For years now, English soccer has experienced an identity crisis. Millionaires and billionaires buy and sell clubs almost casually, like they're seaside condos. Foreign investors come and go like thieves in the night. For the lucky clubs, a new owner might bring trunkloads of petrodollars and a long-term plan. But for every Chelsea, there's a Portsmouth: a historic club saddled with debt and burdened by chronic mismanagement. Once a perennial Premier League team, Portsmouth went into administration twice in the last five years.
Today, Portsmouth plays in League Two—the 4th tier of English soccer—but it's no longer owned by wealthy business people. In April of last year, a group of supporters bought the team. In some European countries, like Germany, fan ownership is the rule, but it's quite rare in England. And over time, supporters of clubs in England have felt increasingly marginalized.
Ticket prices are a good measure of this disconnect. The cost of tickets in the Premier League has outstripped inflation for years. The cheapest matchday ticket at Chelsea, the current Premier League leader, is £50. In Germany, you can go see Bayern Munich for just £11.75. Recent polls published by Supporters Direct, a supporter advocacy group, suggest deep dissatisfaction among English fans, finding that "only 18% of fans said that their clubs were financially well run,"and "38% agree that football supporters should be entitled by football regulation to a role in the ownership of their football clubs."
If that last quote seems a little strange to you, that's because it is. Not only are current regulations a barrier to supporter ownership, they make it nearly impossible.
"[Many of the] barriers that exist are legal barriers, outside of football," Kevin Rye, a representative of Supporters Direct, told me by phone. "They might be tax and that kind of thing."
Rye offered tax relief as a prime example. According to Rye, if an individual takes over a club, he or she is eligible for tax incentives with control of 50 percent plus one share. For other ownership models, that number is ninety percent plus one share. "Which is madness, which everyone acknowledges," he said.
Furthermore, Football Association rules heavily favor limited liability companies over, say, cooperative associations. "It's an accident of history," explained Rye. "Private companies were chosen in the 19th century and early 20th century to protect the directors and the membership of a football club. That was the only way they felt they could do it."
Times have changed but the rules have not. Given how easy it is for someone with means to acquire a Premier League team, it's no surprise it happens so frequently. This week, the English media has closely followed the possible takeover of Crystal Palace by Josh Harris, an American billionaire who also owns the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Devils.
Supporters no doubt read that news as a mixed blessing. Maybe Harris will pump Palace full of money and build it into a Premier League and European power. But Palace is 109 years old. There's something not quite right about some guy flying into town and just taking over, not when generations of fans have filled the stands and grown to share an identity with the club. Even if Harris stays for 15 years, that's nothing compared to the long-term commitment shown by the fans. These clubs aren't playthings for mega-rich citizens of the world. They're community institutions.
Put that way, it's easy to read the headlines and despair over another club losing its soul. But last week, the UK's Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced a working group dedicated to addressing some of the barriers that currently make it so difficult for supporters to take control of their teams. Called The Supporter Ownership and Engagement Expert group, it consists of advocacy groups; supporter-run clubs, like Portsmouth and Wimbledon; and league and government representatives. Beginning next month, the group will meet regularly, with the goal of presenting recommendations to the UK's Minister of Sport in March.
Will those recommendations become law? Will supporters have an avenue to more easily make their voices heard in in how their clubs, and their game, is run? We'll have to wait and see. It will take time, for sure. But I won't begrudge anybody for being optimistic. I, for one, hope to find the following headline in ten years: "Supporters trust buys back historic club from American owner."