In 2019, Bury Football Club was expelled from the Football League after 134 years of professional membership. Faced with over £1m of debt, unpaid wages, and gruelling legal battles, Bury became the latest club unable to sustain itself in the modern game. An estimated 75 per cent of football league clubs in the bottom two divisions are in danger of going bankrupt in the next decade. For the fans and local community, the news was shattering; the club has been part of the local fabric for generations.
Meanwhile, only 11 miles down the road, Manchester City’s glittering team had just won a second consecutive league title. Owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family, City has recently been valued as the world’s most valuable football team, with an estimated worth of £3.73bn. City is part of elite football’s profitability boom. In the 2017/2018 season, revenue across the Premier League grew to a record £4.8 bn. With the woman’s game on the rise and football expanding to new markets, top-level football is richer than ever before.
There have always been disparities between wealthier and poorer clubs in the game, but in recent years it feels like a line has been crossed. Whether it be reckless owners destroying small clubs, ever-inflating ticket prices, or grotesque wages, the sad truth is that modern football has been ruthlessly captured by big money interests, and is suffering for it. Linking together these trends is the fact that the interests of fans and the communities around clubs are no longer being prioritised when compared to the interests of owners, shareholders, and the array of media and investor money now permeating the game.
So how can we bring the people’s game back home to ordinary fans and communities? One solution we are exploring at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies comes from Germany, where clubs tend to be better run and have healthier ties to their communities. This has not happened by accident. In 1998, the German FA introduced the 50+1 rule (50+1-Regel) – an approach to football fan ownership that has come to define the German model of community-based, fan-centred football.
The 50+1 rule saw fan associations become the controlling shareholder for clubs. Clubs in the Bundesliga now operate under a structure where member associations maintain at least 50 per cent voting rights in their running, plus one additional vote, with outside investors holding a minority stake. Members pay a small annual fee to be part of a fan association, which grants them voting rights in a general assembly, enabling them to elect the supervisory and management boards.
German football is by no means perfect, but the 50+1 rule means that fans interests are better represented than in the UK. For example, clubs cannot raise ticket prices above inflation without good reason. Similarly, broadcasters cannot set away fixtures at awkward times in the week when public travel is unavailable. Perhaps most importantly, fans can block potentially dodgy owners from stealing and then ruining their clubs.
Along with introducing the 50+1 rule, we should look at other ways to reassert football as a force for good in local communities. If we look at the Fans Supporting Foodbanks initiative, which arose out of a shared desire to combat poverty across the local rivalry between Liverpool and Everton fans, we can see that football can and should be a powerful force to build social solidarity, and improve people’s lives. We need governance and ownership structures that reward good behaviour, rather than clubs simply run in the interests of wealthy shareholders.
Football has always been the people’s game, deeply rooted in our communities and our way of life. But the impact of money on the modern game is driving young fans away, destroying smaller clubs, and fuelling inequality. It is time to bring football home, so we can call it our own once more.
Jonty Leibowitz is from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (cles.org.uk)
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