Wednesday, 29 October 2014

We need to put fans at the heart of football’s future

Last week Labour unveiled plans to give football fans a voice in every boardroom and buy a significant slice of the shares when the ownership of their club changes. As a passionate fan of football at all levels, I believe that it is in the long term interest of both fans and the clubs themselves, to have a strong voice representing the paying fans in every boardroom in the country.

At my own club Blackburn Rovers there has been boardroom turmoil and the instability has led to poor decisions leading to Rovers inevitable relegation to the Championship. I stood with other fans two winters past in the freezing cold on a 24 hour protest to protest at the cloak of secrecy that shrouding the club and the obfuscation around bizarre decisions that undermined the clubs long and historic tenure in the Premiership.

The clubs has some stability now under the management of Gary Bowyer but questions remain of the clubs financial standing going forward and there still remains a deep concern over future decisions that may be taken in the boardroom too which the fans have received no communication on.

It's not just the Rovers. There have been some notable events in recent years which have really alienated the fans – to name just a few:

Supporters’ interests and identity being ignored: from clubs being relocated away from fan-bases (Coventry) to team colours and names being changed to satisfy traditions on the other side of the globe (Cardiff, Hull);

Debt and insolvency: which have seen some of our oldest football clubs (Portsmouth, Leeds, Birmingham) forced into administration. 36 football league clubs (exactly half the total number of members) have gone into administration since 1992;

Unsustainably high ticket prices: despite record turnover, average ticket prices in England and Wales remain amongst the highest in Europe - only this week, the BBC’s Price of football survey showed how average prices have risen at almost twice the rate of the cost of living since 2011.

There are many, many more examples.

Last week, my colleague Clive Efford, Labour’s Shadow Sports Minister, launched the proposals for the biggest legislative shake-up in the governance of English and Welsh football clubs since the advent of the game.

This is something I have long called for in numerous debate in Parliament on Football Governance. There are too many fans who believe that their own club is ‘getting away from them’, that it is the property of an unresponsive board who are not interested in the history and culture of the club – indeed it often appears that they are not interested in anything beyond the long term value of the club, and the advertising space they can sell.

The answer is accountability to the fans – both in terms of a voice on the board, and ownership of the club. The evidence is that under the current system, consultation with the fans is often an afterthought – indeed 90% of the fan groups involved in Labour’s consultation agreed that their own clubs did not take fans into enough consideration regarding major decisions.

The plan, which has been drawn up in consultation with 95 football supporters’ organisations, and which are fully in accordance with European competition and procurement law, would require supporters to come together to form a single accredited trust in return for the right to:

appoint and remove up to a quarter and not less than two of a football club’s board of directors;
purchase up to 10 per cent of the shares when a club changes ownership, if they so wish.

Supporters made clear during the consultation that this is the only way to ensure those running clubs share information, power and responsibility with them. Labour's proposals mean fans could hold the owners of their club to account on all issues on and off the field including ticket prices, shirt sponsorship, ground naming rights, and changing the colour of the strip or the name. I am sure Newcastle United and Cardiff City fans will be very interested in these aspects of the propsal.

I am sure everyone can think of many examples in recent years of decisions made by the owners of English clubs have made decisions which have absolutely flown in the face of the fans, been met with active protest on the terraces and outside, but have ultimately not led to any change in direction.

Some have expressed concerns that the changes could lead to deadlock in the boardroom, however if you look to the examples of notable clubs in Germany, which have 51% fan ownership, you see some of the best-run clubs in Europe. Moreover, the proposals that Labour is putting forward would strengthen governance – by putting Supporters Trusts on a legal footing, and requiring them to meet certain standards . This would ensure that these potential directors received training and were prepared to take up this important position.

It is time we trusted the fans, and enabled them to take some control back over their clubs.

It is therefore vital that we restore this link of accountability which should connect every club to its fans.

These plans will not solve every problem with the game by any means – but they are about empowering fans, bringing our clubs closer to the people, and giving the people who make the clubs what they are, a say.