Generating a sufficiently large cloud of individual investors is one of the major obstacles for any young crowdfunding or crowdlending platform. Myfootballclub.com, however, didn’t have that problem: founded in April 2007, by November the “Society” of members was 20,000 strong, eventually growing to more than 50,000 members. They soon completed the takeover of Ebbsfleet United FC and through raising the profile of the club were able to save it from debt and eventually win a trophy, all the while allowing the fans to democratically involve themselves with the day to day running of the club. The transfers and playing budget were crowdfunded and members could vote on matters ranging from kit sponsorship to team selection. Yet membership numbers started to decline as interest dwindled, and eventually the club was taken over by a Kuwait-based consortium who cleared the urgent debts of £100,000. Funding Ebbsfleet United entirely through a crowd had temporary benefits, but ultimately the financial commitment was insufficient. Myfootballclub was ultimately about enthusiasts indulging in a hobby rather than investors making money. However, surely there is an opportunity to combine the two?
Football fans are an odd bunch. Aspirational to the point of delusion, insatiably demanding and harbouring passion that borders on neurosis, they would be the type of shareholders every director of any other business would swim through hot acid to avoid. For fans, a chairman who is deemed to run a football club “as a business” is the paradigmatic taboo. The Premier League’s inception saw England’s game of the masses catapulted into a corporate beast that at its best has the power to transcend cultural, geographic, racial and religious boundaries and at its worst has torn the game away from the working class who cannot afford the cable subscription to watch it on the television, let alone the ticket prices to watch it live.
Yesterday, the definitive “beast” of English corporate football, Manchester United, appointed a former director of Ladbrokes PLC into the newly created position of Chief Financial Officer at the club. For a club (business) valued by Forbes at $3.1 billion, the creation of such a crucial position in every other business seems massively overdue. The title may only be a ceremonial amalgamation of what has existed before, yet the position of CFO firmly entrenches the corporate structure that fans see as the scourge of modern football. The disenfranchisement felt by certain factions led to the creation of FC United of Manchester, a club run solely by the fans. It remains to be seen whether the club can keep the democratic structure as it moves up the leagues, when raw enthusiasm is won’t be enough to withstand the financial constraints.
Yet running a football club in a sensible, corporate manner can bring rich reward, on and off the pitch. Take Swansea City, a team who avoided relegation from the football league in the most dramatic of circumstances having been rescued from liquidation months earlier by a hastily assembled consortium. A member of that same consortium, lifelong fan Huw Jenkins, was appointed Chairman within a year. Within ten years, the club had an annual profit of £14.6 million, had won the League Cup and most importantly was established in the Premier League.
What, then, can offer a blend between the unavoidable corporate structures that a club needs to take advantage of the huge popularity of football, and the necessity to give some power back to the fans? For me, the answer could be crowdlending. Allowing fans to earn interest on money lent to their football club will offset the spiralling costs of going to games and cable television subscription. The clubs themselves would benefit from the publicity, as Ebbsfleet did, and receive finance from lenders who understand the club, without putting too much power in the hands of the uninitiated. Yes, there are problems: clubs would have to be very cautious not to exploit the trust of the erstwhile fan, and would have to ensure that the loan can be paid back with revenue that is both unaffected by performance and is guaranteed income over a structured term. Moreover, authoritative bodies such as the Football League and Premier League will be quick to put pressure on any practices that put a club at higher risk of liquidation. Yet the opportunity for fans to use crowdlending platforms to support football clubs financially would benefit all involved and ensure that football clubs can give back more to fans.