The History of Fan Ownership

Date: 10th April 2015

THE concept of fan ownership is not a new one. And neither is it restricted to just football. All around the world, from Argentina to South Korea, there are a number of countries that have experienced fan ownership in sport. There are many European clubs that use this idea, as well as clubs in a number of African, South American and Asian nations.

In each country, although there are a lot of football teams that are owned — or at least have some form of fan representation at board level — there are some other sports that also use this form of ownership.

In the USA, American Football team, the Green Bay Packers are the only entirely fan owned sports team in any of their major leagues — the National Football League, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. The Packers are privileged in the respect that, in the NFL, teams are no longer allowed to be owned by the community. However, the Wisconsin side use the grandfather clause, whereby an old rule is still applied despite new rules being in place. In addition to the Packers, there are three Canadian football sides that are fan owned.

With regards to each of the other ‘Big Four’ American sports, there are several minor league baseball sides that are fan owned, as well as a few amateur sides and one Triple A side. Furthermore, there are four Western League and one Southern League hockey side from Canada, as well as one team from Poland and three basketball sides — although, with regards to the basketball sides, these are Hapoel Haifa BC, Trefl Sopot and Virtus Pallacanestro Bologna from the Israeli Liga Leumit, Polish Tauron Basket Liga and Italian Lega Serie A respectively.

However, it is in football, or soccer depending on where you’re from, that fan ownership is most prevalent.

Clubs in Argentina, Austria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Israel, Japan, Mali, Nigeria, Poland, Portugal, Romania, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, USA, UK and last but not least, Uruguay have at least one professional team that is either fan owned or has fan representation at board level.

And it is not just small clubs that are owned by the fans. Major clubs such as Boca Juniors and River Plate from Argentina, Rapid Wein and Austria Salzburg — the latter of which was formed after the original club was rebranded Red Bull Salzburg to suit sponsorship — Atletic Bilbao, Barcelona, Osasuna and Real Madrid are all fan-owned, as well as a number of clubs in England, Scotland and Wales. In the case of many of these UK clubs, these have often been formed after a solitary owner has run out of funds to keep the club afloat, or the club has no longer been profitable and this has seen it decay and slide down their league.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that fan ownership is not a new concept. The Packers are the oldest community-owned entity in the world, having been owned by the supporters since 1923. In terms of fan-ownership in the UK, and in Scotland in particular, it is a much more recent movement. The first successful high-profile fan-ownership scheme in Scotland was initiated at Stirling Albion in 2010. There were schemes in place at other clubs in the late nineties that were attempting to raise funds and awareness of fan-ownership, but Stirling Albion, was the first instance in Scotland where fans were successful in the attempt to own their club.

The club is owned by the Stirling Albion Supporters Trust, which was originally established in 2002, eight years before the group became the owners of the club itself. The news that the trust had become owners of the club was huge — both in terms of the Scottish game, but also across the UK  — as the Binos became the first 100% fan-owned senior club in the UK.

Having been set up due to serious concerns about the club’s growing debt, the Trust began fundraisers and membership schemes with the aim that, one day; the money raised could be used to help save their club. After officially launching the ‘Buy Stirling Albion’ campaign in 2009, just one year later the club was in the hands of the fans.

The club is now a sustainable company, with owners who care about it and want it to succeed and is no longer in danger of disappearing altogether. Similar movements across Scotland have since taken place, with three other senior clubs now fan-owned. Dunfermline Athletic, East Stirling and Clyde are all fan-owned and proving to be financially sustainable, something that was problematic before fans took control of their clubs — particularly in the case of Dunfermline.

The Pars were faced with an unpaid tax bill after being relegated from the SPL and they were subsequently placed into volunteer administration.  This resulted in the club being dragged into another relegation battle after a 15-point deduction and they were relegated via the play-offs. Barring the unexpected involvement of Rangers in the First Division, Dunfermline could easily have been promoted back to the Scottish Championship. The club is now sustainable.

The stories touched upon here are only scraping the surface of fan ownership in Scotland and around the world. There are still many clubs in Scotland that are making losses year after year.  In many cases supporter trusts are desperate to take control of their clubs and save them from the same fate as what has befallen other sides in the past.   No one wants another Third Lanark situation.

Including the clubs that are already fan-owned, there are currently another six or seven clubs making strides towards fan ownership. In addition to this, Rangers First has recently become the largest fan group in Britain with over 8,500 members, or ‘membears’ as they like to call themselves. The financial demise of such a major club has shown that any club can be blighted by financial problems and how the support for fan ownership is really growing.

With such a high number of fans being involved at one club, this demonstrates that community ownership is now more and more being seen as the best way forward for fans of the sport, especially in Scotland.

Dwindling profits caused by low attendances, as well a lack of TV rights money and no substantial league sponsor has meant that Scottish football has become the forgotten man when compared to the English Premier League, La Liga etc.

It’s time for a change in football; it’s time for fans to take charge and it’s time to save our sport. These are our clubs, this is our game, let’s take it back.

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