The game prizes its passionate nature, and a prudent mindset has generally been considered a hindrance to success. Outlooks are changing, not least because many clubs have suffered financial crises, but commonsense business practices are still not widespread. Almost all of the money that clubs earn, for instance, is paid out on inflated player salaries and agents' fees.
Financial Fair Play regulations will eventually limit some of the excesses, but football finance is still in a state of unrest. Manchester United yesterday sold 10% of the club's shares, generating almost £150m. Supporters are riled by the knowledge much of that revenue will be banked by the Glazer family, rather than reinvested in their team. United are considered one of the foremost clubs in world football because of their history, triumphs and corporate might, but the current ownership structure is not widely admired.
The Glazers borrowed money to buy United and then saddled the club with those debts, although some of the proceeds of listing on the New York Stock Exchange will reduce the burden. Even that initiative was generally considered underwhelming, since there was little merit in buying the shares on offer because they carried no meaningful voting rights. It also bucked the trend, since football's involvement with the stock market was mostly brief and unfruitful when, during the mid-1990s, British clubs rushed to the market as a way to raise revenue.
In the UK, only Arsenal and Celtic remain listed, although Rangers are due to join them if Charles Green's plan for an Initial Public Offering of shares by the end of the year succeeds. Views on that are mixed among finance professionals, although the Ibrox chief executive and his two fellow directors – Imran Ahmad and Brian Stockbridge of Zeus Capital – are convinced that investment institutions will take advantage of the club being undervalued due to its recent administration and entry in to the third division.
Green has stated that he will limit every investor to 10% to 15% in the IPO, and the shares would rise in value, certainly, but there would only be liquidity if one or more individuals then sought to increase their holding or try to buy a majority stake. There is little activity in Arsenal shares unless Stan Kroenke or Alisher Usmanov are on a buying spree. It is fans, rather than investment funds, that tend to buy shares, and they retain them for sentimental reasons.
"I accept that . . . the market's not a suitable model for football," said Keith Harris, the banker and former Football League chairman. "Although I was responsible  years ago for taking football clubs public, then [clubs] were suited to it. But that's the past. It's now quite clear that football clubs are not suited to being publicly traded companies on the stock market."
Harris was reflecting on the issue of club ownership at the time of the Glazers' takeover of United, which he actively opposed as a member of Shareholders United. Little has changed in the meantime, although Rangers are in a unique position given their financial and sporting circumstances. The Rangers Supporters Trust, in conjunction with other fan groups, have plans for a Community Share Scheme, which will attempt to raise enough money to buy a stake in the club, and so exert an influence on decision-making.
Football has periodically marginalised supporters, and there is still a patronising reaction to the idea of fans sitting on the board. It is a self-defeating condescension. When clubs have suffered insolvency events due to overspending or racking up debts it is only the commitment and loyalty of fans that keep them viable. Conventional businesses are based upon making a profit, but football clubs exist to achieve sporting success. That is why money raised is spent, resulting in profits, and so shareholder dividends, being marginal, at best.
Other ownership models exist. The 10,000Hours scheme is a Community Investment Company set-up to try to secure a 52% shareholding in St Mirren. There have been difficulties in raising the finance to complete the purchase and an offer was rejected yesterday, but the CIC is an interesting model for football. Stenhousemuir and Darlington FC are both set up as CICs, which can be limited or listed companies, but must act for the good of the community.
If run on a one-member, one-vote system, they allow supporters an input in the governance of the club, but profits are retained and an "asset lock" ensures that the likes of the stadium cannot be sold off to raise funds. The directors must comply with the Companies Acts, but their duty is to act in the best interests of the community – the fans and those who make use of the club – as well as protecting investors and creditors.
Football has not thrived for more than 100 years as a means to make money for a small handful of individuals. The sport is part of the fabric of society, and clubs need to be recognised as essential parts of their community, not as standard businesses. They should be owned by their fans.
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