Luton Town sealed a miraculous return to the top-flight of English football in 2023, 15 years after going into administration and dropping into the National League. Sold to the fan-backed Luton Town Football Club 2020 consortium in 2008, the Hatters have since climbed back from the fifth tier to the Premier League, defeating Coventry City in the Championship play-off final at Wembley to mark a stunning comeback.
So, how did they do it? Well, having supporters involved in the running of the club certainly seems to have aided the meteoric return to the top table and this article will explore how fan ownership has benefitted Luton Town.
Is Luton Town Fan Owned?
The Luton Town Supporters’ Trust owns shares in the club and even elects a representative onto the Hatters board.
Formed originally as Trust in Luton back in June 2003, it was created by supporters unhappy with the running of the club following the controversial takeover by new owner John Gurney.
One of the pivotal figures in the foundation of the Trust, Gary Sweet, now Luton’s Chief Executive, headed up the fan-led Luton 2020 consortium, made up of lifelong supporters, which bought the club in February 2008 after it had entered administrative receivership. A deal was struck for the Trust to have 50,000 shares in the football club and so the fans are represented in major decisions.
In 2018, Luton announced that David Wilkinson, another founding member of Luton 2020, had been voted to be the club’s new chairman by fellow directors.
Who Owns Luton Town FC?
As per the disclosure of ownership featured on the club’s official website, 2020 Holdings Ltd owns 100 per cent of the issued share capital of Luton Town Football Club 2020 Holdings Ltd.
Luton Town Ownership Model
With 50,000 shares in the club’s holding company, in addition to the Luton Town Football Club 2020 Limited ownership, the Trust currently has the legal right to veto any changes to the club’s identity.
This means the Trust has full control over the club’s name, kit colours and any decisions around alterations to the club crest and even the identity of current mascot Happy Harry who appears on the Kenilworth Road pitch before games. The move led to the Trust’s membership tripling in just 24 hours.
The Trust’s ownership of shares in the club was formalised in October 2012 and during talks with Luton club officials, it was agreed the Trust would hold quarterly meetings with the club. At the same meeting, a scheme was also established where shares could be sold to fans via the Trust.
In 2014, the official Luton Town Supporters’ Club merged with Trust in London giving a greater number of fans a say in how the club operates.
This means the football club can engage fans and, being community-owned, can serve the local area and supporters without the interference of investors who may not have the club’s history and culture at the heart of its decisions.
How Did Fans Buy Luton Town?
Trust in Luton initially bought shares in the club’s major creditor which then led to Luton Town Football Club 2020 consortium, made up of lifelong fans and headed up by the Trust’s Gary Sweet, purchasing the club in 2008 after it had entered administration.
The story began in 2003, when a group of supporters established ‘Trust in Luton’ in a bid to protect the club’s heritage and protest John Gurney’s plans for the club which included the possibility of changing the name to London-Luton Football Club.
As fans voted with their feet against the new ownership, the BBC reported that Luton Town was losing £500,000 a month, with players and staff also not being paid. With bankruptcy a possibility, Trust in Luton began acquiring shares in Hatters Holdings, the club’s major creditor and with Gary Sweet, Trust in Luton became a majority shareholder.
The group deliberately placed the club into administrative receivership in July and successfully forced Gurney out of Kenilworth Road.
However, four years later in October 2007, the Trust had its seat on the board withdrawn following chairman David Pinkney’s arrival at the club. A few weeks down the line, Luton entered administration and was docked ten points.
The administrators ultimately then sold the club to Luton Town Football Club 2020 consortium in February 2008. The new ownership then agreed for the Trust, when able, to buy 50,000 shares in order to boost the level of fan inclusion at Luton.
Are Luton the First Fan Owned Premier League Team?
Luton will compete in the Premier League against the likes of Manchester United, City, Arsenal and Chelsea for the 2023/24 campaign. However, the Hatters will be unique as a fan owned club and the first to play in the top-flight.
There are examples further down the pyramid in the Football League though of clubs operating with the same supporter-led model.
AFC Wimbledon was set up by fans after 1988 FA Cup winners Wimbledon FC was controversially moved from south London to Milton Keynes, 67 miles away in 2002. The club started in the Combined Counties League and earned six promotions to reach the fourth tier in 2011.
Now in a new stadium built just yards from their former Plough Lane home, The Dons Trust owns the majority share in the club and boasts more than 4,000 members.
Exeter City Supporters Trust became the majority shareholder in 2003 and was tasked with returning the club to the Football League following relegation to the Conference.
By 2005, debts of £4.5million had been cleared and the Grecians, with 2,500 members now part of the trust, earned promotion to League Two in 2008.
Could We See More Fan-Owned Football Clubs?
In an era of Super League proposals and teams like Bury going out of business, supporters are keen to protect the game and their clubs and so more fan-owned models should be expected.
Football teams are a huge part of the local community and there feels to be a concerted effort to protect values and heritage through proper rules and regulation.
For example, the move by Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan to change the club colours from blue to red in 2012 was highly controversial. It was the first time the team from the Welsh capital had not worn blue since 1908. What’s more, the traditional bluebird was also altered to a Welsh dragon on the club crest. Fortunately for the supporters, it was eventually changed back but it highlighted how an individual can switch a club’s identity without any need for approval.
Fans are also keen to take control in order to ward off investors who may not have the club’s best interests at heart. Thus, it is likely more consortiums in the future will consist of local people who follow and understand the club, as well as the local community.
In Germany, meanwhile, the 50+1 rule was introduced in 1998 and prevents clubs in the top two divisions from having external investors as majority shareholders. In short, a club and its fans hold a majority of their own voting rights; hence the name ’50+1’.
External ownership of all forms was banned and this allowed clubs in the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga to enjoy greater financial muscle but not so much as to jeopardise the future of the football club.