“Football without the fans is nothing”
– Jock Stein
You know that football is in trouble when owner of Hull City FC expresses his desire for the club’s supporters to “die as soon as they want”[i]. Hull’s owner considers the current club name to convey a “lousy” and “common” identity, and in pursuing plans to rebrand the team as Hull Tigers has provoked fans into setting up a ‘City Till We Die’ protest group. The proposed name change is designed to make the club appeal to a wider international audience, and though it might not strike one initially as a life or death issue it confronts fans with the bitter reality of modern football.
Successfully converted into a globalised cultural commodity, those that turn up to support their team every week are seen as mere customers whose presence pays off debt and funds corporate expansion. The fact that the sheer presence and vocality of collective fandom creates the cultural phenomenon of football itself – be it local rivalries, home advantage or club history – is ignored, with supporters given no say over how the clubs themselves are run.
There are signs, however, that collective opposition to the commercial takeover of football clubs is in a nascent stage. The increasingly popular creation of Supporters’ Trusts, formed by fans as a means of promoting their own democratic control over their club’s activities, represents a concrete means by which progress is achievable. Backed by the umbrella organisation Supporters Direct, the creation of which was described by director Ken Loach as “about the one good thing”[ii] New Labour accomplished when in office, there are now over 180 Supporters’ Trusts and 30 clubs owned by their supporters[iii]. This article seeks to describe the brief history of the Supporters’ Trust movement, and to consider its ability to engender a challenge to entrenched economic interests. There is hope yet for fans of Hull City FC.
Supporters Direct was established in 2000 in response to the recommendations of the Football Task Force, a body that was created by the fledgling New Labour government in one of their few attempts to engage with working-class culture. The crucial impetus for its successfulrealisation, however, came from the victory of fan opposition groups against Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to buy Manchester United in 1998[iv]. In the guise of his broadcasting company BSkyB, Murdoch’s bid was accepted by shareholders but ultimately blocked by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) following a campaign from groups such as Independent Manchester United Supporters Association and Shareholders Against Murdoch. If the deal had gone ahead, it would have provided Murdoch with seats on both sides of the negotiating table between BSkyB and the Premier League clubs, and thus enhanced his power to dictate both prices and broadcast rights; a true kicker conspiracy[v].
What is interesting about the MMC decision and its recognition of supporters’ advocacy is its acceptance of the view that football and its fans cannot be considered simply within a commodity-consumer framework. Fans who pay to see a game are not analogous to consumers of other commodities, since supporter presence essentially defines the meaning – and can indeed affect the outcome – of the football matches on display. Admission prices enable entrance to the stadium, but the nature of the next 90 minutes is an unrehearsed drama in which fans play an essential part. Through songs, chants, fanzines and the like, supporters create an atmosphere that make it easier for teams to win at home, and contribute to an ever-developing club identity. Ultimately it is this atmosphere that somebody in a pub buys into when they watch a game on TV; after all, watching an abstract group of 22 men kicking a ball around on a patch of grass isn’t the most obvious source of entertainment. Clubs therefore owe a specific loyalty to their fans over and above the interests of shareholders, a fact which undermines the great capitalist myth that society is best served by capital pursuing its owners’ self-interest.
The existence of Supporters Direct has given grassroots supporter initiative a concrete framework from which to challenge corporate ownership. Specifically, the organisation provides assistance to clubs that are interested in becoming fan owned and to supporters who wish to form a Supporters’ Trust. The Trusts themselves are constituted as Industrial and Provident Societies, run on a non-profit basis with a one-member one-vote organisational principle. Their general aim is to promote democratic representation at a club, whilst many share the ultimate goal of fan ownership as is more widespread in Germany and Spain[vi]. The importance of their formation to the health of the game cannot be overstated, with Supporters’ Trusts saving over 20 clubs in financial trouble following the collapse of ITV Digital in 2002[vii]. There are now nearly 190 Supporters’ Trusts, 73 of which have at least one Director on the board of their club, whilst 33 teams are supporter-owned.
