How Do Fan-Owned Football Clubs Work?

So, the European Super League doesn’t look like it’s going to happen after all. Cue the sliding violins and the bleeding hearts.

In fact, one of the most interesting aspects to the Super League itself was not the games that would have been played (Chelsea vs Barcelona was great that one time it made Gary Neville make some very unusual noises, but at least twice every year). No, it’s how the fans of the clubs involved will react, and have reacted already.

Already, we’ve seen protest outside Chelsea and Tottenham’s grounds, and when fans are allowed back into stadiums, the moods in those arenas could well be toxic.

Many fans of other clubs that have felt similarly in the past have even ended up simply taking charge themselves by buying them. This will obviously be harder with eye-wateringly expensive assets like these 12 ‘Super’ clubs, but just how do fan-owned clubs work?

Can Fans Own Football Clubs?

Of course they can. They’ve got as much right to own their club as any oligarch who doesn’t even know what colour your team plays in.

You just need two main things – enough money to buy at least a stake in the club if not all of it outright, and to pass the oft-ridiculed ‘Fit and Proper Person test’ (at least in England and Scotland, anyway).

As a general rule, you will fail this test, which is more stringent in the Premier League than in the EFL or National League, if:

In general, a businessman will fail the test if:

  • They already have influence over, or a significant interest in, another English club.
  • They have been prohibited by law from being a director.
  • They are filing for bankruptcy.
  • They have been director of a club while it has suffered at least two unconnected events of insolvency.
  • They have been a director of at least two clubs which, while they have been director, has suffered insolvency.
  • For example if the club is a privately owned company then they will simply have to have an appropriate offer accepted by the existing owners. However, if the club is a plc then there is a requirement that the new owner has a certain number of shares in place before they can take ownership of the club.

In England, if the club is a privately-owned company, prospective buyers will simply need their offer to be accepted by the existing owners. But if it is a public limited company, any new owner must have a certain amount of shares in place before taking over.

Why Are Some Clubs Owned by Fans?

A number of reasons, really. Perhaps their club went bust and the fans want to set up a Supporters’ Trust to form a phoenix club.

Others may set up new clubs as a form of protest against the club they’ve supported ‘FC United of Manchester,’ for example, were created by Manchester United fans who opposed the 2005 takeover of American businessman Malcolm Glazer.

The idea of fan ownership has even been championed by a leading think tank in England. Will Tanner, director of ‘Onward,’ said in May 2020: “It is difficult for fans to get detailed information on how their clubs are run. The accounts of many are opaque and most rugby clubs rely on benefactors rather than sustainable business models.

“Fans invest a lot emotionally every week and pay increasing prices on the gate. There should be greater responsibility to them.

This is about transparency, accountability and governance. We recommend greater fan ownership and involvement in the running of clubs, football and rugby.

“We want the government to encourage that and in its manifesto it included the promise of a £150m community ownership fund.”

How Do Fan-Owned Football Clubs Work?

Some may operate as minority fan-owned clubs, where Supporters’ Trusts work alongside private, presumably richer investors, while still influencing the direction of the club.

Others are entirely owned by fans, run by a trust and maintained by a democratic membership. They commonly use a ‘one member, one vote’ system, with day-to-day running of the clubs left in the hands of trusts of elected members. They also often have manifestos, dedicated to things like sustainability and for community support.

Germany uses a different model – the ’50+1′ model, which we’ll get onto in a little while.

What Football Clubs Are Owned by the Fans?

Barcelona are the biggest example of a fan-owned club. Their key decisions are made by the club’s President, who is appointed through a democratic election.

In this election, all fans with an interest in the club can vote for their preferred candidate. Currently, the club, which is organised as a registered association, boasts more than 140,000 members.

Similarly, Real Madrid are run by ‘socios’ – fans which pay an annual membership fee which earns them the right to vote on certain club issues and greater accessibility to tickets. The fans are represented by a Club President – currently Florentino Perez, one of the masterminds behind the botched Super League plans.

Bayern Munich are another, with more than 250,000 members – but more of that later.

There are plenty in England, too, as you’ll see below:

Fan-Owned Football Clubs in England [Full List]

Community-created Clubs

  • Camden & Islington United F.C. – Registered as a community benefit society in June 2020.
  • City of Liverpool F.C. – Registered as a community benefit society in October 2015.

