Supporters trusts to play bigger role in UK football, say Labour Party

Hull City fans take part in their  City Til We Die protest against owner, Assem Allam, last season - when the latter wanted to rebrand the club Hull Tigers

Hull City fans take part in their City Til We Die protest last season

THE UK’S LABOUR Party plans to overhaul the way the nation’s football clubs are run, with greater power to clubs’ supporters, should it win the general election next May.

Fans would be empowered to remove up to a quarter of the directors on their club’s board, and would have the right to buy up to 10 per cent of their club’s shares during any takeover or change in ownership.

Clive Efford MP, Labour’s shadow sports minister – who more recently has spoken publicly on the Ched Evans rape case –  said in a statement: “We have reached a tipping point in the way football is run.

“Too often fans are treated like an afterthought as ticket prices are hiked up, grounds relocated and clubs burdened with debt or the threat of bankruptcy.”

Borussia Dortmund fans on the famous Südtribüne (South Bank) terrace at Westfalenstadion

Borussia Dortmund fans on their famous ‘South Bank’ terrace – the largest terrace in European football

As English fans find it increasingly fashionable to say in such cases: ‘It’s not like this in Germany’.

Debt and insolvency

The announcement has been made against the backdrop of the ceaseless and rapid rise in costs for British football fans, particularly since the beginning of the Sky Sports and Premier League era in 1992.

The BBC’s latest Price of Football study published on Wednesday shows that the average cost of attending a football league game has risen at more than twice the rate of the cost of living since 2011 (13%).

Supporters are not only feeling priced out but helpless and ignored, as clubs like Portsmouth, Leeds United and Birmingham City have been steered into debt and insolvency in the past decade by poor decision-making at boardroom level.

Meanwhile Coventry City fans had to watch their club’s home games 30 miles away in Northampton for the whole of last season, as the club’s owners and the local council engaged in financial trench warfare.

And while Cardiff City – the Bluebirds – now play in red home kit to satisfy an owner and his overseas marketing ideals, fans of Hull City waged a season-long war with their owner last year in order to prevent being rebranded as ‘Hull Tigers’.

Price of football: the figures and context

4.4% versus 1.2% – the year-on-year ticket price rise is more than treble the rate of inflation

£3 billion – price at which the Premier League sold its TV rights for the years 2013-2016.

£4.50 – the most expensive pie in all English football, at Kidderminster Harriers of the English fifth tier.

Clive Efford, MP for Eltham and the Labour Party's shadow sports minister

Clive Efford MP, Labour’s shadow sports minister

Formal relationship

The new measures would allow for fans of each club to found and run an officially sanctioned supporters’ trust that could then take advantage of the rights outlined by Labour.

Supporter-controlled football clubs are not a novel phenomenon, though, with Portsmouth, Exeter City, Wycombe Wanderers and AFC Wimbledon currently all fan-owned and playing their football in England’s League 2.  There is also the famous case of community-owned FC United of Manchester, founded as a breakaway club in 2005 by disillusioned Manchester United fans after the Red Devils were taken over by Malcolm Glazer, an American businessman.

“Giving football fans a voice is part of our plan to change our country by devolving power to our cities towns and communities.” – John Cruddas MP, Labour

Supporters Direct, an organisation set up to help fans to initiate their own supporters’ trusts, welcomed Labour’s plans.  In a statement, they said: “This signals the establishment of the formal relationship between supporters’ trusts and their clubs, which we have sought for many years.

“No-one in football denies the special social and community nature of football clubs, yet there has always been a resistance to measures that would actually increase the role of those fans in their clubs.”

The ‘how’ of supporters trusts

So how would a supporters trust work under these new measures?  Governance standards would be maintained by an umbrella body with which all supporters trusts would be affiliated, with trusts compelled to adhere to its own constitution and elect a board on a one-member-one-vote basis.  Moreover the reforms have already been verified as compatible with European law by the Labour’s legal advisers.

And for anyone wanting to know how the financial cogs are going to turn in these proposals, the party’s official release on the planned shake-up does go into some detail.  Any buyer “acquiring control of the club (defined at a 30 per cent level) would be required to offer the Supporters Trust up to ten per cent of the shares they were buying in that transaction at the average price paid by the buyer for relevant securities in the year preceding the change of control.”  That offer would then have to remain open for 240 days.

Also noted in the report is that supporters trusts would have the right to “appoint and remove up to a quarter and not less than two of a football club’s directors.”

Jon Cruddas MP, head of the Labour Party’s policy review, said in his statement: “Football is more than business, football clubs are part of people’s identity and sense of belonging.

“Giving football fans a voice is part of our plan to change our country by devolving power to our cities towns and communities.”

Words: Sean Gibson

Photos: Jon Candy (lead); wolf4max (inset [i]); IFAW Tails for Whales (inset [ii]).

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