Ménage à Trois: Blazers, Clubs and Fans

Written by TJ

Roger Mitchell said something recently that stopped me in my tracks.  Not at the start. I’d heard all that bit before – though its certainly as succinct a summary of the war for power at the SFA that’s raged for 20 years as you are likely to read.  At the end. A new idea that even though its something I care about deeply, I hadn’t really thought out in that level of detail.  The only fair way to begin what I want to say therefore is to hand the floor open to what dropped my jaw from start to end:

Roger Mitchell, ex-CEO of the SPL:

“With the desperate overhang of distain from 2012, this autumn has been atrocious for the Hampden folks. BetFred semis, Gazza stop/go. Griffiths. And these performances. No-one believes in leadership anymore. And that’s dramatic….But these organisations are super lucky as they make their revenues off other people’s assets.  I.e. Clubs pay players and let them go free to the national team. The [Scottish Football] Association monetises the international games. It’s a huge privilege that protects their inefficiency.

“This is the same all over the world. And if a government tried to intervene, big brother FIFA protects them. It’s a racket of self-preservation basically. But we all love international football and just brush this off. So very difficult to push through change.

“So you try and wrestle control away piecemeal by occupying as many positions and committees as you can with change agents. This starts with the office bearer elections. Where you try and stop the George Peat’s of the world getting elected. As the SPL did at the time. Then you push for non-executive directors to get numbers on the key boards. Then you hopefully have enough votes to get a proper CEO in place. Read that last bit in the light of Doncaster and Maxwell. The casualty in that power play was Gary Hughes.

“Since 1998, my time … this has been the plan. Slow creeping land-grab. Lets be honest, it hasn’t and doesn’t work. Because ultimately the small clubs, schools, amateur guys have the weight of numbers. And don’t want change, as they lose power.  So what’s the alternative?

“The Socio model of the Spanish clubs. I.e. the members elect a President for a fixed term on a fixed agenda.  The issue for any CEO at the SPFL or SFA is NO POWER. You can’t change a light bulb without having to go back to the clubs. So that needs to go. You need to empower a CEO to operate without needing to herd votes around the country. So here’s the proposal. Every 3 years a President runs for office at the SFA. He does that by presenting a very, very specific manifesto for change. Others do the same. See who wins. Fixed term, but with a pre-approved plan of action in the manifesto. So if you get elected you have your mandate and power to do what you said. No more club interference.  After 3 years you are up for re-election. People judge you. Do you do what you promised? Was it successful? Are we making progress?

“The president, likely not a full time job, with his manifesto will present his team. A CEO, etc. That is my view as to how it should be. Fans would get behind that. They’d need to have a say in the voting. That’s fine. First new president like this should be @Detroit67Book [Stuart Cosgrove].

“Its also a revenue generator, Only paid up members get to vote. So it should drive massive take-up of membership. People will pay to be fully enfranchised.”

Has that sunk in?  This is someone that knows how the game works inside and out. Telling you that the ongoing Clubs v Blazers war for influence at the SFA is never going to work.  That to make it work for ‘fitba’ it needs enfranchised fans.  This is a subject that we have been very vocal supporters of.  People always think of fan representation in football as being participation in their clubs.  That’s only half the story, though it is very important to democracy and governance within the game:

European Commission The White Paper on Sport Staff Working Paper, 2007:
“Supporters’ organisations often contribute to active citizenship and democracy, especially by reaching out to young people who are not always involved in other civil society structures… The supporter movement’s contribution to active citizenship and democracy can be strengthened through official recognition at club level. A formalised involvement of supporters can reinforce the governance and financial stability of clubs.

The other half of the story is fan representation within the governing body itself.  It’s a one-two combination to deliver properly.

Fans aren’t just one group of stakeholders within the game – they are the most important.  I’m not sure I even need to put that famous quote of Jock Stein’s about how important here.

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The club income – comes from the fans.  The TV revenue – is because the fans want to watch. The shirt sales. The prize money.  We generate it and we hold power because we have the capacity to strangle the very thing that feeds the beast. To reform the SFA all we really need to do is starve them of cash.

Yet we don’t get represented because its dangerous. Interaction with fan bodies can lend a degree of unpredictability into football that Club Boards and business investors don’t like.  You want an example? Look at Stan Kroenke at Arsenal taking them private.  The Glazers at Man Utd.  When revenue and returns can be carved up by the powerful in such a way that it is predictable – its become an investment proposition for the portfolio.  But predictability is the enemy of excitement in sport!  The Champions League has become a boring procession of money for the mega-clubs that routinely make the last 8.

Football needs fan involvement but it upsets the balance. On the other hand business interests unchecked will kill sport as what we love.  When I asked Rogers opinion on this he offered:

“The issue with fan bodies is that they start with the wrong attitude. They treat owners like a guy who leaves his credit card behind the bar to be popular. While the card is not maxed out they tolerate them.  When he will no longer spend they tell him to take a hike.  It’s confrontational. A bit like union relations in the 70’s.  They are treated by football as a nuisance because of that”

So maybe there does need to be a bit of come and go on fan representation as its currently viewed.  But whatever the working solution to finding the right balance between fan representative stakes in football clubs and the remaining shares at Club level, it has to deliver practical returns or the team suffers.  It has to be complimentary to a league run for the football fans delivering a sport we love.  We at FWS are big fans of the German 50% plus 1 vote model for example.

But the same issues hold true when it comes to the second part – at the SFA.  That’s where Roger’s statement that I produced in full really does something remarkable. That’s what stopped me in my tracks.  It proposes a model for achieving this I’d never seen mooted before.  I don’t know if its the first but it was new to me.  A member style system that give power for a term with the prospects of real change able to be made.  No more of the horrible committee model that gets nothing done.  It would be revolutionary.  It’d give fans a real say.  It might even just work!

European Parliament Report on the European Dimension of Sport, The ‘Fisas Report’, 2012:
“Transparency and democratic accountability at sports clubs can be improved by the involvement of supporters in the ownership and governance structure of their clubs… Member States and sports governing bodies are to actively stimulate the social and democratic role of sport fans who support the principles of fair play, by promoting their involvement in the ownership and governance structures at their sports clubs and as important stakeholders in sports governing bodies.”

There is a direction of travel coming towards fan representation already and its coming with Governmental pressure.  We have a proposal on our website about helping that along a wee bit.  Cutting the income from the government until governance is improved (starve the beast of cash). We are all for having a good grumble about the SFA, but the time is arriving where we need consensus on what football will look like after reform. Power WILL come back into fans hands. It has to for the good of the game. Fans can’t permit themselves to slip into the same hapless quagmire that power brings. Can’t be corruptible like those old unions. We need governance too!

The SFA as always will be dragged along kicking and screaming into the modern world, giving up the bare minimum it can get away with at every stage.  But this…. this could potentially put us way out in front for once.  It’s something I need to have a serious think about. It something I’d love to see serious people have a conversation about. What happens to grass roots football? What level of input do the clubs have?  What I am sure about is that it is something that deserves to be considered.

Scottish football – we need to discuss this.

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