Usually when writing a piece like this, you’re careful to mount a balanced argument, not come down too heavily on one side or another, and try not to upset anyone by voicing too strong an opinion.
There’ll be a degree of that this time too – football is a game of two halves on a level playing field and all that – but up front it’s important to make clear that the proposals currently in the Scottish Parliament to give football fans ‘right-to-buy’ their clubs are unequivocally a Good Thing.
Qualifying as a Good Thing isn’t actually that difficult. The startling thing about most Good Things is that they seem so obvious no-one can really believe they weren’t already a thing before the whole process started.
So it is with the Scottish Parliament’s Community Empowerment Bill. Scottish Green party MSP Alison Johnstone tabled a successful amendment last week that extended powers originally intended to residents buyouts of Highland estates to include giving fan groups first refusal on buying a football club should it come up for sale – including where a club finds itself in financial difficulty and the administrators have been called in.
Hailing the amendment, which will now go to a full consultation to decide the exact shape of the regulations, Johnstone said: “Many Scottish clubs are well-run but everyone can name others which have been forced into administration, or worse. With this right, never again would fans be left watching on the touchline as their club goes bust.”
The process as envisaged by MSPs is that a supporters group would form, legally register an interest in a club, then, when the club’s current owner came to sell it, they would be unable to do so without the supporters group first having had the opportunity to buy their team at a price set by an independent valuer.
A messy process, perhaps, and one which is bound to upset existing owners – particularly that independent valuation – but no less messy than the status quo, which allows the chopping and changing of ownership on the whim of a well-heeled investor.
Fan ownership in Scottish football has been an issue simmering just below boiling point for some time now. There are currently four professional clubs under fan ownership – and both Hearts and Rangers have significant supporter groups with shareholdings. Hearts owner Ann Budge is in the process of handing the club over to supporter group Foundation of Hearts – we’re currently a little over a year into a five-year transition of ownership.
Politics, like football, is a funny old game, and in politics, like in football, the run of play can be very swift to change. The SNP obliterated Labour north of the border at May’s General Election, leaving Ian Murray in Edinburgh South as Scottish Labour’s only MP. Murray very much has the look of a man left back to defend as his teammates go up for a corner. The left in Scotland is feeling buoyant, a feeling it will carry into the Scottish Parliament elections next year, with this sort of policy likely to be a popular one.
Last year celebrity Raith Rovers fan and sometime-former-Prime-Minister Gordon Brown told the Scotsman newspaper that increased community involvement was something he’d like to see in football: “When there’s a club that’s at the centre of community life you want to see it get as much support as possible from the community. Attendances are far too low right now and we’ve to do something about that.”
Brown – ever the economist – rightly highlighted inflated ticket prices as the cause of these under-populated football grounds. Germany, where fan ownership is enshrined in law, does not suffer the same glut of empty seats, with the cheapest season ticket at Bayern Munich less than half the cost of the cheapest at Raith Rovers’s Stark’s Park.
And what of Holyrood’s Community Empowerment Bill? There is a certain amount of wishful thinking in a community right-to-buy initiative. It’s the sort of scheme that sounds very good in principle, but in practice, is about as likely to come off as a David Dunn rabona. (That was the aforementioned hedging of bets and balancing of arguments around the Good Thing.)
A separate amendment, which would’ve given government support in the form of loans to supporters groups, was voted down. Gathering a membership is the first hurdle, but failure to pool the required funds is the hurdle which often proves fatal to fail to clear.
Perhaps Ann Budge and Foundation of Hearts is the model to emulate. Budge stumped up the cash for the initial buy-out of Hearts, with the backing of the 8,000 supporters to whom she is now transferring ownership. Fans tend stick around, but don’t necessarily have the resources up front. Owners tend to have the resources upfront, but don’t necessarily stick around. When you’re working in a time of crisis, as consortia looking to stage a buy-out often are, hanging around a few years to raise the funds from fans hard-pressed for spare cash isn’t an option that’s available -the opportunity will have gone by then, the club gone bust or sold on.
The final proposals have to allow for this if they stand a chance of success. The regulations must contain the ability for a lead investor, like Budge, to buy a club on the condition they transfer ownership to the legally-recognised supporters group over a pre-agreed period.
That’s the only way this Good Thing becomes an Actual Thing.
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