Is this the tipping point for football fan power?

As a Manchester United fan protest leads to a match postponement, experts say owners must rebuild trust with the fans.

Supporters hold up banners as they protest against Manchester United's owners, outside the Premier League club's Old Trafford stadium [File: Oli Scarff/AFP]

England’s Premier League is to bring in a new “owners’ charter”, forcing owners of football clubs to commit to its “core principles”, it was revealed on Monday.

The announcement came as the Football Association, the sport’s governing body in England, also unveiled an inquiry into the six English clubs which joined the ill-fated European Super League last month.

Executives at the six – Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham – have been forced to resign from their advisory roles at the Premier League, while United’s executive vice chairman Ed Woodward announced he would step down from his role at the club at the end of the year.

But Woodward’s decision failed to satisfy thousands of United fans who protested at the club’s famed Old Trafford stadium on Sunday, with hundreds breaking into the stadium and occupying the pitch. Their action forced a match against rivals Liverpool, which was due to be broadcast around the world, to be postponed.

It was the latest in a series of fan protests against the “big six” clubs’ attempted breakaway. The Manchester United protesters called for the club’s owners, the Glazer family, to sell up, and for new owners to ensure fans’ representation in the club’s governance.

“In the last few years we have started to see flashpoints throughout the world as a reaction against the excesses of capitalism,” Paul Widdop, senior lecturer in sport business at Manchester Metropolitan University, told Al Jazeera.

“I think the reaction of fans in recent weeks is another of these reactions. In all social movements there needs to be a tipping point, whereby protests gather momentum and there is a transition between general malaise at the situation, to direct action.”

David Webber, course leader in Football Studies at Southampton’s Solent University, told Al Jazeera that it was a “tipping point”.

“This degree of direct action has changed the parameters of the politically possible. By disrupting and potentially cancelling one of the biggest games in world football, these distinctly local protests have gone global. They remind us how important – even in an age of global investors, and global fanbases – these local fans and these local spaces are.”

Why are fans upset?

At Manchester United, the discontent has been growing since the Glazers took over the club. Their $1.5bn purchase of the club in 2005 was built on securing $1.1bn in loans against the club, immediately plunging the previously debt-free club $800 million into debt.

The Glazers have also paid themselves millions of dollars in dividends each year, on top of consultancy fees. The stadium leaks when it rains. The training facilities, especially those available for junior and reserve teams, are far from world class.

Ticket-purchasing, red-shirted fans in England’s northwest and beyond feel they have subsidised the Glazers’ billionaire lifestyle for too long.

“No one wants what happened at Old Trafford yesterday to be a regular event,” read an open letter to Joel Glazer from the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust on Monday.

Manchester United fans protest outside the Lowry Hotel where the team was staying during a protest against the Glazer family [File: Rui Vieira/AP]

“We are football fans and we want to support our team. We don’t want to spend our days off work protesting outside our football ground. But what happened was the culmination of sixteen years in which your family’s ownership of the club has driven us into debt and decline, and we have felt ever more sidelined and ignored.”

The disconnect stems from the structure of ownership and governance, said Widdop, co-author of Collective Action and Football Fandom: A Relational Sociological Approach.

“Many clubs have foreign ownership, which brings a disconnect between fans and the ownership structure. However, what we have seen recently is an ownership model of private equity companies and hedge funds becoming major investors who care very little about heritage or fans unless it can be leveraged for economic capital.”

Days ahead of local elections in England, and national elections in Wales and Scotland, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a government-initiated fan-led review of football governance.

Many are hopeful the review will recommend new legislation to guarantee a form of fans’ ownership, such as the “German model” known as 50+1 – that is, 50 percent plus one share (a majority), must be held by the club’s members.

It is a system which leads to a very different power dynamic in the Bundesliga but is not without its own problems – restricting outside investment to the league and enhancing the potential for toxic internal club politics.

Club owners who gambled on joining the European Super League – and lost – appear to have underestimated the scale of fans’ sense of betrayal.

‘Loyalty central to being a fan’

“My research shows that for ‘hot’ committed fans [as opposed to cool, or casual fans], the football club is one of the most important – if not the most important – thing in their lives,” Stacey Pope, associate professor in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University, told Al Jazeera.

“The club plays a critical role in everyday lives and identities. Some ‘hot’ fans admit to thinking about football and their club ‘constantly’. The football club also plays a critical role in the local community. Indeed, even in an era of globalisation, my research has shown that localism is still an important factor in determining club support. Many fans are born locally or have other local ties to their club. For those fans who do not share these local ties, loyalty is still central to being a fan.

“Therefore, football is not like other activities. Normally, if you’re not happy with the service when you purchase something, you would think about going with a different product or brand next time around. But being a football fan means you stick with a club through thick and thin, ie: you just don’t change your membership or season ticket and switch to another team. Football has always been a game for the fans; it is ‘their’ club. But the current model of club ownership and running clubs as businesses suggests the reality is very different.”

However, it remains to be seen if fan protests would convince club owners to sell.

“These modern owners are somewhat a faceless transnational elite,” said Widdop. “As long as money and growth is showcased to their shareholders they probably care very little about 200 people invading the pitch at Old Trafford.”

Manchester United’s owners have hold of a profitable business. The stock market (NYSE:MANU) values the club at around $2.8bn.

So any bid to take it over would likely have to surpass that valuation. And anyone willing to splash that sort of cash, and take on at least another half-billion in debt, may well end up being just as extractive as the Glazers.

“They will only sell if they are offered the sale price; in this world everything is for sale,” said Widdop. “They will look to ride these protests out, hire a team of PR experts and look for damage limitation.”

A wider conversation?

Mark Turner is a scholar of fan activism and movements and a research fellow at Solent University.

“I think this noise and direct action, if sustained, has more counter-power than anything we’ve seen in a long time,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The supporter-ownership models will take centre stage of the fan-led review, but whether that creates a coherent strategy is difficult. Unless a wider conversation is had about fan alienation, supporter discontent, which goes to the heart of those neoliberal changes within and around the Premier League and its impact over the past 30 years, then I don’t see things changing significantly, long term.”

Webber, Turner’s colleague in Southampton, agrees: “The Glazers may not act. They may dig in. I would still be surprised if they sell up. They do, however, have to listen. They have to recognise that clubs like Manchester United are locally rooted. These local fans provide the club with its history. Its identity. And it is this very same history and identity that global followers of the club buy into.

“There is a lesson here for all owners. While lucrative global markets may be their goal, they cannot discount or take for granted the historical and cultural significance of these local fans.”

Huge amounts of money and inward investment have been central to the football industry since at least the start of the Premier League – itself a “breakaway” of sorts – in 1992, the same year UEFA’s Champions League competition was inaugurated with similar financial goals.

“The important question is ‘how did we get here?'” said Widdop. “As a society, Western Europe has chased the neoliberal dream and been open to foreign direct investment; the English Premier League has followed the path laid down by the government and become a free market. We are now witnessing the aftershock of this strategy. But this is not only the big clubs. Look throughout the lower leagues and the same types of companies are now emerging. This is a very worrying time for football.”

Follow James Brownsell on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell

Source: Al Jazeera