A recent success case is that of the Pars Supporters Trust, which formed Pars United and has now taken ownership of the destitute Dunfermline Athletic FC[viii]. The extent to which the formation of such Trusts will lead to a generalised reorganisation of football clubs, however, is yet to be seen. Swansea City in the Premier League is part owned by supporters and has an elected director, but the market value and sky-high debt of most top teams makes fan ownership a distant goal. Supporters Direct itself is reliant on money from the Premier League[ix], whilst the struggle to compete financially has meant that several Supporters’ Trusts – many at lower league levels – have been forced to cede ownership to wealthy buyers[x]. Responding to the sense of futility that such barriers might engender, however, Alex Niven makes a convincing case in Folk Opposition for a sense of optimism with regards what he considers to be a bottom-up revival of collective action. In the face of rapacious commercialisation, the limited successes of Supporters’ Trusts at least represent concrete and existing examples of co-operative organisation. We should therefore resist cynicism, and celebrate the cultural autonomy that they have achieved.
Some of the best examples come from clubs that have been newly created from the ground-up, several of which have proved their ability to adopt and promote radical ends. AFC Wimbledon was formed in 2002 after Wimbledon FC decided to relocate to Milton Keynes, and has been praised for combining financial stability and community involvement with success on the pitch. The commitment of AFC Wimbledon fans to the specific location of the team – the club’s fanzine When Saturday Comes still refuses to acknowledge the existence of the club that moved to Milton Keynes[xi] – stands in contrast to a foot-loose global capital that is unhinged from attachments to space or place. The instinct to preserve a sense of heritage and identity is widespread across football fandom, and though it is not necessarily a progressive end in itself it becomes noteworthy when used to contest corporate mismanagement. Further still, as the friendly links between Celtic and St. Pauli[xii] fans demonstrates[xiii], identification with a particular place or history is not necessarily exclusive of cross-border fraternity.
Another club started from scratch is FC United of Manchester (FCUM), which was set up by fans in protest at price hikes following the debt-laden takeover of Manchester United by Malcolm Glazer in 2005. FCUM’s manifesto emphasises democratic decision-making, anti-discrimination and anti-capitalist commitments such as to “strive wherever possible to avoid outright commercialism”[xiv]. The team’s shirt bears no sponsorship logo, and the club have experimented with allowing fans to set their own price for their season ticket. This allows supporters to take collective responsibility for club finances so that prices better reflect ability to pay, and interestingly has seen a rise in the average price paid for season tickets[xv]. As the anarchist magazine Organise! notes, the fact that several of the club’s supporters have been targeted by the fascist Redwatch website is a positive sign indeed!
Perhaps worryingly, even the Tories and Lib-Dems are now in favour of fan-ownership, with their 2010 coalition agreement mildly committing to “support the co-operative ownership of football clubs by their supporters”[xvi]. Right-wing co-option of co-operatives in this instance expresses an acceptance of grassroots involvement in culture on the grounds that such activity is isolated from a broader critique of corporate interests in the so-called real economy. This division between the cultural and the economic, however, is here misplaced. The owner of Hull City FC, for example, states that his aim is to “manage the club for the benefit of the community”[xvii], and thus claims that the interests of profit-seeking enterprises and community activity coincide. The very same argument is repeated as a mantra by the political class whenever they attempt to justify the privatisation of public services or their failure to stand-up to the banking and utility industries. Popular challenges to the corporate control and governance of football therefore have the potential to encourage similar critiques elsewhere, which truly would set the world in motion[xviii].
[iv] Paul Willis, Cultural Commodities, and Collective Sport Fandom: http://journals.humankinetics.com/AcuCustom/Sitename/Documents/DocumentItem/5617.pdf
[vi] Alex Niven, Folk Opposition, pg. 66
[xi]Anarchist Federation, Organise!, pg. 12: http://flag.blackened.net/af/org/org71.pdf
[xii]FC St. Pauli is a club from Hamburg whose supporters are renowned for their anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-homophobic and anti-sexist culture.