Supporter involvement in Scottish football clubs: consultation analysis

Analyses the responses to a consultation on supporter involvement in influencing, governing, bidding for and buying professional football clubs in Scotland.

1. Executive Summary

The Scottish Government supports fans having a greater role in decision-making and running of football clubs and the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 contained a commitment to consult on a range of options to enhance this.

In 2014 the Scottish Government established a short-term Working Group for Supporter Involvement in Football Clubs (the Working Group) tasked with providing recommendations on ways to increase and improve supporter involvement in the governance, financing and operation of professional football clubs in Scotland. The group, chaired by Stephen Morrow of Stirling University, published its report in January 2015. [1]

On 26 September 2015 the Scottish Government published a consultation paper, "Supporter Involvement in Scottish Football Clubs" [2] which presented recommendations from the Working Group on improved supporter involvement, strengthening the relationship between clubs and the communities they represent. Responses to the consultation were invited by 15 January 2016.

The Scottish Government received 982 responses to the consultation, 957 from individuals and 25 from organisations. The Green Party, under its Fans First campaign, prompted responses in support of legislating for supporters' right to buy their football clubs. This appears to have boosted the response level to that specific question compared to other options, although identification of these responses was not possible in a robust way. The organisations who responded to the consultation as a whole included football clubs and their representative bodies; schools; supporter groups; local government; and others.

The consultation posed nine key questions, all open in nature, inviting views on four broad options for developing legislation (through regulation): a right for supporters to influence their football club; a right for supporters to govern their football club; a right for supporters to bid for their club in the event of a sale; and the right of supporters to buy their football club. A summary of these views follows. The views are those of the respondents to this consultation and may not necessarily represent the views of a wider population.

Options for legislation: supporters' right to influence their football club

The view of a clear majority of respondents, both individual and across the range of organisations, was that a law should be provided to give supporters the right to influence their club.

The main reason given in favour of providing such a law was that this will make clubs more open and accountable. A recurring view was that supporters are the lifeblood of clubs and they deserve to be involved in influencing their football club.

A frequently raised concern, however, was how to ensure the supporters who could be involved are representative of the wider fan-base.

The most common argument emerging from the minority of respondents opposing such a law was that some clubs are already very well run and involve supporters in decision-making, and new legislation imposed over and above this would be superfluous, or could detract from systems already working well.

Another common view was that, as most football clubs are businesses and subject to existing company law and associated duties to shareholders, additional legislation giving supporters the right to influence their club may create tension with the current legislative framework.

Very few respondents provided views on the proposed Supporter Involvement Award or on existing Supporter Liaison Officers. Whilst expressing general support, some suggested that these initiatives need to be strengthened and better publicised.

Views of the few who commented on the issue were broadly in support of the proposal that a club must declare to the Scottish Premier Football League ( SPFL) and Scottish Football Association (Scottish FA) and publish the identity of the ultimate beneficial owner of the club. Several respondents welcomed the transparency which they felt this would bring.

Options for legislation: supporters' right to govern their football club

Whilst there was a mix of opinion over whether or not supporters should be provided with the opportunity to govern their club, the majority of those who expressed a clear view did not agree that this should be enshrined in law.

The most common argument against legislating was that the new law could create tension with existing company law governing most clubs. Other prevailing views were that shareholders can already voice their opinions in various ways and a "one size fits all" approach is inappropriate given the range of governance arrangements across clubs.

Despite the majority view against legislation, the notion of involving supporters in governing football clubs, as a general principle, received considerable support. In particular, respondents envisaged supporters bringing passion and loyalty to governance; they were seen as having the best interests of the club at heart; and according to respondents, it made business sense to make best use of supporter resources with supporters considered to be forward-looking and innovative.

Questions were raised, however, over how many supporters would have the necessary time, inclination and skillset to fulfil a role in governance.

Support for Dual Board Structures or Supporter Advisory Board Models was expressed with these seen as providing a balance which enabled respective parties to contribute effectively to the governance of football clubs whilst safeguarding confidential information and important financial decisions.

A recurring theme was how to ensure supporters involved in governance are representative of the wider supporter base, with views put forward on ways to select supporters democratically and emphasis placed on including diverse groups.

A shared view was that supporters and Directors of Boards should be treated in the same manner in terms of training provision and upskilling for their respective governance roles.

Options for legislation: supporters' right to bid for their football club

Responses indicated widespread support for the principle of right to bid, but support was lower for enshrining this in law, particularly amongst organisations.

Reasons in favour of supporters having the right to bid for their club revolved largely around their deserving this on account of their long-term commitment to their club and having the club's best interests at heart.

In order to bid for their club effectively, respondents recommended that supporters should be required to have finances in place for the purchase and longer-term sustainability of the club; should have access to professional help with their bid; and will require to have the necessary business expertise to participate in the bidding process.

The dominant argument against making a law to give supporters the right to bid for their club was that existing legislation already provides for this. Other common views were that supporters are not likely to be able to secure sufficient funding to bid for and financially sustain a club; and that this may not always be the best option for clubs which are already financially sound and operating well.

Very few respondents addressed the possibility of using the Localism Act 2011 to safeguard their football club, with those who did generally in favour.

