The Runner Sports

Should Fan Owned Clubs Become The New Normal?

NFL fans close your eyes and imagine a scenario that you don’t like the direction your club is heading, not hard is it Browns, Oakland, and especially Rams fans?  For fans of teams with dysfunctional leadership that seem to be in a never-ending downward spiral or ownership that seems to be more invested elsewhere or worst of all, in the cities listed previously ownership that moves or wants to move the franchise away, there are few options.  Sure, you could discontinue your fandom and pick another team in a different city, but that simply isn’t an option for a “real” fan.  There might be a template forming to solve this problem all across Europe, but specifically in Germany where they have adopted a nationwide policy, that while not perfect, is providing an avenue for fans to let their voices be heard.

We’ll begin the journey in Germany, where the organizers of the league structure have adopted a 50+1 rule.  This rule stipulates that no single person or organization can own more than 49% of a club, the rest must be owned by the club’s members.  There are exceptions, as a few clubs were grandfathered in that are owned by companies, but those are the exceptions.  At its root, the 50+1 rule means that a club’s members get a say into the operation of how the club is run.  Typically each member gets a vote on a wide variety of things including appointing board members.  That means as I myself am a Browns fan, I could vote out the leadership when I become dissatisfied with how the team is run (which, well has been most of my life).

In addition to the obvious appeal of holding voting power, member-owned clubs naturally foster a great deal of passion throughout the supporters.  Across the board, supporters seem to be more passionate in Germany than nearly anywhere else in the world.  This is shown in elaborate tifo displays, attendance figures even in the second and third division, and fan engagement.  Often a club will have member operated gatherings that further foster a feeling of community.  Many clubs stress the importance of community activism, which isn’t uncommon from what most sports franchise stress in the United States.  Only the German clubs have a different feel.  What form it takes varies a great deal from club to club, but there is fundraising being done for various causes everywhere.

The final portion of the German soccer experience that comes from being “community owned” is the fair ticket prices and quality matchday experience.  The ticket prices are set at staggering figure, in a good way.  For an American football fan, often the cheapest prices for a ticket can be 50 dollars, not so in Germany.  Bayern Munich, arguably the best club in the world, has entire sections that sell for slightly more than 15 dollars.  The most expensive ticket in the entire building won’t cost you more than 75 dollars other than the luxury boxes, and this is the best and most popular club in the country.  The story continues across Germany with affordable tickets being the norm rather than the exception.  What to stand in Borussia Dortmund’s famous yellow wall?  It will cost slightly under 18 dollars.

FC United of Manchester is another example of what a supporter owned club can do.  Located in England, the club was formed in 2005 when Manchester United fans became disenfranchised when new owners bought the club.  At this point, the Premier League was getting an influx of new rich owners, tv money, and higher ticket prices.  The founders of FC United of Manchester thought that the match day experience around the Premier League was also suffering for it was well, so they set out to create their own club.

The idea behind FC United of Manchester is a simple one, they want to be a club for the supporters, run by the supporters.  Each person who pays 12 pounds a year becomes a part owner and takes part in the voting process to determine club policies.  In FC United’s case, they are completely owned by the supporters that number around 4,500.  The idea took off and to keep operating cost down, volunteers are used to do everything.  Everyone from the ticket takers to the game day radio commentators works for the club on a volunteer basis and it gives the club a unique homely feel.

There is also a stark difference in game day policies and atmosphere at the club’s newly built Broadhurst Park.  The feel of the new stadium was designed to have a throwback feel, opposed to the newly built stadium around the world that are all new age and technological.  There are standing-only terraces and a wooden stand that gives it an old-time feeling.  Supporters are encouraged to stand and sing and bring flags (a no-no in the Premier League) and it is regarded by many, as a fantastic atmosphere.

Through all this, however, it remains to be seen if the club can continue to move up the league structure operating in this manner.  After achieving five consecutive promotions after their formation, the club stalled out until once again achieving promotion at the end of the 2014/15 season into the National League North or the sixth level on the English pyramid.

Already this season, one the club’s missions of not moving matches for the sake of TV in favor of their supporters making plans has been challenged.  Their first round F.A. Cup match was moved for TV and the club was nearly powerless to stop it.  Supporters did make banners of protest that could be seen around the stadium and a number of fans protested by staying out of the match until the second half, but will those measures change anything?

FC United of Manchester will be the ultimate test to see how far a club that says it truly has its supporters’ best interest at heart can go.  Before this current season began, the supporters voted to set the season ticket prices at 100 dollars and that is fantastic, but in the current climate clubs are operating in, that may not be enough.  With low prices, no high-rolling investor, frugal spending/not going into debt, coupled with a supporter first value system it is unlikely FC United can make it to the Premier League or even Championship, but perhaps that isn’t the point.  Perhaps the truest goal of FC United is to give back to the community an enjoyable experience for a reasonable price and shouldn’t that be what sports are all about?  At the end of the day, that experience can be given in the lower league or the Premier League.

If nothing else, supporters owned clubs like FC United of Manchester, the 50+1 rule in Germany, and others around the world should show a route to a more democratic template that should be seen, around the United States and the world.  Fans should have a say in the way their favorite teams run especially as ticket prices, cable subscription fees, and merchandise prices continue to skyrocket across all sports.  Why does an NFL jersey have to cost 150 dollars?  I’m not saying fan owned clubs are perfect, like any democracy they have flaws and mismanagement, but it is the direction sports needs to move in.

John Harbeck

Ohio sports and all things soccer.If you like my writing follow me @JHarbeck5 on twitter

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