Football: Growing support for fan ownership

Football: Despite the riches generated by the most successful clubs there is a huge gulf between the rich and the poor
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The Independent Online
IN THE decade since the Hillsborough disaster, English football's governing bodies have pointed to the post-Taylor Report rebuilding of grounds and football's Premiership-led commercial revolution as evidence that the game has fundamentally reformed itself following the failures of the past. Today, at a ground-breaking conference in London, the game's authorities will be told different; speakers will argue that Stock Market flotations, financial inequality between clubs and "exploitation of supporters" demonstrate that the game remains inadequately governed.

No less a figure than Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of modern football's most successful plc, warns in a foreword to the conference book of "the danger of over-commercialisation". He criticises football's failure to use its huge new revenue to keep ticket prices down, instead seeing the money drain into the inflated salaries of the players.

Amongst a range of reforms under discussion, speakers will call for a change to the structure of clubs themselves, mostly owned currently by a few shareholders, to introduce the concept of supporter ownership. This idea - "mutual" or trust ownership by fans - is believed to be a key recommendation in the Football Task Force's forthcoming final report, and will be backed at the conference by the Minister of Sport, Tony Banks.

The conference, "The Governance and Regulation of Professional Football", takes place at London's Birkbeck College and is organised by a Professor of Management, Jonathan Michie, a leading figure in Shareholders United, Manchester United supporters' campaign earlier this year to oppose the club's takeover by BSkyB.

"Since the Hillsborough disaster football has undergone a commercial revolution," Michie said. "But its underlying structures, the people in charge, are basically the same. The governing bodies, in particular the FA, have failed to manage the game for the good of all supporters, many of whom have been exploited, and of the game at large, which is now so financially unequal. We are aiming with this conference to help football consider how it can better govern itself, and for the Government to decide what kind of regulation is necessary to achieve that."

The conference is believed to be the first to concentrate influential minds on football's archaic governing structure and absence of a regulatory framework. In a foreword to the conference book, "A Game of Two Halves? The Business of Football", Ferguson warns of "a danger of over commercialisation". "The influx of TV revenues has gone largely in increased players' salaries," he says. "As any football fan will tell you, the hugely increased revenues certainly haven't gone to keep ticket prices down."

Remarkably, Sir Alex argues that TV revenue should be shared more equally between clubs, "to maintain some degree of league balance", in exchange for flexibility from the authorities over fixture congestion - a timely call given United's controversial withdrawal from the FA Cup, done with the FA's blessing but with no perceptible benefit to other clubs.

Representatives of all three governing bodies, the FA, Premier League and Football League, will attend the conference, hearing criticisms from speakers from within football, supporter organisations and academics, arguing, broadly, for a more community and supporter-oriented framework for the running of the game.

Since the 1992 Premier League breakaway and its multi-million pound deals with BSkyB, combined with rising ticket prices and aggressive commercial practices, football's wealth has become concentrated in the hands of shareholders of ever fewer big clubs. Eighteen English clubs are now floated on the Stock Exchange. In order to float, the clubs formed holding companies to bypass long-established FA rules, designed to restrict financial exploitation of clubs and to retain their sporting character.

The conference follows a previous Birkbeck conference in February, in which academics from universities across Britain proposed alternative models for clubs to safeguard them as community assets. In a foreword to a pamphlet, "New Mutualism: A Golden Goal?" produced for today's conference, Tony Banks gives Government support to the concept. "Many supporters have first-hand experience of the shortcomings of traditional forms of ownership, where the club's future rests with one individual," he says.

Citing the examples of Northampton and Bournemouth, both embracing substantial supporter ownership and, abroad, Barcelona, still a supporter-owned club, Banks continues: "Greater supporter ownership of clubs offers a solution to a number of perceived problems in the game and is an idea whose time has clearly come."

It is believed that the Football Task Force's final report, due out next month, will propose a range of measures to encourage supporter ownership of clubs, including a requirement that clubs recognise and provide financial and administrative resources to supporter shareholder associations and allow them to elect a supporter representative as a director. This idea has long been recognised as progressive, and was supported by the FA in its 1991 "Blueprint for the Future of Football", the document which backed the Premier League breakaway. However, it has since been introduced at only a handful of clubs.

Michie hopes the conference will encourage a dedicated move towards a reform programme. "It is startling that it has taken so long for a concerted critical analysis of football's governing structure," he says. "But there is an increasing recognition that the game has failed to keep pace with the commercial revolution. Fans are now organising themselves in quite sophisticated ways, and it is now up to football - and the Government - to govern and regulate the game properly, for the good of all."

n Today's conference, "The Governance and Regulation of Professional Football", will be held at Birkbeck College, Malet Street, London WC1, from 10am to 5pm. Entry is available on the door, or details from Steve Warby on 0171 631 6743.

David Conn is the author of The Football Business (Mainstream, pounds 7.99) and will speak at the conference