Fan Involvement in Club Governance: A Balanced Diet

For the fourth straight year, BBC Sport has published its annual “Price of Football” report, highlighting the cost of being a supporter across the top 4 flights of British football. The most significant finding of the report, or perhaps the most controversial, is that ticket prices have increased at more than twice the rate of inflation since 2011. Fans obviously know that ticket prices have gone up, but the comparison versus inflation has led to an increased focus on the issue, particularly when one considers that the increase in broadcasting revenues, especially in the Premier League, could be used to help lower ticket prices to make it more manageable for the fans – at least, such is the view of many supporters.

There is no excuse for the price of tickets to rise above the rate of inflation. The money from the Premier League’s new media deal needs to be shared more evenly across the pyramid and there is no reason why some of it cannot be passed onto the fans instead going straight into the pockets of club owners and players.

– Michael Clarke, Chair of Football Supporters Federation

Source: BBC Sport

Source: BBC Sport

The 2013/14 season turned in the some of the best attendance numbers for the Premier League in its history, averaging 36,695 supporters per match, and filling stadiums to 95% capacity on average, the best since the 1949/50 campaign, according to Cathy Long, the Premier League’s head of supporter services. Though the impact on the league’s attendance figures would appear to be minimal, despite supporter outrage at the increase in ticket prices, former Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King warned,

Any business that thinks it can simply rely upon the loyalty of its customers, regardless of how they treat them, in the end will fail. It’s an absolute fact. Therefore I would be asking clubs, ‘are your fans happier today than they were five years ago with the experience that they get, the value for money that they feel they’re getting?

King stresses that the value proposition for the fan is paramount to increase at the same rate as the supporter’s costs – a point some might argue clubs may have lost sight of.

The situation has led the opposition Labour party in Britain to propose new regulations for club governance rules that would require new owners of English and Welsh football clubs to sell up to ten percent of the club’s shares to its supporters, a model more akin to that of the Bundesliga.

According to a report from Reuters, should the Labour party win the majority in the upcoming May 2015 election (current polls indicate this is a distinct possibility), it will also push for regulations that would mandate clubs to allow supporters organizations to appoint at least two members of a club’s board of directors.

Party sports spokesperson and lawmaker Clive Efford said,

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.

Under the proposed regulations buyers of a stake in a club must offer ten percent of the shares that they purchase at cost to a “democratically run supporters’ trust representing the club’s fans.” This might seem at first to be a fairly significant change to club governance in British football, but when you consider that the supporters’ trust would not be able to block takeovers or make any changes in corporate strategy, the impact is relatively minimal, at least in terms of the running of the club. The more significant impact of these regulations would be that potential buyers of stakes in clubs might be deterred from investing in British football because they would have to give up a portion of their shares to the supporters’ trust, thereby putting the highly lucrative foreign investment dollars that have fueled the growth of the game in Britain in recent years potentially at risk.

Some would argue that it is high time that supporters were given a seat at the table of club governance, and that foreign investors who have no vested interests in the club other than monetary do not have the club’s best interests at heart and are spending beyond their means, driving clubs further into debt. These new regulations would certainly allow supporters opinions to be heard more by key decision makers, however, if they have no power over corporate strategy, they will need to be quite persuasive should they have a disagreement with those that do hold that power.

Perhaps this could be the balance that is needed. As good as it might sound to supporters to have some control over the direction of their club, you would run the risk of having emotional, and perhaps somewhat inexperienced, fans sitting on the board and possessing some level of decision-making power or influence, which could lead to poor business for the club.

The overall issue at stake is that the voice of the supporters, who are the entire reason for being for any professional sports organization, has been somewhat lost in British football in recent years. Even though supporters won’t necessarily be given the power to make changes with regard to the governance of their clubs, they would be given the opportunity to be potential influencers in key decisions and would certainly be given the platform they deserve to make their voices heard should these regulations come to fruition.

 

What do you think about the potential new club governance regulations the Labour party could introduce to British football? Let us know in the comments section below, or via Facebook or Twitter.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.