In the summer of 2021, the English Premier League was shocked to find that six of their clubs – Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal – wanted to break away and join the European Super League. They would have competed with the giants of European football: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan. The reason? Money. They wanted to join a league which had no relegation and therefore no stakes, just a constant stream of revenue – incredibly similar to how the National Football League is conducted in the United States.
Fortunately, the move completely fell apart mainly thanks to the numerous fan protests outside of the teams’ grounds. This push of collective strength by fans is important to highlight. It may be a cliché, but football is for the fans. Solidarity across the English Premier League spectrum was what stopped the super league becoming a reality – for now. If football fans wish to make sure their club doesn’t go down this path again, fan involvement and ownership is the answer.
But what is fan ownership in Scotland? Is it exactly what it says on the tin: a club owned by its fans. Fan-owned clubs will have a group of fans which own the club which anyone can join for a fee, usually monthly. The membership is entirely democratic with a one-member, one vote system – whilst the day-to-day running of the club is entrusted to elected members of the group. Often these clubs will also have plans or manifestos which highlight how they wish the club to operate over the tenure. Usually these plans also include community outreach and support in addition to how the club operates.
Writing in Tribune, Joe Blott, the chair of Liverpool supporters’ union, and Ian Byrne, the Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby, commented that in England there are talks of pursuing a German model of 50+1 fan ownership. The 50+1 rule in the Bundesliga protects clubs from falling into the hands of external investors by ensuring that the club’s members own 50% of its voting shares plus one share. This would be difficult with the clubs in the English Premier League, which are valued in the billions of pounds. But it may be possible in Scotland.
At the time of writing three of the 12 topflight teams in the Scottish Premiership –Motherwell, St Mirren and Heart of Midlothian – are fan owned. This is a growing trend in Scottish Football, and it is a positive one.
Motherwell, for example, has stayed in the Premiership in Scotland in the five years since it became majority fan owned. The fan group that owns the club is called the Well Society. They say the club exists “to improve people’s lives. It is here for the good of the community, not for the profit of any individual or consortium, and to develop young, talented footballers.” The Well Society is a perfect example of a democratic and member led group, similar to a trade union. Members pay a monthly due of their choice, from a £1 to £500 a month, with every member receiving a vote on how the club is run and the right to stand or elect members to run the day-to-day operations of Motherwell FC.
Community is key to any football club. Motherwell has moved away from the typical gambling sponsorships that you find in every football league. Now, they promote a local campaign in North Lanarkshire around suicide prevention. With fan ownership, the community that the club is built around always comes first. Even more impressively, in September of 2021, the Motherwell players and management staff joined the Well Society – making the club fan and worker owned.
The pandemic has deeply damaged the finances of every club in Scotland as the majority of revenue that Scottish clubs make is from tickets sold. This is a huge difference compared to the English Premier League where most of the revenues come from broadcasters. Despite the financial hit, Motherwell ran covid-safe sessions for those suffering from feeling isolated throughout 2020 and 2021. Since the league began again, Motherwell has made moves to bring the community back together. They gave season tickets away to children and anyone receiving benefits in the community. These tickets are the backbone of the revenues that clubs generate – Motherwell’s season tickets cost around £350. It is a real sign of comradery that the club made such an effort for their community.
Football is for the fans. Quite simply, if you can’t involve the fans, you can’t have football. Whilst down south and abroad football clubs with billions more revenue figure out new ways to pull in fans and squeeze every penny out of their love for the game, they struggle to fill stadiums. Pep Guardiola, the current manager of Manchester City FC, is struggling to fill their stadium even though they won the league. There needs to be a move away from seeing football clubs as businesses – they need to be viewed as community enterprises owned by the people from the communities they represent. Not only would this result in cheaper football tickets but it would also have a huge impact on the social relationships and trust that communities build together.
Fan-owned football teams have the power to reinvigorate local communities and small-town centres. There has been a significant increase in charitable giving and donations to foodbanks in areas where football clubs run community campaigns. Fan owned clubs present opportunity for local people to become involved in what’s going on around them, essentially creating a continuing cycle of growth for the community. We’ve seen this in action when a house burned down not far from where Motherwell play and the Well Society fans donated a significant amount to make sure this resident got their home back to a liveable standard, essentially acting as a mutual aid fund for their community.
We still have a long way to go. There must be a collective effort by fans of privately owned clubs to work together and demand a bigger say in the direction of their club.
In the case of the Hearts, in the shadow of huge financial troubles The Foundation of Hearts raised funds to take the club into the ownership of fans and eventually succeeded in 2021. St Mirren also became fan owned in the same year under the wing of the St Mirren Independent Supporters Association, working in tandem with the social enterprise Kibble. The constant in these stories of fan ownership is a movement built amongst the fans. Without grassroots collective action these dreams of fan ownership can never become a reality.
As socialists, we should be inspired by the organisation and activism that fan owned football clubs provide to their communities. If fan ownership can improve communities, the vision we share for ownership of the workplace and of our homes gets that much brighter. Fan ownership provides the perfect example that collective action by an organised and democratic group can have huge impacts on their surroundings. We must take these examples and bring them to the workplace – the societal improvements that could be made by people who own their workplaces and homes would be drastic.
The current cost of living crisis is a clear indication that people are being left without a say on how their lives are run. Fan owned football clubs often keep the prices of football kits affordable to allow those on lower incomes to access them – imagine what democratic pricing could bring when it comes to the cost of bread or gas. We should seriously consider the examples set by fan ownership when we think of the ideas of the future.
Derek Watson, a board member for Motherwell representing the Well Society, was recently interviewed by trade unionist Sean Baillie. His words sum up how those looking to create fan and worker ownership can move forward:
“When you talk about fan ownership, it’s important to remember that it cannot be forced. It can’t be top down, it has to be grassroots and like any campaign you want to make sure that it is the people who care about it the most, who are most affected and most invested in the club, that are making the case for it.”