Supporter Buyout/Takeover Clubs

  • Atherton Town F.C. – Registered as a community benefit society in May 2020.
  • Aylesbury United F.C. – In July 2009, The Aylesbury United Supporters Trust gained control of the club, making it a fan-owned football club.
  • Bamber Bridge F.C. – The club is fully owned by a community organisation that represents its supporters.
  • Banbury United F.C. – In August 2015, a supporter-led community benefit society took formal control of the club.
  • Basingstoke Town F.C. – Now community-owned, the club were evicted from their stadium of more than 70 years, the Camrose, in July 2019 by former owner Rafi Razzak.
  • Bath City F.C. – In June 2015, ‘Big Bath City Bid’ was launched by filmmaker Ken Loach to turn the club into a community-owned, ‘one member, one vote’ club so as to develop the club and clear its debts. In September 2016, the appeal reached its £300,000 target, and the following May, the club completed its transition to community ownership, with its major shareholder Bath City Supporters Society Ltd (roughly 55 per cent stake).
  • Chesterfield F.C. – Bought by Chesterfield Football Supporters Society in 2001 from Darren Brown, who had run the club to the brink of insolvency (and was later jailed for crimes committed during his tenure at the club). A collection for funds for the CFSS brought in £6,000, which was used to buy the club several days later. CFSS struggled to rid the club of the wreckage Brown left and lost control of it to a consortium of former directors in 2003. It was, though, bought by Chesterfield FC Community Trust in August 2020.
  • Congleton Town F.C. – The club’s shareholding was passed on to a new Supporters’ Trust in 2014.
  • Dorchester Town F.C. – The club’s Supporters’ Trust have owned a joint majority shareholding in the club since 2013.
  • Exeter City F.C. – Following their 2003 relegation to the Conference, the club was taken over by the Exeter City Supporters’ Trust.
  • Grays Athletic F.C. – became community-owned in August 2016.
  • Hendon F.C. – In summer 2010, the club was bought out by the Hendon FC Supporters’ Trust, an Industrial and Provident Society.
  • Hull United A.F.C. – Registered as a community benefit society in July 2020. By December, the club reached 100 owners.
  • Hyde United F.C. – Bought out from former owner John Manship in June 2015.
  • Kempston Rovers F.C. – Community benefit society, owned and run by its members club.
  • Lewes F.C. – Became a member-owned club in July 2010, with six founder members of the new Rooks125 group forming the inaugural board of the new Lewes Community Football Club ownership body.
  • Litherland REMYCA F.C. – Community-owned, Charter Standard football club based in Sefton, Liverpool.
  • Newark Town F.C. – Registered as a community benefit society under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act 1965.
  • Newport (IOW) F.C. – in 2008, ownership was fully transferred to the Supporter’s Trust.
  • Peacehaven & Telscombe F.C. – In June 2016, the club was bought by a community group representing fans of the club.
  • Pilkington F.C. – Registered as a community benefit society in March 2020.
  • Prescot Cables F.C. – In summer 2005, a new football committee formed from the Supporter’s Club, taking over the running of the club.
  • Saffron Walden Town F.C. – In July 2012, members voted to convert the club into a community benefit society.
  • Tonbridge Angels F.C. – During the 2014–15 season, supporters began purchasing shares in the club to make it majority-owned by fans.
  • Wythenshawe Amateurs F.C. – Became a community benefit society in March 2017.

Phoenix Clubs

  • AFC Croydon Athletic – Formed by fans of Croydon Athletic F.C. after they folded during 2011–12. Structured as a company limited by guarantee.
  • AFC Rushden & Diamonds – Formed in July 2011 by supporters after Rushden & Diamonds were expelled from the Conference and later liquidated.
  • Bury AFC – Formed in December 2019 by fans of Bury FC after its expulsion from the EFL in August of that year. Operates on the ‘one member, one vote’ basis.
  • Canterbury City F.C. – Reformed in 2007, they are the first football club to start as a community interest company. Under the club’s constitution, membership is ‘open to all’ and includes the right to vote in the election of ‘key members of the board.’
  • Chester F.C. – Formed in 2010 and owned by City Fans United after Chester City F.C. was wound up.
  • Darlington F.C. – Darlington FC Supporters Group (registered as Darlington 1883 Supporters Society Limited, a community benefit society) held 82.3 per cent of the share capital of the club (Darlington 1883 Limited). As of May 2018, DFCSG was established due to a 2015 merger between three fan groups: Darlington FC Community Interest Company (which represented approximately 800 fans), Darlington Supporters Club and Darlington Supporters Trust.
  • Fisher F.C. – Formed in 2009 by members of the ‘Fisher Supporters Trust’ when Fisher Athletic Football Club was wound up.
  • Hereford F.C. – The club’s majority owner is a group of four benefactors (the Jon Hale group). The Hereford United Supporters Trust is currently a minority owner, though it aims to ‘own an equal 50 per cent stake.’
  • Hinckley A.F.C. – Formed by fans in 2014 as a community benefit society, replacing Hinckley United.
  • Runcorn Linnets F.C. – Run by a trust, which is an Industrial and Provident Society, and registered with the Financial Services Authority.
  • Scarborough Athletic F.C. – Founded by ‘The Seadog Trust’ after the 2007 liquidation of Scarborough, one of England’s oldest clubs. Took on the same red kit, nickname, motto and official club logo from the original club.
  • South Liverpool F.C. – Re-founded in 1991. The second South Liverpool F.C. had already been formed in 1935, after the initial club came into being in the late 1890s.

