New Direction for Supporters Direct?
It is clear that there is a conflict of interests running throughout English football. A conflict that lies between the different ways in which fans and owners see ‘their’ clubs. It is inherent in the running of a football club as a commercial organisation as opposed to a club’s community and social function. This was a key issue of the Supporters’ Direct Conference on 07 July, an issue which poses more questions than answers.
Gabriel Marcotti set the tone early on in his keynote address. Calling on fans to be the ‘vigilant watchdog’ of their clubs’ governance, he highlighted the many interests involved in football, a significant amount of which do not have the best interests of the individual clubs at heart. He said to the assembled delegates,’It is the fans who pay the wages, so without you there is no football club, clubs are nothing else but colours and fans.’
To be ‘vigilant watchdogs’, however, fans need knowledge on which to base their judgements. Marcotti identified that there is not enough detail in the public domain for fans to judge how well their club is doing financially. His solution was complete financial transparency on the part of the clubs – the publishing of all financial transactions on line as is done in the States. The concern is that private owners, despite frequently wanting to be seen as the ‘saviours’ of their clubs, are not injecting equity into the club but making loans. Whereas fans ‘own’ their clubs psychologically, investing through heart and soul, such owners merely hold a financial interest, the transience of which is underlined by the leveraged strategy they employ.
The problem is that such transparency is not encouraged in the English game. Marcotti quoted the example of Leeds United when, before Bates announced his ‘buy out’ last year, the Football League said they knew who the ultimate beneficial owners of the club were but didn’t feel that they had to tell anyone else. Fans are in no way enabled in any kind of vigilant surveillance of the governance of their clubs. They cannot judge who is doing a good or bad job. Until it is too late, that is.
At the end of the afternoon a ‘Question Time’ style panel was asked how they would resolve this conflict of fan and owner interests in order to empower fans to be able to make a positive impact on decision making. The panel consisted of MP Tom Greatrix, FSF Chair Malcolm Clarke and new Supporters Direct CEO David Lampitt. Ultimately, they agreed with Marcotti’s concluding point. The only way is through regulation.
Getting such regulation into the game is not going to be easy. Some of the focus at the conference was on the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s Select Committee hearing over the next few weeks. This is to consider the FA’s response to the enquiry into Football Governance earlier this year. A response that disappointed many. Supporters Direct is the only non-football-authority organisation being recalled to discuss the report, the others being the FA, the Premier League and the Football League. Peter Scudamore of the Premier League, questioned already (10/07), seemed to think the FA proposals were quite radical. But nowhere in them is there any mention of facilitating supporter involvement in decision making. Scudamore remarked that ‘despite its inherent quirkiness and oddness we have continued to fund Supporters Direct and the FSF to considerable levels and are willing to help where we can … it is an interesting challenge when you are asking owners to fund an organisation where, to some extent, their avowed intent is to remove the owners from clubs that have funded them in the first place,’ (10.44 here). When David Lampitt sits in front of the committee on 17 July, I hope he is able to correct this ‘misunderstanding’ on Scudamore’s part. A misunderstanding that goes some way to explaining the difficulties many Trusts have in engaging with their clubs.
Supporters Direct is the chief advocate of the Supporters Trust movement in the UK. It is one of their roles to ‘create the conditions in which supporters can secure influence and ownership of their clubs’ as a representative body with key objectives to ‘promote the principles’ on which such Trusts should operate and to provide ‘advice and services to member Trusts.’ It is not their objective to overthrow owners or reform the football authorities, but to enable fans, through the formation of Trusts, to enhance in every way the relationship between the club and the community of which it is a part. Part of this objective can be realised though dialogue with other bodies such as this select committee. But there is a broader brief than that.
It is clear that Supporters Direct has a lot of ground to make up in the understanding of its role, not only with owners’ representatives but also with fans themselves. A conference workshop run by David Lampitt sought to understand how Supporters Direct can deliver value to its member Trusts. Lampitt said, ‘We are only as strong as our members … a voice of 3-400,000 is our strength.’ An issue for SD might lie in retaining that strength. Both in regard to the membership of Trusts and in those Trusts’ membership of Supporters Direct.
It was felt that many fans saw Trusts and SD as useful for ‘rescue missions’ when a club was in crisis, but few saw their value, or that of SD, otherwise. Trusts of clubs not ‘in crisis’ usually see their membership drop away and some of those that remain question the value of affiliation to Supporters Direct. This has no doubt been in part a result of SD being forced to focus their attention on Trusts who have a good chance of taking over their clubs during the last year- due to the funding problems at the end of the 2010/11 season as touched on by Scudamore. SD is very much in the process of trying to make itself independent of the Premier League. It is Lampitt’s brief to find alternative funding. However the workshop raised the issue of what Trusts can do for fans when ownership of the club is not in question. It ranged from how to add commercial value to Trust membership for fans to how to engage with club owners when those owners do not see any reason for such engagement.
In terms of commercial value David Lampitt put forward ideas of promoting Trusts’ knowledge of and data held on the fan community as being of worth to clubs and that of the collective nature of Supporters Direct as adding buying power in providing products that could be of interest to Trust members. Here he asked for Trusts for suggestions and there was discussion of travel and enabling community projects including the involvement of credit unions helping with finance for season tickets. A stronger emphasis on the collective role of member Trusts in information sharing would facilitate this.
In terms of helping Trusts engage with clubs, David Lampitt feels he can facilitate better understanding, firstly because his background in football governance with the FA and as CEO of Portsmouth FC makes it possible to talk to club CEOs and the football authorities as a peer. Secondly he felt that he could sell the value of working with a Trust to clubs in a similar way to that in which Trusts could sell their value to fans, both commercially and in terms of governance. It seems Lampitt feels that people in power at football clubs don’t think fans can make decisions. Fans can make decisions if they have information on which to base them. The catch 22 lies in the mistrust that seems to exist between the two sides of the equation. His answer, which he elaborated on in the ‘Question Time’ discussion, was for a ‘more mature relationship’ between Trusts and their clubs.
Lampitt seems to be looking for SD to play a role in forging a ‘more structured relationship’ between clubs and fans. In effect this could place Trusts at the fulcrum of that relationship. He talked of a ‘collective move to get transparency’ to enable fan vigilance, although he did also concede that there are ‘areas where information is sensitive’. As with fans and their clubs, so perhaps with SD and the football authorities? To my mind this seems to be an intention of encouraging dialogue between the parties as a way to reach mutual understanding. Lampitt sees this as being achieved through ‘small steps.’ A gradual building of Trust involvement in their clubs in order wield influence in decision making.
So, does this represent a new direction for Supporters Direct? Is it likely that the commercial and community purposes of a football club can be drawn together? Can there be a move towards including the creation of conditions conducive to greater fan influence as well as fan ownership? And to do that does Supporters Direct have to be more active in the drive towards regulation that will facilitate those conditions? Will clubs have to be forced into it before a dialogue can even begin? And to achieve this, will Supporters Direct have to move from a focus on advocacy to a focus on lobbying for reform? Does the way truly lie in an atmosphere of co-operation between fans and clubs, or is it more likely to be achieved in the way Tom Greatrix advocated at the end of the day – through the co-operative model being the predominant format for football club ownership?
It is an intriguing position for Supporters Direct to be in, condemned as we are to living in ‘interesting times’ for the future of football governance.
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