Sunday 5 February 2017

Who Actually Owns A Football Club

I wrote this in April 2016 towards the end of last football season. The protests by the Aston Villa fans was in full flow and Arsenal fans were in open dissent following the loss at Old Trafford & at home to Swansea.

My return to this topic is motivated by a phrase I keep hearing from so called pundits and people who should know better. I have heard several comments that football club owners are guardians, holding the club in trust for the fans and the community.

I am actually baffled by this and wonder how come this notion has become so pervasive. I am staggered that a large number of fans actually believe that club owners own the club in trust.

It is a season to demonstrate for fans of Charlton, Coventry, Blackburn, Blackpool, Nottingham Forest, and Leyton Orient etc. They want the owners to get out of their club. Including clubs that were almost dying and could potentially have been liquidated if not for the hard cash of some of these owners.

At the moment, the protest at clubs like Arsenal against the owners is somewhat passively aggressive. With the loss to Watford & Chelsea this week, some disgruntled fans are baying for Arsene Wenger’s neck. The next negative result if it follows a poor run, will lead to the same fans demanding that Gazidis & Kroenke be frog jumped to Tower Bridge and guillotined.

So who really owns a football club? The fans? The community? The shareholders? Sky Sports (the Paymasters) or a combination of all of these?

The fans are usually very vocal in their claim to ownership. There will be no club without us is what you usually hear. There will be no atmosphere. The fans are the club.

In some clubs, the owners have been so exasperated and have come out to state clearly that they will accept reasonable offers to sell. Some like the Blackpool owners are more combative and have indicated they are going nowhere. 

As an Arsenal fan, I am more concerned about my club and I note that Stan Kroenke has been silently classy in view of the many hostile comments from general and celebrity fans. There has been no tantrum and no flipping of the bird at fans either by the club ownership and or management.

Taking a step back and focusing on Arsenal. The club that is Arsenal today was first formed by a group of munitions workers in today’s Woolwich, South East London. When that club went into voluntary liquidation, Sir Henry Norris bailed the club out and owned the shares. He had to leave the club following some issues with the FA and by the end of World War 2; the shares were in the hands of William Hill – Wood & Sir Bracewell Smith.

At that time, owning the shares was seen largely as a charitable exercise to provide recreational entertainment for the working people of North London. Eventually the shares changed hands many times and today we have the two major shareholders in Stan Kroenke as the controlling / majority shareholder and Alisher Usmanov with under a 3rd of the shares.

At current share price, the club will be valued at close to or more than a £1b. It is very interesting to note that up to 1945, the shares wasn’t worth much, however the growth of football as a global sport, the financial muscle of Sky and the on - the – field success achieved by Arsenal has resulted in those shares appreciating to a figure close to £1b.

So what part of the club do the fans own? Yes fans have contributed to the success of the club. The atmosphere in the stadium will be rubbish without the fans. Perhaps more appropriate to say more ‘rubbisher’ seeing as it is challenging to rouse the fans during games.

The rise of the Club from those pre Herbert Chapman days of financial challenges and little success could potentially not have happened without the fans and a great manager like Mr. Chapman but at some point, all of that become somewhat irrelevant. Why?

With or without solid on - the - pitch success, a club can now earn in excess of £100m pa from the riches of Sky Sports. Yes the fans especially the fans from further afield, the non-stadium going fans and the advertising companies are responsible for these riches. A club like Arsenal can now afford to give away free tickets to generate atmosphere and push the burden of commercial revenues to fans that don’t believe the club is beholden to them because their grandfathers were ardent supporters and used to pay 'tupence' to watch matches.

I will try to use another analogy. I have watched a few local shops grow in the area where I live. I have shopped there without fail week in week out. My hard earned pounds, that of my family and my neighbors have helped this local shop become successful. The shop owner now has a house of his own and rides the latest Mercedes Benz. Guess what? We (me, my family and our neighbors) own this shop because without our patronage of this local shop they could never have been successful.

I do wonder why football is the only asset where people genuinely hold on to this myopic view that fans / supporters of the business own the club. Yes as fans we are key stakeholders. Like we are also key stakeholders of Tesco, Sainsbury etc. The club should take our (the global family of fans) wishes into account just like Tesco and Sainsbury take our wishes into account when they decide shop format and goods to stock and perhaps opening times etc.

But please quit the delusion of ‘we own the club’. If fans want to genuinely own a club, get organizing fast. One pound from each member of that fan base is £11m. It might buy Leyton Orient. £10 pounds per 11 million members is £110m and this might buy a premier league club at the bottom of the table. While an average of £100 per 11 million members can potentially put a sizable bid on the table for Mr. Kroenke to consider. 

Kroenke Out is not for social media alone. Do something tangible if you really want your club back.

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