We speak to Jules Spencer of the FC United of Manchester board.
Q: Do you think the financial turmoil gripping several football clubs - from top-flight Portsmouth to aspirant lower-league sides like Notts County - is an inevitable result of the hyper-commercialisation of football as a sport over the past two decades?
There are a myriad of reasons for the current financial state of the game, but central to these reasons is instability within the clubs, owners promising much but delivering little. The two examples you cite are perfect examples of that, where supposed rich owners have promised the earth but left their clubs staring facing a bleak future, if indeed they have one at all. The ‘chasing of the dream’ that involves ramping up ticket prices to help fund ever-inflating players wages, the reliance on TV money which results in the paying supporter paying second-fiddle to TV schedules are examples of where commercialisation has become more important than the football itself. But there needn’t be anything inherently wrong with commercial activity per se, if done for the right reasons. People sometimes mistake FC United as anti-commercial when we’re not. We sell hats, scarves, replica kits and have a number of sponsors (although we deliberately do not have a sponsor on our shirt) but our commercial activity is done for the benefit of the football club, to help keep ticket prices down and to aid us in delivering community work. That is the important difference.
Q: What's the alternative? It would be difficult to some "seal off" the world of football from the market dynamics of the rest of society, so are fans defenceless against attempts to turn their clubs into corporate playthings?
Fans are far from defenceless and actually hold considerable power. It is true that that this power is often not realised and used to its full effect, but there should be no reason why it cannot be harnessed and used as a positive force for change. For us, the ideal scenario is complete and total supporter ownership, but at the very least clubs should be putting supporters at the very core of their planning and decision making. For that voice to be heard clubs need to welcome supporters into that process. Supporter representation at board level would be a start.
Q: The hyper-commercialisation of the game has also revealed a huge democratic deficit in the football world; fans and even players and other staff have almost no say in how their clubs are run, and most working-class fans are now priced out of even attending games. Are the supposedly "democratic" models of club governance operated in Spain, for example, an alternative?
The model you see at Barcelona and Real Madrid for example is one that should be welcomed, but it isn’t without its flaws. You could argue that their members whilst owning their clubs, only really get to elect a President and Executive to run the club on their behalf, which is a form of democracy a million miles away from what we have in the top-tier of English Football. However we like to think that the model we have at FC United where our owners, not only elect the Board but get to vote on all the major decisions the club takes and decide the strategic direction the club takes, is a better example of how a club should be structured. On an international stage the model that they have in Germany, where clubs are much more formally tied to their supporters and their community is perhaps a better example than you have in Spain.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about how the FCUM came about, and what its aims and values are? Do you think it's a model other fans should follow?
We were formed in the wake of the Glazer takeover of Manchester United. Many of us had campaigned against the takeover on a “not one penny” basis, threatening that if the worst happened we would withdraw our ‘custom’ (but not support) and therefore not help fund their ‘project’. And so we needed an alternative, to keep that body of supporters together. However the growing disillusionment with the way the game was heading had been building for a number of years, ironically in United’s most successful period. Supporters were setting sick of paying increased prices, being told to sit down and be quiet, having kick-off times moved for television and not having a voice. FC United is about offering an alternative and about empowerment of supporters. About accessibility and about being a positive contributor to its community. About shaping our own destiny rather than being the plaything of one owner.
Q: What are your aspirations for the future of the FCUM project?
I wouldn’t call it a project. It’s a living, breathing football club that every day shows that there is an alternative way of doing things. We hope to have our own ground in the next couple of years and once we do we’ll go from strength to strength in delivering that alternative.
Q: If you had to draw up a programme or charter to change the way the football "industry" was run, what would it include?
Supporter-ownership being central to the way clubs being structured and an independent regulator overseeing the game.