Protest Clubs

  • A.F.C. Liverpool – Co-operative club formed as a protest against Premier League ticket prices.
  • AFC Wimbledon – Fully owned by The Dons Trust. Formed as a breakaway club following the relocation of Wimbledon F.C. to Milton Keynes.
  • Clapton Community F.C. – Formed in early 2018 in opposition to the owner of Clapton F.C.’s ignorance of the club’s membership.
  • F.C. United of Manchester – A community benefit society working on the ‘one member, one vote’ basis, which was formed by disenfranchised Man Utd fans in 2005.
  • Enfield Town F.C. – Founded in June 2001 by the Enfield Supporters’ Trust due to disaffection with Enfield F.C.’s owners.
  • 1874 Northwich F.C. – Founded in November 2012 following a vote by former Northwich Victoria supporters, who were members of the Northwich Victoria Supporters’ Trust. Fully owned by its fans, and run by a democratically-elected board.

Minority Supporter-Owned Clubs

  • Accrington Stanley F.C. – Accrington Stanley Supporters Fund owns 12 per cent.
  • Bromsgrove Sporting F.C. – Founded in 2009 as a supporters’ consortium with the aim of buying Bromsgrove Rovers and taking them out of administration. When another owner was found for Rovers, this new club was made instead.
  • Cambridge City F.C. – As of September 2011, the Cambridge City Supporters’ Trust owned 10 per cent of the club. According to the CCST secretary, CCST now only has appointment power for one director position.
  • Carlisle United F.C. – The United Trust owns a 25 per cent stake in the club. At least one elected member of the trust sits on the board.
  • Chesham United F.C. – As of 2014-15 season, Chesham United Supporters’ Trust held only a 2.69 per cent stake in the club, and has ‘no direct responsibility for running the parent club.’
  • Dial Square F.C. – Established by Arsenal fans who felt ‘disillusioned by the business-orientated approach that is beleaguering the majority of Premier League clubs.’ 86 supporters bought a share in the club during its initial share issue, which ended on March 31, 2021. Stuart Morgan remains the majority shareholder as of April 2021, controlling ’75 per cent or more’ of shares and voting rights, and having the ‘right to appoint and remove directors.’
  • Dulwich Hamlet F.C. – Dulwich Hamlet Football Community Mutual Limited, commonly known as the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters’ Trust, owns ‘more than 25 per cent but not more than 50 per cent’ of the club’s shares. Two of the club’s five board members are appointed by the trust. All board members are trust members.
  • Gateshead F.C. – The Gateshead Soul Supporters Trust purchased a minority club shareholding in February 2021.
  • Grimsby Town F.C. – Mariners Trust owns 14 per cent.
  • Wycombe Wanderers F.C. – In June 2012, the Wycombe Wanderers Supporters Trust took over the club, stabilising them and ended their transfer embargo. In February 2020, Rob Couhig completed a takeover, purchasing a 75 per cent share and leaving the WWST with a 25 per cent stake and former chairman Trevor Stroud keeping a seat on the board.
  • York City F.C. – York City Supporters’ Society owns 25 per cent. The club became owned by the YCSS in 2002 after a period of insolvency caused by then-chairman Douglas Craig’s separation of the club from ownership of the stadium and subsequent ownership under John Batchelor.

Bundesliga Fan Ownership

While fan ownership of clubs in England may be more common at lower levels of the game, it’s far more widespread at the highest tier of German football. In fact, it’s basically guaranteed.

Introduced in 1998, the ’50+1 rule’ prevents clubs in Germany’s top two tiers from having external investors as majority shareholders. This means clubs’ fans retain a majority of their voting rights.

This means running of the club is left primarily in the hands of those who care most about it, and has helped lead to cheaper tickets and membership, more reasonably priced food and drinks at games, and less risk of clubs going into financial ruin.

The only real detractor is that, because less money consequently goes into the Bundesliga than, say, the gilded Premier League, there is less quality about the football, or less of a chance of Bayern Munich being overthrown at the top of the table.

Could we see a Fan-Owned Football League?

Probably not, unless you count the Bundesliga and the 2. Bundesliga.

Amid the Super League fallout, the British government are said to be looking at the German model, or at least a variation on it, to impose tighter checks and balances on owners of English clubs.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to drop a ‘legislative bomb’ to stop the Super League from transpiring, while Labour leader Keir Starmer, an Arsenal season ticket holder, also championed the German model in the wake of the Super League news.

In truth, though, it’s hard to see it being replicated. In non-league, it may prove viable in time, but particularly in English football’s upper echelons, there’s just such a staggering amount of money already in the game, so much red tape to cut, that a fan-owned league would feel as unfeasible as unsustainable.

Which, in many ways, is a real shame, given the strength of feeling many supporters still have for their clubs, the success of the model in Germany, and the proliferation of fan-owned clubs further down the pyramid.

Matthew Chandler

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