What is a football club?
Before you can decide what a club should do, you really need to have a clear picture of what it is for. Such questions are rarely, if ever, asked in English football; such a failure may explain the fact that if we try to reverse engineer a club’s purpose from its activities, we’d get a strange variety of answer.
A football club would appear to be a pension fund, a property development opportunity, a means to make a major capital gain on sale, a millstone, a tax dodge, an egotrip, a nest-egg, a birthday present, a promotional tool, a political tool and a business opportunity; the list is far from exhaustive.
All of this is odd, not least because none of the clubs were ever founded with this in mind, and to use the jargon, there’s clearly been a bit of mission creep.
So what is a club then? It is, of course, about the team and the matches. But to say a club is some peo-ple 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 be-cause of what they are, not for what they do.
A Sense of Ownership
This core community of fans have always felt a sense of ownership of their team, reflected in the com-monplace use of ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ to talk about the exploits of 11 people kicking a ball about. That sense of ownership, critical to all spectator sports clubs, was maintained by cricket and rugby clubs, who chose co-operative forms of incorporation to ensure that the members – the supporters – retained con-trol 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, and how different things might have been can be shown in these statutes of FC Barcelona, now published here in the UK for the first time.
FC Barcelona know that they are a club, and have a structure which is the most appropriate for that. If a club is a means for people to commune with each other, it seems odd that they can be owned by indi-viduals, or small consortia. They might be bitter rivals on and off the pitch, but even the most ardent Barca member would agree with the sentiment of two-time President of Real Madrid Florentino Perez, when he said:
“[Football] when you really come down to it, 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”
More Than a Club
At Barca, they say they are ‘more than a club’, recognising that they are an idea, and that the best way to be owned to reflect that is by as many supporters as possible; there are currently 170,000 of them. Unlike the Catholic Church, these members can vote for the people at the top, and it is this democratic right where the members’ status as owners is made most tangible, and where the importance of that for the operation of the club is most clearly demonstrated.
In the elections which concluded in June 2010, nearly 53,000 members voted (45% of eligible members) for a new President. Prior to that, for months, ‘pre-candidates’ jockeyed for position and influence, hint-ing at their plans. Once nominations formally opened, 4 of those were able to get the required number of signatures and they debated the competing visions for the future of the club in televised debates in Catalunya. And unlike any club Chairman in the top flight in England, the leader of Barcelona can say unambiguously that he is there because the fans wished him to be so, winning 60% of the vote.
For the next 6 years, Sandro Rosell will be the most important figure at the club, and if the members will it again, he can serve a further 6 years. These term limits are a new development, introduced by the outgoing President Laporta, not least because a key plank of his electoral platform in 2003 was the im-portance of ensuring that the club’s identity did not become too closely aligned with the individual elected to lead it.
Laporta’s contention was in no small part a criticism of the regime of President Nunez who sat in office for 22 years, and whose tenure saw the birth of a grassroots protest called L’elefant Blau which identi-fied the Nunez regime with mismanagement and a desire to privatize the club. Laporta, a leading mem-ber of the group stood in 2003 to change the governing philosophy of the club which they deemed to persist despite Nunez’s resignation in 2000.
The results of this new approach speak for themselves in footballing terms, with the last 7 years being the most successful in the club’s history. The critical aspect here is that the new board had a chance thanks to the democratic structure. Laporta’s candidacy only needed the support of 50%+1 of the members to be a given a chance to run the club to a different beat. Contrast this with the Red Knights looking to displace the Glazer family at Manchester United who must instead raise over £1.2Bn to bring regime change at the club.
This ability to bring about regime change at low cost is a critical advantage over British clubs, where change comes in three ways, of which two are damaging and the third haphazard.
The first method is at the behest of administrators, where new owners are operating against with the legacy of mismanagement and insolvency; this has been the fate of over half the professional clubs in England since 1992. The second is where the current owners have either extracted a premium having leveraged the purchaser’s desire to own the club; at Crystal palace in the mid 1990s, wealthy fan Mark Goldberg was persuaded to buy just the club (rather than the club and its stadium) because he was des-perate to own the club. This decision has dogged the club ever since at lays at the heart of the two in-solvencies it has since suffered.
The final method is where a new owner buys the club from the previous incumbent, but for every Ro-man Abramovich there’s at least two Thaksin Shinawatras. The lesson is that current owners are rarely able to identify the best placed people to succeed them, not least because they are extremely interest-ed in the outcome of such deals personally Freddie Shepherd selling Newcastle United to Mike Ashley being a classic example.
As the economists would say, all are sub-optimal, and this is crucial benefit that being a co-operative brings. It’s not that by being co-operative, they have the means to success, but that they have a better route to deal with failure. That makes a crucial difference in football, because the alternative is not de-struction, but degradation and decline.
This is a critical difference and goes a long way to explaining why German football – similarly organised on co-operative lines – is renowned for its stability, excitement, affordability and atmosphere. It’s simply that the people who select the administrators of clubs prioritise these and remove those who work against them. In England, we have much more of a challenge and to understand why, we can learn from a little-known US economist, Albert Hirshmann.
Giving Fans a Voice
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 on price and / or quality. Those companies who heeded the message could make improvements (lower prices, improve quality) and win those custom-ers back. If they didn’t, then they were on a fast track to oblivion – the creative destruction that was the engine of capitalism as Shumpeter argued.
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. It’s a key element of democratic societies, where we have the right to remove a government who we no longer believe are coming up with the goods. The more one had no choice in whether one remained in a relationship, the more you needed voice. But what if you’d were critical, but had no voice, and exit was not possible?
This is the problem faced by supporters of English 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 some-thing 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 what is possible. 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 100m years, where fans died in deathtrap stadium, or those that didn’t tolerated condi-tions which would have closed an abattoir.
Thanks to the influx of money through the 1990s and the upgrading of grounds, fans are thankfully un-likely 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 every known, the sport will pay for never having been able to enforce decent cor-porate 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.
A Football Club Owned by People Like You
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.