Liverpool FC and Man Utd: the fans’ next step

by Jonathan Todd and Alison McGovern

Blood, sweat and tears have spilt recently in Liverpool. Too much by supporters anguished at the financial plight of a great institution and the grim reality of listless defeat at Goodison Park; more by millionaires who gained control of this institution than by the millionaires responsible for this loss.

The illusion that Liverpool FC would emerge fighting fit from the Tom Hicks and George Gillett era was shattered by Everton. While the reds battled to victory against Blackburn yesterday, much needs to improve. But it isn’t only on the pitch that the lessons of recent years need to be learnt.

The promise of New England sports ventures (NESV), the new owners, to listen to supporters is welcome. Talk, however, is cheap. Fans have been left jaded after previous commitments have been reneged upon.

Now this promise should be backed up by institutional reform. This should mean, at least, a fan on the board. More ambitiously, this might mean taking up Rogan Taylor’s proposal that NESV look towards fans holding a significant minority of shares in the club; perhaps, as much as 25 percent. While the dream of full mutualisation and Liverpool FC being owned and run such that it embeds Scouse pride in a similar way to the fan-owned FC Barcelona in Catalonia may be distant, this proposal would have radical consequences.

Shareholding fans better integrate the views and interests of fans in how the club is run. The alarm bells about Hicks and Gillett are likely to have rung earlier and more loudly had fans also had shares in the club. Such shareholders would have become the focus of agitations against the ancien regime.

That’s one reason why the Taylor proposal may not be taken up by NESV. It would diminish their power. It would also dilute what profits they hope to glean from the club. In the real world, few corporate battles have ended with the victors giving their spoils to their customers.

John W Henry, the major investor in NESV, has been reading up on his “customers”. He’s been spotted with Taylor’s book Football and its fans: supporters and their relations with the game, 1885-1995. This will have taught him that football fans are a different breed from the consumers of most goods.

While the average cost of a cinema ticket in the UK in 2009 was £5.44, the average price for an adult-sized, half-sleeved premier league replica shirt is £40.89. You can still, for now, visit museums for free. But the average ticket price across all divisions (premier league, championship, league one and league two) is now £24.84.

That the average cost of supporting a premiership club in 2007 was £1,331 is testament not only to the money to be made from owning a club but also to the loyalty of fans. This financial investment is more than matched by fans’ investment of time and emotion in their clubs.

This dedication shouldn’t be abused by unscrupulous owners. “Respect the club”, Alex Ferguson told “the boy”. He has never had any need to make such requests of Manchester United’s fans. Through wind and rain, thick and thin, football fans keep coming back. Why?

Manchester United was here a long time before Wayne Rooney and will, as Mark Lawrenson observed last week, be here a long time after Wayne Rooney leaves, no matter when this happens. Football clubs are beating hearts of civic pride nourished through the ages by their fans. It isn’t the Sky Sports hype machine, with its incessant self-congratulatory tirades about “the best league in the world”, that keeps fans coming back. It is to be part of, and to sustain, this lifeblood of social capital and meaning. There’s a Coles Corner in every town and there’s a football club. And they are there, and will continue to be so, for important reasons.

This importance resulted in the parliamentary debate secured by Steve Rotheram, the Labour MP for Liverpool Walton, on the role of football supporters in the governance of professional football clubs being one of the best attended Westminster Hall debates ever. Political engagement must be maintained. Not least because wider football governance issues, in addition to further fan involvement in the running of clubs, are vital.

Both Barcelona and Real Madrid are fan-owned, but dominate la liga both financially and on the pitch. They earned 51 percent of la liga revenues in 2008-09, largely due to an uneven split in broadcast revenues, and last season these two finished 25 points above other teams in the league. If Liverpool and Manchester United, say, were wholly mutualised, but had a similar relationship to the rest of premiership as Barcelona and Real Madrid has to the rest of la liga, all would not be happy with English football.

It is the German bundesliga, not la liga, which we should take as our inspiration. While bundesliga clubs are required to be 51 percent owned by fans, it is the extent of regulation in Germany that distinguishes the bundesliga from other leagues. Politicians should tune out the complacency of the Sky Sports hype machine, acknowledge that the turkeys of the Premiership are loath to vote for the Christmas of the Bundesliga and make efforts to take forward regulatory reforms, as well as other policy initiatives, that properly acknowledge the real reasons for and meaning of the fidelity of football fans.

Jonathan Todd is Uncut’s economic columnist and Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.

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3 Responses to “Liverpool FC and Man Utd: the fans’ next step”

  1. doreen ogden says:

    See FCUnited Mcr ! Enough said ?

  2. Shamik Das says:

    Great stuff Ali & Jonathan! See also this piece we posted last weekend on the Liverpool saga and comparisons with Germany:


  3. I like the idea, but it needs fan pressure to make it work.

    And if fans are willing to pay £1331 a year to be bled dry by owners who at best ignore them, what hope is there for organising them such that you can put that type of pressure to use?

    Because the Red Knights wouldn’t reform Man Utd. It’d need their ordinary fanbase to do it. And their fanbase either needs to inherit a couple of billion or they need to have sufficient clout such that they could force this change.

    Not that much clout, obviously. They don’t need to be in Bundesliga territory before a government can act on it. But they’d need at least a 5-10% shareholding in most clubs before you could talk about mandatory minimums of fan ownership and much more before we talk about real control.

    Perhaps an easier angle is providing special rights and support for fans to take control of clubs in financial difficulties? Certainly in the lower divisions I could see a lot of enthusiasm for clubs wanting to follow the model of Exeter City.

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