Club ownership models run the gamut, from complete fan ownership to sole possession by billionaire investors. But which one is best? Does the streamlined model of one owner like Stan Kroenke at Arsenal allow for more clear-cut decision-making? Or do the 144,000 member shareholders of Barcelona offer valuable democratic processes that better shape the club the way the fans want? Or perhaps a German hybrid model is best? Let’s have a look.
Club Ownership By The Fans
In the German Bundesliga, almost every club abides by the 50+1 model. Take Bayern Munich, for example. The perennial powerhouse of German soccer, Bayern is owned primarily by a non-profit that represents fans. The remaining 25% stake in the club belongs to corporate investors. Therefore, when it comes time to make management and development decisions, the power lies with the 250,000 club members – and not with a select few, unelected executives. And then there are clubs that are entirely fan-owned.
La Liga giant FC Barcelona has endured turbulent times in the last few years. The club hierarchy racked up an unsustainable amount of debt – over $1billion – and even lost its talisman to PSG this summer. Therefore, it was little surprise when the 144,000 membership voted out the previous club president. That is what a democratically structured club looks like. Sometimes change comes at a slower pace, but at least it is representative of fan sentiment. But is it too diffuse a process? Maybe the “golden share” model is a superior, more streamlined alternative.
The Premier League’s Brentford FC is an exemplary club in many ways, from its swashbuckling playing style and sustainable development system to its adoption of the “golden share”. Not entirely fan-owned, nor completely controlled by a distant wealthy investor, the west London club grants primary executive power to the club’s board and owners. Crucially, however, the board includes a fan director, representing the club supporters groups. In addition, major decisions – like land purchases or sales – fall under the veto remit of fans. Think of the golden share as a safety net – there if you need it.
…Or By The Wealthy
Owning a soccer club is a marker of success, similar to NFL team ownership in the US – no wonder Bobby Axelrod wanted to buy the Giants. But it is expensive. Therefore, many investors like to share the load with others, a model the West Ham United owners are considering as they ponder an offer from Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky. Having multiple owners provides the stability of income diversification, but it can also engender animosity between shareholders – as it did between Kroenke Sports & Entertainment and Alisher Usmanov at Arsenal. Therefore, sometimes it’s easier to go it alone.
KSE secured 100% ownership of Arsenal Football Club in 2018, after years of co-ownership with minority shareholders. Since then, the Kroenke’s have sought to right the ship after years of decline. As the last few years have shown though, they are struggling. And the fans have been getting impatient. Then came the failed Super League debacle earlier this year, in the wake of which thousands of Arsenal fans marched on the Emirates, demanding a change in ownership. Heavy lies the crown when there’s no one else at the owners’ table. Then again, Roman Abramovich seems to be enjoying his time at Chelsea.
Understanding which ownership model is “best” depends on the evaluation criteria. Some would argue that results are paramount, regardless of a club’s nefarious funding sources. Others – some would say “purists” – might insist that a club should be fan-owned, a representation of its supporter base and not a line in some foreign billionaire’s investment portfolio. One thing is certain: soccer fans are increasingly concerned that their beloved sport has become little more than a commercial product. And while the horse is out of the barn as far as soccer being a commodity, perhaps it’s not too late to bridge the gap between fans and owners.
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