Football has always been moulded by and reflected the broader state of Britain’s political economy, and (as with the rest of the economy), recent decades have seen the game transformed by extractive capitalism, financialisation, and petrodollar-fuelled elites. From Bury to Barcelona, modern football is increasingly marked by inequality, debt, and a growing detachment from the communities that sustain the clubs. But it doesn’t have to be this way; democratic forms of ownership and governance, coupled with clubs employing intentional, place-based anchor approaches, can help bring the people’s game back home to fans and communities.
The current state of football clubs is predicated on a debt-leveraged operating model, with owners taking out sizeable, long-term loans to pay for new players, facilities, and club growth. These clubs are incredibly profitable, and are treated by owners as another financial asset among a portfolio of investments. As capital pours into football, clubs in the UK have suffered a number of high-profile crises of management, often compounded by a loosening of regulations. At present, the model of football institutions in the UK is one where owners extract value from clubs, taking advantage of fans’ commitment to the sport. At the same time, the growth of women’s football – especially at the grassroots level – signifies an alternative future for the game. However, it is crucial that as these institutions grow and develop, they don’t replicate the mistakes of the past.
In Germany, the 50+1 fan ownership scheme was established to address similar systemic issues within football, and has helped to grow a more sustainable and fan-accessible Bundesliga. Fan ownership of football clubs enables collective decision-making that reflects the significance of clubs for a large community base, while a collective ownership model can help to insulate clubs against unsustainable, profit-driven management practices. For UK clubs to advance towards a more democratic model, a 1 or 2% levy on transfers could be used to capitalise a solidarity fund for fan buyouts made available to fans in the case of club bankruptcy or collapse. Alongside regulation and democratic reforms for day-to-day operation – such as a cap on ticket prices, a legal obligation to pay a living wage, and prioritising local procurement – clubs need to meaningfully advance their own roles as anchors in communities: as large employers and purchasers, they have the ability to catalyse economic and social justice in the areas they are based, as well as acting as cultural landmarks.