UK government proposes fan ownership of clubs

UK football fans may be able to buy stakes in their favorite clubs. Arsenal vs. Manchester United, Champions League 2009 Photo (c) Flickr-user World of Good used under a Creative Commons 3.0 License

30.03.2010

By Steve Menary
Michel Platini has welcomed plans by the UK government to introduce radical new legislation aimed at giving football supporters the power to buy into their clubs and take a stake of up to 25%.

The plans are being put together by the ruling centre-left Labour Party, which has been in power for 13 years but is trailing the opposition Conservative Party by around 6% in opinion polls ahead of an election widely expected to be held next month.

Proposals leaked to The Guardian newspaper that would form part of the party’s election manifesto include proposed legislation that would force clubs to hand a proportion of their shares – possibly as much as 25% – to supporters' trusts comprised of democratically elected representatives.

These trusts would be recognized legally and help to maintain the clubs' links with their communities through a variety of as yet to be defined ways that would be left to the football authorities to work out.

Platini: It’s a great idea
UEFA president Platini, who has been pushing through ideas to enhance financial fair play and reduce debts, was far more enthusiastic. Asked about Labour's plans at a press conference in Brussels by a representative of The Guardian, he said: “Personally, I think it is a great idea … that the supporters invest in a club because they, at the end of the day, defend the club's identity," he said. "They are always there. They are always watching the games.”

Platini added that a decision over who could buy and sell clubs must be made by governments but he added that he preferred ownership models such as the Spanish socio model that means Barcelona and Real Madrid are effectively owned by their supporters.

“There are clubs now where the president is not a national of the country, the coach is not a national of the country and the players are not nationals of the country,” added Platini. “The only ones to have any kind of identity are the supporters.”

The proposals were also greeted warmly by Supporters Direct, the government financed organisation set up to help fans take stakes in their clubs, but rubbished by opposition political parties.

“The two parties - one of which will form the basis of the next government - both agree fans should have a stake in the clubs they support and are pledged to work to make it happen,” said SD chief executive Dave Boyle. “That's great news for the trust movement and long-overdue recognition that clubs aren't businesses like any other. We look forward to the next government - whoever it is - putting fans at the heart of the game and we will work with them to make it happen.”

'Pre-election gimmick'
Hugh Robertson, shadow sports minister for the main opposition, the right-wing Tory party, was less enthusiastic. "After 13 years of inactivity by the government on this issue, this has all the hallmarks of a pre-election gimmick,” Robertson told the Press Association: “There are massive, massive implications for company law and insolvency law."

Don Foster, sports spokesman for the more centrist Liberal Democrat party, which could have an enhanced role in government in the increasing likelihood of a hung-parliament, called the ideas a “pipe dream” and called instead for a radical overhaul of the English Football Association (FA), which is now looking for its sixth chief executive in a decade after the present incumbent Ian Watmore recently quit.

£3.4 billion worth of debts in English Premier League
The UK government proposals come only a month after a UEFA revealed that the total debts of the clubs in the English Premier League is £3.4 billion, which represents 56% of the total owed by all the clubs in the leading divisions in Europe.

The Premier League has assets of £3.8 billion but Spain’s La Liga, which has the next highest debt of £858 million, has a far higher asset base of £2.5 billion. In Italy, debts stand at £442 million but assets are £1.3 billion.

Shortly after the UEFA report, titled the European Club Footballing Landscape, was published, Portsmouth became the first Premier League club to go into administration. Portsmouth has had five owners this season and owes at least £60 million after overspending on players’ wages.

Escalating debts at Liverpool and Manchester United have heightened fears that football regulation in England is out of control; fears that were hardly allayed by the FA’s chief executive leaving after a little over a year in the post. According to The Guardian, Labour’s other plans for UK football include:

  • Implementing a change-of-control clause that would allow fans a window to put together a takeover of their club if it was up for sale or went into administration.
  • Giving the football authorities a deadline to reform the FA and remove "vested interests" from the board, and streamline decision making.
  • Introducing a unified system of governance that co-ordinates issues such as club ownership and youth development.
  • Allowing professional leagues and the FA additional oversight of club takeovers.

The plans may prove popular in the short term as a vote winner in an election which is expected to be called on Wednesday (March 31) but implementing the rules could be more problematic as the UK has a devolved system of government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which are all separately members of UEFA and FIFA.

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