An enticing concept has been quietly incubating within English football in recent years: supporter ownership of clubs. While it may be the norm in places such as Germany and Argentina for football fans to own their club, it’s still a fairly alien idea in the United Kingdom and most of the Commonwealth.
The allure is obvious: football fans and club owners often disagree about how clubs should operate. Wealthy owners – often with minimal connection to the club’s community – tend to prioritise the pursuit of profit, and take financial risks that can destabilise or endanger clubs. Football fans, however, view their club as a community asset rather than as a business, and desire to be treated loyally as valued club members instead of as replaceable customers.
As English football becomes increasingly expensive – and stadium atmosphere inevitably dwindles – some fans are turning to supporter ownership as the antidote to the corporatisation and sanitisation of the game.
The perks of supporter ownership are numerous. Football fans can have a greater say in how their club is run, thanks to structures that give them formalised power. Fans can vote – or even stand as a candidate – in elections for the board of their supporters’ trust or club.
Additionally, supporter ownership usually brings stability and financial sustainability to clubs, negating the need for a merry go round of wealthy individuals. And best of all, members of fan-owned teams often boast that their clubs feel like genuine communities.
If your local football club isn’t owned by its fans, and you would like to support a fan-owned side, there are currently 33 supporter-owned clubs playing across England. But which one should you get behind?
To help make the decision process easier, here is the first part of a look at ten fan-owned teams in English football for prospective supporters to choose from.
Number 10 – Swansea City AFC, English Premier League (level 1)
Swansea City may be a controversial entry to begin the list. Some people will expect the only club involving fan-ownership in the top three tiers of English football to be rated as number one, while others may argue that Swansea doesn’t belong in the list at all because its fans only control a minority of voting shares at the club.
The Swans are the first Welsh club to play in the English Premier League, having rapidly ascended from Football League Two (fourth tier) in 2004-05 to England’s top flight for the 2011-12 season. The movie Jack to a King (see trailer above) highlights Swansea’s previous struggles under dubious owners, and celebrates the club’s rise to the highest level of English football.
Membership in the Swans Trust, the supporters’ organisation that owns 21.1% of Swansea, costs £10 each year. You can read more about the Trust in their official book, From Graveyard to Ambition: The Official History of the Swansea City Supporters Trust. The club is easy to follow from afar, given the ubiquitous international TV coverage of the Premier League, as well as online through PlayerHD.
Number 9 – Hinckley AFC, Midland League Division One (level 10)
From the glamour of the Premier League, we drop abruptly to the tenth division of English football for our next list entry.
Following the demise of southwestern Leicestershire club Hinckley United in late 2013 due to unpaid debts of more than £200,000, fans established Hinckley AFC in January 2014. Rather than being set up as a for-profit company like most football clubs in England, the new Hinckley club was registered as a community benefit society.
This means that the club is constitutionally bound by the principle of one member-one-vote, and that money cannot be extracted from the club for private gain.
Instead of buying membership in a supporters’ trust like at most of the larger fan-owned sides, Hinckley’s club structure as a community benefit society means that you buy membership in the club itself. This costs just £5 each year (PayPal is accepted), plus an extra £1 to purchase a voting share in the club when you initially sign up. Shares come with an ownership certificate.
Supporter-owned clubs allow their members to vote in board elections, as well as to have their say on important resolutions at general meetings. Unfortunately most of these clubs are not set up for online voting, making true participation difficult if you can’t get to the ground regularly.
Hinckley, however, allows its members to vote online, and is one of only a handful of English clubs to do so. Hinckley is also one of only two clubs in England in which members can participate online in board elections for the club itself (rather than for the board of a supporters’ trust).
Rather predictably, the downside of supporting a tenth-division club is that following matches from afar can be difficult. Hinckley is active on both Twitter and Facebook, and has a YouTube channel with interviews of players and coaching staff. The club has an online shop, but replica kit is unfortunately not available for purchase over the web. You’ll just have to settle for a training top.
Number 8 – Chester FC, Conference National (level 5)
Similar to Hinckley, Chester FC is a “phoenix” club, created after the demise of the city’s original team. Chester City was wound up in 2010 due to unpaid debts, ending 125 years of history.
While the new Chester club is a private company, it is owned by City Fans United (CFU) – Chester’s supporters’ trust – which is registered as a community benefit society.
Chester FC began life in the eighth tier of English football, and won an impressive three consecutive promotions during its first three seasons. For 2015-16, the club enters its third season in the Conference National, with the aim to emulate the former club by winning promotion to the Football League.
Local rivals Tranmere Rovers and fellow fan-owned club Wrexham will both be league opponents for Chester this season.
Chester recently signed a 50-year lease on the Deva Stadium – a ground that straddles the England Wales border and thus features in many trivia questions and pub quizzes.
Chester is easy to follow online with PlayerHD, which features live audio commentary of every match as well as video highlights. The club’s online shop has a wide assortment of merchandise, including replica kit.
Number 7 – Exeter City FC, Football League Two (level 4)
We return to the professional ranks of the Football League with Exeter City. Prior to converting to fan-ownership, County Devon’s largest club had fallen victim to a lengthy period of instability.
The owner engaged in absurd antics such as bestowing honorary directorship upon pop star Michael Jackson, while two of Exeter’s genuine directors were convicted of fraudulent trading at the club. On the pitch, Exeter was relegated from the Football League for the first time since the club gained entrance in 1920.
Supporter ownership at Exeter City thus came as a welcome relief in 2003, as did Exeter’s return to the League in 2008.
The club’s St James Park (not to be confused with Newcastle United’s St James’ Park) is a lovely little stadium located close to the city centre. The ground sits close to a railway line, and features the largest stand-covered terracing in the Football League.
And if it’s international glamour that you crave, Exeter is partnered with four-time Brazilian league champions Fluminense.
Number 6 – Lewes FC, Isthmian League Premier Division (level 7)
Back down to English non-League football for our next entry: Lewes FC. Located in East Sussex, some 10 kilometres northeast of Brighton, Lewes is nestled within the picturesque South Downs National Park.
Lewes FC is celebrating its 130th anniversary this year, and has played at the wonderfully-named Dripping Pan since the team was established in 1885. The Pan oozes with character, and was recently named as the best English non-League experience by groundhopping blog The Ball is Round.
After a tumultuous 2009-10 season in which Lewes fended off winding-up orders that stemmed from financial mismanagement, a group of six locals took over club during the summer of 2010, and promptly restructured it into a community benefit society.
Lewes is rather unique in that its women’s program is part of the same club, rather than formally existing as a separate entity. The women’s first-team receives prominent coverage from the club: for example, it appears on the website menus above the men’s reserve and academy teams, unlike at most other English clubs. The Lewes women play in the FA Women’s Premier League Southern Division, against such opposition as Tottenham and West Ham.
Lewes has a large academy (including numerous female teams), engages in an impressive amount of work with community youth, and boasts ambitious plans to turn the Dripping Pan into a seven-days-a-week hub for community football.
Club membership costs £30 (PayPal is accepted), and comes with a share certificate, an ownership card, an ownership badge, as well as your name on the club’s website and match day programme. The club currently has more than 900 member-owners.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 of the look at some of England’s fan owned clubs, coming tomorrow.