Fan involvement in football clubs: the German model?

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Last month the Government's 'Supporter Ownership and Engagement Group' was launched, a move welcomed by Supporters Direct. Can the German model work in the UK? Dr Mark Doidge, Research Fellow at the University of Brighton, looks at the role fans play in running their clubs across Europe...

Yesterday Clive Efford, the shadow minister for sport, visited the University of Brighton to speak with students. Three weeks ago he launched the Labour Party’s proposals to pass legislation to give fan trusts a legal right to buy shares when a club is sold.

The same week, the Government announced the establishment of the 'Supporter Ownership and Engagement Group' to investigate more fan involvement in football governance. As the journalist Martin Cloake observed, ‘there must be a general election on the way’. Despite this cynicism, these proposals have real merit, both legally and socially.

Any fan who has seen their club affected by financial crisis will know the importance of the supporters in keeping football clubs alive. They have always been at the heart of local community and fan movements reinforce this sense of belonging. Working and fighting together, through civic engagement or following a sport, is the social glue that keeps our communities together. Once they go it will always be hard to find a replacement.

Only 14 clubs have fans on their board. Despite being the central part of football (along with the players), fans are systematically excluded. Recent years has shown that those running the game have not done so for the benefit of the majority of fans. Since the formation of the Premier League and Champions League in 1992, more than 50 clubs have entered administration. And we should not forget that that the football creditor rule means that players get paid first; many local businesses are owed thousands by clubs going bankrupt.

The success of football fans and supporters’ trusts rescuing these clubs demonstrates the importance of fan involvement in football governance. Despite the obvious political motives for the Government and opposition, these moves should be welcomed. In their desire to turn football clubs into businesses, directors have forgotten the most important element: their customers.

By listening to their customers, the fans, clubs can start to look beyond the short-termism of immediate success whilst focussing on the current season. In the opposite direction, fans can gain an understanding of the pressures facing club management and moderate their expectations. They also won’t feel constantly exploited and disregarded. Despite this fans will need to learn quickly about football governance and grab the opportunity when it is given, otherwise those who have ceded power will find different ways of excluding us.

In light of the situation in England and Wales, many have looked elsewhere for a suitable governance model. Several years ago, the soci model in Spain was seen as a solution. But a series of bankruptcies highlighted that it was not a magic bullet. The structural context in Spain ensured that only the elite clubs could afford the investment to rise above political infighting and damaging television deals.

Currently the German model is the talk of the town. German fans have the right to ownership enshrined in law. The ‘50+1’ rule ensures that fans own 50% + 1 share of the club (with the exception of Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg for historical reasons). The model seems to be working well. Ticket prices are low, stadiums are full and German clubs have been recently relatively successful. This helps keep the club focussed on the fans, rather than on shareholders. Safe standing and low tickets prices can be seen as a consequence of this. More importantly, the German model shows that fans can have a sensible and productive voice in running football.

But we should also be careful of assuming that the model will work if it was just imposed on England and Wales. It is important to learn from the German model, but also understand the context. Like England and Wales, German football clubs emerged from various local sports clubs. In Germany these were focussed on gymnastics. Consequently sports clubs are seen as part of the local community. So far, so similar.

German history, politics, and culture, however, has evolved differently to the UK. Part of this relates to the German constitution, which devolved power away from central authorities (for obvious reasons). The constitution seeks consensus from all parties before moving forward. In this way fans are involved in clubs. They also have fan projects, which work with fans to tackle anti-social behaviour, rather than confrontation by the authorities.

This political culture does not exist in the UK, which has continued to be a patrician state that governs from London. Football merely reflects the wider society, which is why it is so difficult to affect change. Unsurprisingly, many clubs, directors and politicians feel that the fans should not be consulted; that we are not sensible enough to deal with the responsibility. What the German model does tell us is that fans can be trusted to be involved.

More importantly, we should not think that this governance model is due to the benevolence of owners and administrators in Germany. The fans fought for this. And they have to keep fighting for this. Bayern Munich is one club that has tried to remove the regulations. But the fans resisted. Historically, fans in England and Wales have not fought to gain representation on boards. More recently, supporters’ trusts and independent supporters’ associations have tried to influence the administration and governance of the sport.

This needs to continue and the work of the Football Supporters' Federation and Supporters Direct needs to be supported to ensure that we all get a voice. Ultimately, however, we need legislation to enshrine our attachment to clubs with legal rights. We need to fight for these rights whoever is in Parliament next year.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to Action Images for the image used in this blog.