies, then absence of exit means all is well. But if a club is an institution, then the key indicator is the level of dissatisfied voice.

By being institutions in the wrong legal clothes, they benefit from neither. Supporters have no formal voice, for only the shareholders (usually the board) have those rights. But because fandom is not something one switches, or turns on or off, fans don’t exit either. They are known for precisely the opposite, a near masochistic tendency to become even more loyal the worse things get.

Unable to exit but denied a voice gives us a game which increasingly feels to have left its fans behind, which moves matches at will for the needs of TV, which treats fans as exploitable resources to be squeezed by ever-more inflation busting price rises. Clubs end up doing not what is the right thing, or the best thing, but whatever things they want to and can get away with doing. And when you are essentially unaccountable for your actions, that turns out to be a lot.

Through the twentieth century, that unaccountability lead to grounds where no serious upgrading was done in nearly a 100 years, where fans died in deathtrap stadiums, or those that didn’t tolerated conditions which would have closed an abattoir. Contrast with German football, organised on cooperative lines and renowned for its stability, excitement, affordability and atmosphere. The people who select the administrators of clubs are their supporter owners, who have a very powerful voice.

Thanks to the influx of money through the 1990s and the upgrading of grounds, fans are thankfully unlikely to be killed for their sport, but many have a grave fear that in the teeth of the greatest recession any in the game have ever known, the sport will pay for never having been able to enforce decent corporate governance, sound financial management and proper scrutiny of those privileged enough to be let loose with important and cherished institutions. UEFA’s imposition of a licensing system from the top is a welcome development that clubs do not live or die in a marketplace like others, and need sector-specific regulation.

But regulation from the game’s authorities is a necessary but insufficient condition for the sport we want and need. We also need to run clubs in sync with their true nature. We need clubs to be owned by those affected most by the decisions, who respect the club’s history and heritage. We need clubs which understand they should and must trade on its own resources. We need clubs where the people who make the big decisions are accountable for them. We needs clubs to really become clubs. And for that, we need them to be co-operative.

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Dave Boyle is a writer and consultant. He was formerly vice-chair of the English Football Supporters’ Federation and worked at Supporters Direct from 2000-2011, the last three as chief executive. He blogs at daveboyle.net and as @theboyler on Twitter.

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