Now could be the time for more clubs to become supporter-owned, Robin Osterley, chief executive of Supporters Direct, told delegates at the Supporters Summit in Wembley last month.
His organisation helps fans set up supporters trusts, which act as co-operatives, both in the UK and across Europe – and he said, with co-operative football clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayer Munich having tremendous results in the UEFA Champions League, the co-op model in sport is starting to gain more attention.
Mr Osterley joined Supporters Direct (SD) in May, having run community-based organisations in the arts. There are similarities between the two sectors, he thinks, as both arts and sports are about people’s social lives.
“For me the attraction of working for an organisation like Supporters Direct is the fact that it’s involved in sport, which I love, and it’s involved in community activities, which, I think, are crucially important.”
SD helps fans set up supporters trusts, and helps existing trusts gain more influence within their club – and even, in some cases, to become owners or part-owners of their club. Another important task on SD’s agenda is campaigning for reform of football.
“There are a number of structural issues within football which work against the interest of supporters, in our view, and it’s really important that we do our best to help that reform process along,” he said.
Mr Osterley said SD’s main objective with regard to the reform of football was to have the voice of supporters more clearly heard.
“It’s important for us that the supporter is seen as an important person within the way the game is governed, rather than being seen simply as a source of income for clubs,” he told delegates. “Many clubs are started to take note much more of the supporters’ agenda. It’s really important for us that that works its way through the governing bodies as well.
“The governance of football is problematic, I think it’s fair to say. We are working on all sorts of ways to try to make it less elaborate and less problematic – but a good thing to start for change would be to have much more involvement from supporters in their clubs and the overall governance of the game.”
A main challenge for supporters trusts is getting proper resources to do their work. Moreover, some clubs do not officially recognise supporters groups and don’t give them much influence on decision-making. To address this, SD is working with supporters trusts, supporting them with fundraising, and helping cut costs and create economies of scale.
“I think the success of clubs overseas like Bayern Munich and Barcelona can point to the fact that supporter-owned clubs can indeed be incredibly successful,” he added. “You don’t have to have an enormously rich person with their hand on the tiller as well as their hand in the till dominating the club, in order for it to be successful.
“We do have examples of supporter-owned clubs in the UK as well which are doing pretty well. So the model of ownership which we are seeing in Spain, Germany and Argentina and other places around the world does prove that now could well be the time for more clubs to become supporter-owned.”