Come with us now on a journey though time and space…to a DYSTOPIAN FOOTBALL FUTURE!!
It’s 2023. The globe continues to heat unabated, and yet football somehow forges on. In this horrible futureverse, advances in broadband technology lead to an explosion in popularity of on-demand programming. Traditional cable providers are slow to react, and in the process lose countless numbers of subscribers before caving and allowing a la carte channel selection to stave off the threat of on-demand services. Meanwhile many channels simply disappear or sell their programming to on-line viewing companies like Hulu and Netflix.
While this gives viewers more choice, it negatively affects ratings as casual, channel-flipping audiences disappear, even for popular live events like sports. Crippled by these radical changes to the industry and with advertisers paying less to reflect the smaller audience share, networks are less able and willing to spend huge sums of money for the rights to pro sports entities like the Premier League.
Meanwhile the culture of Financial Fair Play has long taken root, and clubs no longer borrow money or use owner equity to cover losses. In this environment, healthy club revenues are more important than ever for success. Yet with football now on a smaller-though-dedicated niche television market, and with improvements in accurate data for advertizer reach via club sponsorship, many clubs find themselves less and less able to command major corporate partnership deals. Many clubs find themselves reliant on old revenue streams like gate and merchandise sales.
Moreover, many of the big, globally popular clubs are beginning to see the possible advantages of selling their broadcasts directly to viewers through specialty channels and on-line subscriptions. There is growing pressure from these teams to get even more in TV facility fees (the amount they get paid for being on TV) from the deal collectively negotiated by the league, else they split off and go it alone. So some leagues acquiesce, and the smaller clubs cry foul. Meanwhile their attempts to secure some sort of redistributive measures like a luxury tax from either UEFA or the league are thwarted and deemed impossible without violating European law on anti-competitive behaviour.
In this environment, fewer wealthy international owners are interested in investment in top flight football, as TV rights deals are shrinking, teams are less and less able to generate revenue, and, under FFP, they cannot spend more than they make in turnover. At least one Premier League club owner attempts to sell their club and cannot seem to find a willing bidder able to meet a reasonable market price. This owner is approached by the club supporters trust with a deal…if we can raise capital from fans worldwide via social media to match or exceed the market rate, sell to us. The owner agrees, the ST runs a successful campaign, and the club becomes owned by the trust.
Supporters Direct heralds it a success and a model for other teams to follow. And, much to the astonishment of the football intelligentsia, trust clubs are run in a fairly conservative fashion. Trusts are careful to seek board members with both a history in corporate governance but who are also community members with ties to the club. With FFP in place, clubs owned by trusts essentially become non-profit organizations. But because of the proliferation of social networks and the ability of fans to directly invest in their club via shares, clubs owned by trusts are in a better financial position to compete for the best players and front office personnel.
So this could all be a complete fantasy, but the point I want to make here is that it might best serve the interests of everyone in the football game to realize that we need not cleave views on football ownership into “left” vs “right,” Conn vs Samuel. Supporter-run football need not mean hordes of hooligans voting out board members, but could be a reasonable means for smaller clubs to raise revenue in what could be a very different commercial environment for professional sports in the next few decades.
The more one thinks about it, the more reasonable it becomes. Why try to make money from third party advertisers hoping to jump aboard to reach your supporters when supporters themselves are likely willing to give it directly to clubs in return for a small say in how it is run? Why fear the notion of Supporters Trusts as some experiment in direct democracy, when in practice they represent the collective interests of supporters as a whole who, on the whole, don’t want their club run into the ground for short-term gain?
The point here is to just think about it. This doesn’t have to be about one league aping another, or a one-size-fits-all approach for all league clubs. It could simply be about STs providing an alternative and potentially far more financially secure future to smaller clubs who could face major difficulty in generating revenue in the next few decades.