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A revolution in ownership structure?

Sensible commentary on Glazer's takeover of Manchester United - now assured of success in a technical sense - has been in relatively short supply. One of the better pieces is Richard Williams' column in Saturday's Guardian. After a skeptical treatment of "Chicken Little" responses to the transaction, Williams offers his view of the larger issue:

No doubt a Glazer or an Abramovich would respond to the supporters' demand to play a part in the affairs of their club by pointing out that the purchase of tickets to see Sylvie Guillem at Covent Garden does not give the buyer the right to a say in the Royal Ballet's artistic policy. The only way to exert influence in a free market is to stay away, a decision some United fans are threatening to take. No doubt there will be plenty of others waiting to take their places.

But, being neither simply business nor an art form, sport is not susceptible to their rules of organisation. It is about a different sort of identification, a sense of emotional belonging that is both easily agitated and fundamentally unbreakable. And in the end the best way to run a football club, by far, is through the ownership of its members.

This is the structure used by Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and AFC Wimbledon, the club formed by fans alienated by the old Wimbledon. The two Spanish giants, with memberships of 85,000 and 102,000 respectively, are non- profit-making and fully democratic organisations, holding quadrennial elections at which a president is mandated to run the club's affairs. AFC Wimbledon are run by a trust that aims to control at least 75% of the club's shares, and it will be interesting to see how long that principle survives in the club's rapid climb up the pyramid of English football.

The Wimbledon case in interesting: a club purchased by foreign owners, and in what is extremely rare in English football, packing up and moving to new digs in Milton Keynes. The fans in Wimbledon created their own team and are attempting to play their way back up the ladder to the Football League. In the U.S., a similar result has been obtained by dissimilar means. When teams in Cleveland and Houston left for better prospects in Baltimore and Nashville, the towns got their teams back after paying ransom of about $1 billion (yes, with a b) to the NFL. I definitely prefer the English approach to the problem.

Williams is a fan of the trust/democratic concept of club ownership. It certainly has some appeal, but I have reservations. It is easy to see how the top clubs in Williams' list - Bayern, Barcelona, and Real Madrid - generate the interest from their fan base to take an ownership stake. But ownership structure might not work nearly as well at Bolton, Dundee, or Wigan. Wigan, for example, have just won promotion to the Premier League for the first time thanks to an owner who financed the transformation of the club. This would have been virtually impossible under the democratic form of organization.

The championship seasons of Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers stem from a similar pattern of investment and vision. And therein lies the problem, as I see it, with democratic ownership of football clubs. It limits the potential source of competition, and thereby enhances the dominance of clubs currently on top. Forcing it upon an entire league could be costly.

Nevertheless, the concept has momentum, as suggested by Kevin Mitchell's column in Sunday's Observer. Mitchell has both feet in the Chicken Little camp, but provides some interesting information from David Boyle, Deputy Manager of an organization called Supporters Direct:

'If Glazer had tried this on five years from now,' says Boyle, 'the United fans would have had a very good chance of stopping him.'

It is some claim. But, he says, Supporters Direct is one of the best-kept secrets in football and is growing. He predicts that its guiding principle - turning fans into shareholders and encouraging the bond between the community and the boardroom - is the only way forward. 'Every model has been tried: butcher, baker, candlestick maker, millionaires, sugar daddies, plcs. They have all run up debts and gambled with tomorrow's money today. This is the only game left in town because, as long as there are football fans, there will be football clubs. In truth, the game has never been as properly run and community-based as it can be.'

There are 10 Football League clubs where trusts have a majority holding, with Stockport County and Rushden & Diamonds coming on board next month. 'In five years,' says Boyle, '25 per cent of clubs in the Nationwide will be run by supporters trusts. That should be up to 50 per cent in 10 years. And 20 years from now we expect the vast majority of clubs to be run by their supporters.'

Interesting. Having a mix of alternative ownership structures is probably a good thing for the game. But I am curious as to why none of the top English clubs are run by one of Boyle's trusts.

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