By Rory West
Having the opportunity to run a football club and face the challenges that the day to day business offers is a test that supporters believe they could live up to. Often just a dream for fans, this is now a reality that The Well Society – a group of Motherwell supporters – are faced with after they purchased the major share hold in their club.
Before Motherwell however there were already four community owned senior clubs in Scotland; Stirling Albion, East Stirlingshire, Dunfermline Athletic and Clyde. The four clubs have seen differing levels of success on the pitch since community ownership, although all have gained a sustainable financial position. Dunfermline have been promoted into the Scottish Championship, where they are competing well, after winning League One comfortably. On the other hand however, East Stirlingshire have been relegated out of the senior leagues although last season’s relegation was no surprise after some difficult times – on and off the pitch. The community ownership overall has seen a stability in the financial structure at East Stirlingshire, something that was long overdue.
So the question is, why community ownership? Community ownership creates a greater sense of ﬁnancial responsibility; an increased recognition for clubs to live within their means. This reduces the risk of a businessman come in, spend way beyond what he can afford and driving the club into the ground; an example of that is with Brooks Mileson with Gretna FC who went out of business in 2008.
Placing clubs in the hands of supporters allows more transparency in terms of clubs’ budgets and makes relevant information more accessible to fans. It allows the club to raise finances in, more innovative ways; such as through ‘Community Shares’. Community shares are a way of raising finances through a secure, legal form. As opposed to ordinary shares, they seek investment from people who are most interested in the long term success of the club – as a community asset. By giving supporters and the community the chance to invest in the club it strengthens their connection with it.
When it came to community ownership for – Stirling Albion, East Stirlingshire, Dunfermline Athletic and Clyde, Supporters Direct – has played a role in each of these cases, ensuring that supporters groups were listened to and that the process of clubs moving into community ownership was conducted in the best interests of supporters.
Head of Supporters Direct Scotland, Andrew Jenkin, said; “The Supporters Network is our vehicle to ensure that supporters regardless of whether they are interested in community ownership or not can have a say in Scottish football.
“It is our way of connecting with the supporters to gather their views and opinions, whether this is on the match day experience, ticket pricing or fixture rescheduling.
“The Well Society are members of ours and we have worked closely with them during the process of them becoming major shareholders in the club.
“There are a number of different aspects to the idea of community ownership. First and foremost the club has to be run sustainably; there is no point a club going into community ownership if they aren’t going to run the club sustainably. The idea and ethos of community is that they commit to the idea that at the end of the season the profits that are made don’t go to the shareholders; they go back into the club.
“We at Supporters Direct have researched the benefits that community ownership offers clubs. The supporters feel as though they have a greater representation of the club.”
Community ownership often comes after a financial meltdown within the club. This was the case with Dunfermline; Motherwell had the same issue in the early 2000s. More recently St Mirren and Hearts have had supporters groups pursuing community ownership. While neither club are fully community owned as of yet; these groups have bridged the gap between the fans and the board, increasing the likelihood of the takeover in ownership. Hearts’ majority shareholder Anne Budge has already announced that Heart’s supporters group The Foundation of Hearts will likely take over the club within the next three years.
All supporters trust owned clubs have to publish annual accounts which have to be approved by members at their AGM. This provides a level of scrutiny and recourse for supporters as well as a level of public transparency that is often lacking at other clubs.
Supporters Direct Scotland have recently worked with clubs such as Heart of Midlothian, Motherwell, Kilmarnock, Annan, East Fife, Livingston and Falkirk to further involve supporters in the ownership and governance of clubs.
Recent research from the National Football Supporters Survey, revealed a strong belief among supporters that the fan and community ownership model can work in Scotland with 93.18% of a survey backing fans being represented at a board level at clubs.
Supporter ownership is definitely on the rise within Scottish football, whether it can fully take off in the Premiership is something that may take a bit longer but lower league clubs should definitely make use of the idea and pursue community ownership.