We are all football fans. Apparently there are 24 million of us in this country. We’ve developed the lifelong habit of watching the game week in, week out, from the stands of the biggest stadiums to the touchlines of the smallest village clubs, going along with family or friends or even on our own to be part of the bigger family that is our club’s supporters. We are members of the communities our football clubs serve, communities that have traditionally been united by the football club in their midst, communities that live for the beautiful game.
For decades our clubs were owned and directed by people not unlike us (just with a bit more brass), people who shared our passion for the game, our civic pride in where we are from, people who wanted the football club to be a focus and positive factor in the everyday life of their city or town or village.
Somewhere in the last twenty years or so, that all began to change. The formation of the English Premier League and the gradual ceding of power to the EPL and the EFL by the FA has led to some unwelcome trends. The hundreds of millions of pounds that have come flooding into the game from broadcasting and sponsorship revenues as the Premier League and Championship are marketed globally have made the sport much more like a business and while the quality of the football on offer may have improved, frankly things have started to turn very ugly in some quarters. Some clubs have owners who appear to have their eyes on the main chance. Fans are seen as pound-signs, a revenue stream, rather than the lifeblood of priceless institutions. Some owners have scant understanding of the game and little respect for its traditions. The worst of these owners are not just destroying the teams we support, but by extension the towns, cities and communities those teams are rooted in - witness Blackpool, Coventry, Leeds, Morecambe, Orient to name but a few.
Blackpool Supporters’ Trust committee members regularly stand outside Bloomfield Road on match days explaining to both home and away supporters the rationale for the ethical boycott as a means of expressing customer dissatisfaction and our belief that the only long-term solution for our club and community is an Oyston-free one. A retort that is voiced with depressing regularity is this: ‘the Oystons own Blackpool Football Club. It’s their business and they can run it as they want.’
That really is an attitude which needs to change, for the future not just of Blackpool FC but for the good of the game in this country. Owners of football clubs need to recognise that they are in charge of a social enterprise. That brings with it certain obligations – not the least of which is to use the funds generated by the football club for the benefit of the football club, and by extension the supporters and the community.
Supporters Direct has conducted a forensic analysis of the financial affairs of a number of clubs, among them Blackpool, Coventry, Leeds, Morecambe and Orient (but also Blackburn, Bolton, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest, Reading and West Ham), clubs where serious misgivings have been expressed about the ethical operation of those businesses. SD’s expert panel has concluded that certain changes are necessary and they have tabled some recommendations for the regulatory reform of English football.
In short, they make the claim that football, because of the importance of its role in society, ought to be a special case in the same way that financial services and media businesses are. England is one of the few countries where football does not have an independent regulatory body. It is no longer good enough for the leagues and the club chairmen to regulate themselves. There was a time when the Football Association performed that role but it has lost its moral authority and that needs to be reasserted with appropriate rule changes governing off-field matters. These changes, SD propose, need to address ethical issues of owner integrity, stewardship, funding, accountability, engagement and community benefit - with an externally administered and regulated licencing system. The biggest beneficiaries ought to be the fans themselves, the lifeblood of any sporting institution, and those communities which the clubs serve.
To that end, the national ‘Fan Not Numbers’ campaign got under way in Blackpool this week. It is being run jointly by Supporters’ Direct and SKINS with support from Blackpool Supporters’ Trust in the first instance (Blackpool being a prime example of the issues that need to be confronted) but with other supporters’ groups coming on board as the campaign gathers momentum. Supporters Direct and SKINS believe the FA can fix the game, but they need parliamentary backing to invest them with the legal power to act.
Tuesday night was the first of five regional meetings being held this month to kick off the initiative. It is designed to encourage as many as possible of this country’s millions of football fans to do something simple and practical – fire off an email to their local MP to let them know that we're fans not numbers and we demand reform in the concept of club ownership and engagement and in how football is regulated.
To get the message in direct and powerful form, check out the launch video: http://youtu.be/m5_dW0U1aC4
To make contacting your MP easy, there is a website at http://www.skins.net/uk/fans-not-numbers where you can simply enter your name, your postcode and click a button. It will identify your local MP and format a standard email which you can fire off with one more click. The whole thing takes just two minutes of your time – two minutes that will help build momentum to get the debate for change in football governance onto the parliamentary agenda and help bring the FA, EPL and EFL to the table; two minutes that could help change football for good.