Going To The Well: A Unique Opportunity At Motherwell FC
Reformulated from an old African proverb, the saying “It takes a village to raise a child” speaks to the community effort required in providing a young person with the best chance of success. Coincidentally, football supporters in England and Scotland can identify with this sentiment. As television booms have busted with chairmen counting on money that never came, or financial schemes that failed to produce the desired results on the pitch and in the bank, fans from many walks of life have huddled together under their respective banners over the past decade to pick up the shattered pieces to raise clubs up again, the right way. This is currently being demonstrated by the new campaign to reunite fans for salvaging Plymouth Argyle, and perhaps the model for the success of endeavours such as Supporters Direct is on display at Liberty Stadium in Swansea. Once previously at the foot of league football for a spell, the Jacks and their Swansea City Supporters Trust–which controls nearly a 20% interest in the Welsh side–now find themselves in the same league as sheikhs from Abu Dhabi, a Russian billionaire, and American owners both reviled and accepted.
So, naturally, it would fall to a club from the land of clans to add a new twist to this concept.
This past week, news came that Motherwell FC’s departing chairperson John Boyle will be donating his shares–which account for a 75% stake in the club–to the supporters, giving Fir Park faithful the opportunity to become majority owners of a Scottish Premier League club. Once approval has been granted by the Financial Services Authority, the Well Society will begin purchasing Boyle’s shares in two stages, allowing what is hoped to be a smooth and solid transition to the group scheme. Motherwell’s vice chair Derek Weir, interviewed on BBC Radio Scotland following an initial meeting of 300 where the plan was announced, outlined that membership into the Well Society begins at £300 per year for an individual and can go up to £25,000 a year for either more wealthy members or corporations who would like a portion of ownership along with a round of golf with Stuart McCall and the lads.
After this initial fee, recurring memberships go from £50 at the low end up to £1000 for those paying with their platinum cards. James McFadden, former Motherwell player, became the first member of this new society, earning his 1866 Membership with his payment of the £25,000. Despite the variance in amounts to be paid by potential Well Society participants, the scheme is being touted as a one member, one vote system with two fans having a seat on the board. Weir stated further in that radio interview membership into the Well Society might not be restricted just to residents of Scotland or the UK but open internationally for those willing to make that baseline financial commitment of £300.
Just don’t expect Jamie Murphy to pop up for an appearance at rich kids’ birthday parties overseas, though.
While there are plenty of details left to be sorted once FSA approves the society, there has already been set at least one financial benchmark before the scheme will likely take effect. Motherwell board member Jim McMahon spoke of the need to have at least £1.5 million in capital for this new Well Society to reasonably cope with cash flow issues, perhaps with an eye toward those notorious Scottish winters that cancel matches midway through a season and see gate receipts come in fits and spurts, or the potential worst-case scenario that finds the Steelmen relegated from the SPL. This suggests the completed transaction of Boyle’s shares into the hands of the Well Society will take some time, and it also indicates the club’s current board want to avoid one the pitfalls of transitioning to majority supporter ownership as discovered by English side Ebbsfleet United. The number of members desired for the Well Society to operate has yet to be mentioned, but per the FSA, an Industrial & Provident Society–which is the form this scheme will take–requires at least 3 members at the start along with an application fee upwards of £950, depending on the rules.
What might also be considered is whether any further money will be owed to Boyle or the club by the Well Society in addition to the purchase of Boyle’s ownership shares. During a BBC interview in May the outgoing chair highlighted that the club is “bank-debt free.” The key idea there is that Motherwell FC holds no debt with a financial institution. Instead, Boyle has been contributing from his own wallet over the years when the money has been tight, and the most recent review of the league from PricewaterhouseCooper shows Motherwell with a net debt just over £400,000. Will Boyle be asking for any of the money he’s put in personally to be repaid by Motherwell’s future new majority owners? Might some of this be included in the £1.5 million set as the initial mark to be raised, or will there be more needed to be raised to buy off the club’s debt? Or, does Boyle write off the debt as a further donation to this new enterprise, allowing the Well Society to begin anew as he walks to his sunset? Following the presentation there was a Q&A that might have addressed such issues, but as it was the first in what is certain to be an extended series of meetings, more will not yet be known for some time most probably. For the present, it appears Boyle would impose no further financial burden to the Well Society other than the purchase of his controlling interest.
Another question likely to come is what, if any, role Supporters Direct in Scotland plays in assisting the Well Society. No remarks or mentions of a Well Society have yet been made via the Motherwell Supporters Trust website nor has SD Scotland been referenced when speaking upon the establishment of the IPS. Given that the situation is a bit turned on its head–a club in relatively decent financial shape with its board putting forth this supporter-owned scheme rather than having ownership being wrested away by disgruntled fans–looks to be new ground for SD Scotland to break, if help is sought from the organisation. This would seem to have the effect of tempering enthusiasm for enrollment a bit, as there is no big, bad, lecherous owner to fight against. There is no immediate financial calamity staring Motherwell FC in the face, as was the case when Dundee came under the ownership of its fans, nor is there a unifying rallying cry such as when the Swansea City Supporters Trust took the fight to Tony Petty. Reception to the Motherwell proposal has been generally hopeful, but also lukewarm these early doors, with some supporters questioning what additional benefit it would be to them to buy into club ownership when they find it difficult at times just to chuck up enough pounds for a ticket to Fir Park these days.
In the main, however, such a move by a Scottish Premier League club to place its fate in its supporters’ hands is refreshing and a realistic response to the current economic climate in which many Scottish football clubs find themselves. There are few sugar daddies knocking on the doors of SPL clubs, prepared to bail them out of an unfortunate event much as Vladimir Romanov did a few years ago when saving Heart of Midlothian. Television revenues contribute some but still considerably less to the coffers of these clubs in comparison to those in England, and should the league decide not to opt out of its current televised rights deal this situation will not change anytime soon. As Motherwell approach the time when their current benefactor exits stage left, who better to grant the first right of ownership over the North Lanarkshire club than those from the village who remained clothed in their amber and claret during dark days of administration and know what type of community club they now wish to raise on their own to give it a new future?
Considering that many of the league’s clan chiefs fail at attempts to even listen to their clubs’ supporters, at least Motherwell is giving theirs the chance to be heard, and in the most powerful way.
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