Options for legislation: supporters' right to buy their football club

The question of whether a law should be taken forward to give supporters the right to buy their club attracted the most responses out of all the consultation topics, reflecting the encouragement of the Green Party via its Fans First campaign to respond in support of legislation.

A clear majority of individual respondents favoured making a law to give supporters the right to buy their club; views of organisations were broadly balanced between those in favour and those against.

The most common argument in favour of giving supporters the opportunity to buy their club was that this will safeguard football clubs from asset-stripping and those intent on short-term business gain. Another prevailing view was that supporters will do what is right for their club and will provide secure stewardship into the future.

The most common argument against making a law to give supporters the right to buy their club was that they already have the opportunity to do this under existing company law. Preferential treatment given to football club supporters over other potential buyers was seen as out of step with business protocol.

A common concern was that this could be open to abuse by unscrupulous people posing as supporters. Other prevalent concerns were over: potential friction between different groups of supporters; deterring the possibility of future investment; value of clubs dropping; and the longer-term viability of clubs purchased by supporters.

Views on raising the necessary funds to execute the right to buy and the time allowed for this

Most of those who addressed this issue were in favour of allowing time for supporters to raise the necessary funds to buy their football club so long as a clear time limit is set to prevent the process drawing out indefinitely.

A common view was that supporters should also be required to develop a well- structured plan for sustaining funds over the longer-term.

Whilst some respondents considered that the period permitted for raising funds should be decided on a case-by-case basis, there were those that argued for set timescales, mainly of up to one year.

A clear majority of those who addressed the topic disagreed with the involvement of the Scottish Government in providing funding or loans to supporter groups to allow them to bid for their football club.

Much support was expressed for a suitably resourced and accountable Business, Community and Football Enterprise Unit which was envisaged as: providing advice; providing training for supporters; mediating between owners and supporters; providing a safeguard against rogue bidders with ulterior motives; and enabling/overseeing efficient sourcing of funds.

The proposal to widen the criteria and role of social investment institutions to allow them to act as vehicles which could support football supporter collectives was generally favoured by the few respondents who considered it.

Views on defining assets in the context of making a law to give supporters rights in the decision-making or ownership of their club

There was general agreement over the importance of defining assets clearly in the context of supporters becoming involved in influencing, governing, bidding for and buying their clubs. However, many respondents also considered such clarity difficult to establish, due largely to the extensive variety of corporate structures and asset ownership models across football clubs.

Many of the individual respondents shared a view that assets should already be defined as routine in standard business accounting reports and that these will be freely available. Others recommended seeking expert advice on how to define assets.

Where respondents indicated what they perceived football club assets to be, those most commonly identified were: stadia and training grounds; players; branding; merchandise/sponsorship packages; and staff.

A recurring view was that, even if the scope of assets can be defined, their value may not be readily identified due to fluctuations according to circumstance.

Views were divided between those who perceived clubs and their assets to be inseparable and those who perceived clubs to be separate entities, distinct from tangible assets and companies.

A few respondents called for greater clarity over the relationship between clubs and associated holding companies.

Views on defining supporters and supporter groups in the context of making a law to give supporters rights in the decision-making or ownership of their club

The challenges of defining football supporters and supporter groups were widely recognised. Amongst those respondents who attempted definitions of a football supporter, the most frequently mentioned descriptions were: season ticket holder; someone who contributes generally to the club's finances; someone who attends matches when possible; and a person who self-defines as a football supporter and has an emotional attachment to a club.

It was generally acknowledged that some supporters cannot afford to attend matches or are not able to attend in person due, for example, to distance from their club or disability, and it was felt that they should not be excluded from decision-making at their club on account of this.

There were mixed and sometimes contrasting views on which supporters should have priority over others in the context of rights in the decision-making or ownership of football clubs.

Amongst the few respondents who attempted a definition of supporter groups, the most common views were: properly constituted group registered with the Scottish FA or SPFL; and a collection of like-minded supporters who contribute generally to their club.

Views on rights of appeal

Most respondents were in favour of establishing rights of appeal in the context of making a law to give supporters rights in the decision-making or ownership of their football club.

The main reasons in support were that rights of appeal are routine aspects of justice, part of the balance and checking procedures and good practice where legislation such as this is enacted. Other prominent views were that rights of appeal would be democratic and fair to different parties and would provide a formal route to dispute resolution.

A recurring view was that any appeals process should have clear parameters to reduce the risk of spurious appeals and delays in finalising decisions.

Common recommendations were for the appeals Board to be independent and to work in a transparent manner.

Amongst the small minority of opponents, the prevailing view was that existing mechanisms and legislation should suffice, with no additional need for appeal procedures. Concerns were raised that new appeals processes might be overly bureaucratic and expensive.

Summary of additional comments

Many respondents took the opportunity to make additional, broader comments on the proposals in the consultation and on wider football issues.

One key topic area raised by respondents was that they should be given more respect from the governing bodies of football generally and when attending football matches. Comments were suggestive of some challenges in the relationship between governing bodies of football and football supporters with additional concern expressed over ticket prices and police management of supporters at matches.

A common recommendation was that football clubs should continue to work at creating meaningful channels of communication with their supporters.


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