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.
Like Martin, I'll put my cards on the table to start with: I am a Manchester United fan and whereas before the Glazer takeover I regularly went to home matches I don't now. Partly this is based on principle but mainly it's cost: £50-75 for a ticket as opposed to £20-30 a few years back.
There is some truth both in what Martin says about the 'I'm alright Jack' attitude of big clubs and the supposedly democratic basis of European clubs in reality being a beauty contest between rich lawyers running for president.
I've heard concerns about overseas owners at Chelsea, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs dismissed in 'foreign' versus 'local capital' terms. That might be a stick to beat Stalinists with but doesn't grasp the dynamic that existed before between owners and fans: the former were usually local businessmen and fans of the club. They were investing money and making a profit for sure but in clubs they had supported from childhood, earning them prestige in the community. They were thus much more suspectible to community/fan pressure in terms of ticket prices or player transfers than someone who is effectively the branch manager of a global corporation. Not being part of a global corporation, there was not the possibility of either siphoning off money to prop up other parts of the business or asset stripping (Manchester United) or pouring in huge sums not generated by the club itself (Chelsea and Manchester City). It's true that big city clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United) dominate English football because of their large attendances and latterly TV and merchandising revenues. But that's been the case since the 60's when the maximum wage was abolished and the currently huge gap between players' and average workers' wages began to open up.
Part of the answer would be a salary cap as exists in both American sports and rugby league where there is a set amount clubs can't go above in players' wages, thus levelling out the competition and keeping ticket prices affordable. In rugby league the amount is currently £1.6m a year which means I now pay £18 on the turnstile to stand and watch Salford rather than at least £50 to sit at Old Trafford.