Supporters’ Trusts: Some Hard Questions
This weekend the saga of Trust ownership at Wrexham extends. Plymouth Argyle struggle to find an ownership solution to coming out of administration. In the tales of duplicity and ineptness that abound behind these stories, the arguments in favour of the Supporters Trust movement are strengthened. Supporters’ Direct have made clear and cogent points that substantiate these arguments in their recent briefing papers. Yet are Supporters’ Trusts always best placed to take over at their clubs? The current state of financial governance in football does not make for an even playing field for supporter owned clubs. It takes tough customers to have the tenacity to stick with the principles of the Supporter Owned Model when the financial structure of the game allows your business opponents a head start in the competition, despite the fact that they often put the very existence of their ‘business’ at risk, as Supporters’ Direct’s analysis shows.
The recent government enquiry into football governance opened its evaluation of supporter ownership with the bald statement, ‘The examples of bad ownership are sufficiently numerous to point to systemic failure. A case can be made that, rather than tighter regulation, a more fundamental ownership change is required.’ The report continues, ‘The supporters trust ownership model appears to us to be one of the positive developments in English football.’ This is encouraging but the recommendations of the enquiry do little to make changes that enable such a positive development to take a proper hold.
The report recommends measures that go some way to easing the difficulties Trusts have in fundraising by recognising their special nature, by protecting their share-holding once acquired, by ensuring Trusts have the chance to make bids for their clubs if they fall into administration and by encouraging effective consultation with fans. There is still the feeling that supporter ownership seems more applicable lower down the league than in the top flight where partial ownership is acknowledged. Despite the success of the co-op movement in general the prejudice that community owned businesses cannot succeed at the higher level persists.
The recommendations’ attempt to mitigate some of the identified difficulties Trusts face will help, but the biggest and most worrying drawback is not tackled. In attacking the Premier League’s unwarranted withdrawal of funding for Supporters Direct, the enquiry uses evidence from William Gaillard of UEFA who states, ‘If the experiment is to succeed it cannot be left to just a bunch of volunteers who would basically give some of their time to the cause.’ This is a key issue for all Trusts.
Supporters’ Direct themselves identified the same problem in their 2009 European Feasibility report: ‘when it comes to organising fans and making them a credible force within their clubs, fans are hampered by the fact they are volunteers working in a context of professional sport. Fans are trying to organise these groups and organise programmes at the same time as having jobs and families. As with all volunteer-run groups, this makes them often dependent on a small but committed number of individuals, and so an unforeseen change in individual circumstances can have a big impact on the progress of the wider group.’
These small but committed groups are the backbone of any community but, as Supporters Direct identify, the withdrawal of one individual can have a massive impact on a Trust, as can the rule of a dominant individual. In exactly the same way that was said about clubs’ boards in the government enquiry, with such individuals sometimes making most decisions outside of formal processes the ability of any other interests to have influence is limited. The argument that Trusts are democratic and therefore self regulating by definition falls down when there are insufficient people willing to stand for election or only a small percentage of members voting on crucial decisions. Low turnout is not necessarily a reflection of apathy of course, it could be one of contentment. However, a vote based on a very low turnout may not be an accurate reflection of the will of the members and can lead to unequal representation. This justifies the frequent criticism levelled at Trusts, that they are unrepresentative of their club’s fanbase. However, it would be true to assert that elected representatives can really only act on what actually happens in a vote. If fans don’t want to participate that is their democratic right too and it is the nature of football fans to lose interest in their Trust if the club seem to be running well enough, or winning (see Leeds United last season for example).
A further problem caused by low participation could be seen as more serious however. The argument that fan groups can’t run clubs is usually mitigated by the argument that football fans come from all walks of life and the necessary expertise usually resides within their number. This works only in so far as these people are willing to stand for election. For many football is their relaxation, they can be forgiven for not wanting to extend their work into it as well. Given the amount of acrimony that resides between fan groups at some clubs – identified at the Supporters Direct conference last month – who would want to expose themselves to that level of wrangling during relaxation from an already stressful job?
This of course, strengthens the argument for the existence of Supporters Direct who have made the point that because they provide ‘a central body including professionals, their (volunteers) efforts have been more focused and the groups are more resilient. A small input in terms of resources can have a much, much bigger impact.’ This was put under threat recently by the funding debacle. The government enquiry was pretty scathing on that: ‘The reluctance of the FA, Premier League and Football League to devise a formula for the long term future of Supporters Direct is deeply disappointing given the fact that all have a vested interested in sustaining community-based clubs. It constitutes a failure of imagination and a failure of governance by the football authorities, and we urge them to work quickly towards a funding solution that allows Supporters Direct to develop its role assisting supporters trust organisations and makes realistic assumptions of Supporter Direct’s own fund-raising potential.’
The funding to SD was indeed restored. But it lead SD to rethink its dependence on the organisation it was in effect ‘attacking’ to provide the bulk of its funding. There was a resolve at their AGM to seek alternative sources of funding to enable a greater degree of independence. It has to be so, for whilst a possibility of such a withdrawal lingers it is difficult for SD to be as outspoken as it needs to be. This has led to a more cautious approach to spending and the other indication at the meeting was that SD would now be focusing its main efforts on Trusts with a good chance of gaining some influence or ownership of their clubs.
Unfortunately, this leaves us with the question of what happens to the Trusts with little or no chance of owning or influencing their clubs in any way. Clubs where the owners won’t engage with the Trust, but where the club is bumbling along nicely at the moment, thank you, so that the fans don’t see any need to disturb the status quo. These usually being the Trusts that are low on numbers and volunteers. As Plymouth and Leeds have found recently, the need to raise the Trust flag often comes suddenly and without warning. If you are Manchester United you have the numbers to consider a share issue as an opportunity, if you are Plymouth the crisis could catch you unready.
At Pompey the chance to influence the outcome of our woes in 2009 was lost in the inordinate amount of time it took to set the Trust up – through no fault of the volunteers there but through the red-tape of the process. Now the club appears safe they work hard tackling small issues, such as the club keeping its past promises. With the impression that the club is safe, Trust membership at Pompey has dropped away. The new owners have shown little in the way of willingness to enagage with the Trust as yet. At Ipswich a Trust in a similar position concentrate on their community role. It takes a particular form of stubborn determination to keep pecking away at a club that are slow to respond to fan interest. Interest which drops away if there is no perceived crisis to meet. It leads to a dependance on the dominent few. The problem with that is of course is that it can lead to the sclerotic entrenchment of positions which frequently deters new blood in a self-perpetrating spiral of decline. A bit like the under-funded clubs themselves.
The issue is one that needs tackling. A lone voice at the Supporters’ Direct annual meeting in July suggested the Trust movement needs to look closely at why Trusts fail as well as where they succeed. The availability of willing and able volunteers is an important issue in this respect. The constant parade of clubs in crisis, the underlying theme of fans being priced out of the game along with duplicitous or inept business practices that take clubs to the brink over and over again demonstrate the need for fan intervention. There is a need to move away from dealing with issues on a club-by-club basis and taking the argument nationwide. The raising of awareness among football fans in general, breaking down the tribal barriers of supporting a team, has to be a priority. Positive stories of what Trusts achieve is only one side of the coin; to bring the necessary volunteers into the fray needs a concerted campaign explaining just why they are needed. Supporters Direct already work hard pressing upwards towards influencing the football authorities and the government. It might be worth their while taking time to consider pressing down to grass roots supporter level as well.
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