4. Options for Legislation: Supporters' Right to Govern their Football Club
Governance arrangements in Scottish football have been criticised for failure of clubs to involve supporters and/or supporter groups in their governance structures. Much debate has surrounded how best to involve supporters in governance of clubs with suggestions including formal representation at Board level; dual Board structures where a supporters' Board runs parallel to the club's Board, performing different but interrelated functions; a Fan's Parliament Model ; and other tailored models such as a Supporter Involvement Forum.
The Scottish Government considers that, regardless of the model adopted, basic principles are that supporters involved in governance should be representative of the wider group and accountable to them; the process of appointment or involvement must be transparent; and the individuals involved should have the right skillset.
The Working Group recommended that clubs give consideration to the most appropriate governance model for them which ensures supporter involvement; and that training and guidance should be made available to supporter representatives involved.
Question 2: What are your views on making a law to give supporters the right to govern their club?
554 respondents addressed this question, including all but one of the organisations and 530 individuals. A further 33 individuals simply referred to their response to the previous question.
Overall, views were mixed regarding supporters being given opportunities to govern their club. However, the balance of opinion was against making the opportunities enshrined in law, with no difference between opinions of organisations versus individuals.
Reasons given in support of making a law to give supporters the right to govern their club
Very few substantive comments were made specifically in favour of legislating for supporters' rights to govern their club. Two main views were that legislative backing would give teeth to such rights, making clubs focus more on how to enable this provision; and that making a law would ensure longer term viability of this approach and clubs' financial security.
A few respondents qualified their support for legislation, stating, for example, that supporters should have the right to govern enshrined in law so long as those involved undergo the necessary training for this role, are competent, and some form of monitoring takes place to ensure supporters in governance roles represent the range of types of supporter.
One suggestion was for an enforcement regime to be put in place, with penalties imposed on clubs which do not conform with the legislation.
General views on the benefits of supporters governing their club
Many respondents, whether or not they were in favour of making a law to give supporters the right to govern their club, elaborated on what they perceived to be the benefits of supporter governance.
Three key benefits emerged. Firstly, supporters were perceived to be the lifeblood of their club, bringing loyalty and passion in addition to finance to the club. Providing them with a governance role was viewed as giving them a just and deserved outlet for their voices to be heard.
Secondly, it was felt that supporters will always have the best interests of the club at heart and will, therefore, make governance decisions with no other agenda other than for the long-term good of the club and its wider community.
Finally, some considered that supporters may have a wealth of untapped skills and organisational potential which would be useful for clubs to capitalise upon. Providing routes into governance roles for supporters within football clubs was viewed as sound business sense, making best use of resources, with supporters considered to be forward-looking and innovative.
"East Ayrshire Council recognises people living in our communities as having a wide range of skills and talents that are often underestimated by 'professionals'" (East Ayrshire Council).
"Supporters are better informed, equipped and have the desire for their clubs to progress in modern times" (Individual).
Again, some qualifications emerged with the view expressed that controls and parameters should be implemented to ensure the scope for supporter governance is well defined.
"...fans to have realistic expectations for what their club and the board can achieve together" (Mauchline United).
Others called for careful selection of supporter representatives to be involved in governance with their skillsets examined for suitability and appropriate training provided.
Reasons given in opposition to making a law to give supporters the right to govern their club
Many arguments were submitted in opposition to legislating to give supporters the right to govern their club.
The most common opposing argument was that this proposal is not feasible in the business-led world of football clubs, particularly when they are constituted as public limited companies, with priority of allegience to shareholders. Respondents were unclear how legislation on supporter governance would fit with existing company law frameworks, with tension between them perceived to be inevitable.
"With a few exceptions, football clubs are commercial organisations and have to be run as such. Supporters by definition come from all walks of life and their desire to see their club succeed may or may not run in parallel with their commercial acumen and/or sense of realism" (Individual).
"It would be inappropriate for any supporters' right to govern to be imposed on clubs which are limited companies because directors of these clubs owe their duties to the clubs" (Celtic plc).
Another prominent argument was that shareholders can voice their opinions at the annual general meeting, or in some cases, they may already be on governing Boards and, therefore, legislation is not required.
A repeated view was that "one size does not fit all" and, whilst it may be helpful to have supporters involved in governance in some clubs, this may not be beneficial in all. Size of club and constitution of the club were amongst the variables mentioned.
"With football clubs, particularly professional ones that operate with large budgets, direct governance by supporters who lack experience, expertise, time or energy may prove damaging rather than beneficial to the club in the longer term. This concern may not apply to smaller clubs...." (Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum).
"A place on the Board for fan representatives in a plc is a different thing to a privately owned football club" (Individual).
Other key arguments against making a law to give supporters the right to govern their club were that this appears to be " heavy handed", too extreme, and disproportionate and that it would be unworkable and unenforceable. Some felt that certain clubs may adopt a cavalier approach to such a law, finding ways to comply in a token manner, but not in the spirit of true empowerment and engagement with supporters. Concerns were raised that such a law would put off potential investors who would be cautious about the supporters' role in governing their investment.
"No well-advised person would ever acquire, or purchase a controlling stake in a football club if he had to cede to supporters the right to govern" (Dunfermline Athletic Football Club Limited).
Further arguments included:
- Supporter involvement in governance should not be forced, but should be agreed on amicably within clubs, without recourse to law.
- The Scottish Government should not be involved in this issue.
- Premature to go down this route without first looking at experience elsewhere and learning from this.
A few respondents provided more general views opposing the concept of supporter governance of clubs. Two main arguments dominated.
Firstly, a shared view was that being a passionate supporter does not necessarily translate into being a skilled governer of a club, and in reality, relatively few supporters may have the skillset, time and inclination to be effective contributors to their respective club's governance.
Secondly, a repeated comment was that supporters may not be objective in decision-making at Board level, letting their hearts rule their heads due to the passion they feel for their club.
"The problem with this comes from supporters having, in general, bigger emotional ties to the club and will often have their opinions driven by the heart. Often this means that their view is to have things done regardless of cost" (Individual).
Additional views included that the proposal can only ever amount to window-dressing as the Board will continue to make important decisions over the heads of supporters; supporters as a group will have diverging views with this having potential to delay decisions and cause confusion; and there could be issues around confidentialiy of information discussed at Board level.
Specific views on supporter representation on Boards
Many respondents were in favour of representatives of supporters having a place on football club Boards. Some individuals provided recommendations as to the appropriate level of representation with these ranging from "one or two" supporters, to up to 50% of Board members being supporters.
Whilst some considered a set proportion (such as 20%) should be laid down in SPFL/Scottish FA guidelines, others supported some form of sliding scale of representation, based on level of shareholding by the supporters' organisation involved.
West Lothian Council suggested that recognised fan groups could buy, or be given, a share allocation along with rights for direct representation on the main Boards. Whilst not a "right to govern" per se, this was viewed as a "right to participate in governance".
A repeated theme was for supporter representation on Boards to encompass diversity principles and more effectively represent communities, with clear goals to involve, for example, women, people with disabilities and various minority groups.
Views on alternative mechanisms for supporter governance
A small number of respondents provided their view on the Dual Board Structure or Supporter Advisory Board Model proposed in the consultation document as possible alternatives to formal representation at Board level.
Support for such models of governance emerged from across several respondent types including individual respondents, local government, a supporter group and a football club. These were seen as providing balance and enabling respective parties to contribute effectively whilst safeguarding confidential information and important financial decisions. The separation of strategy development from supporter involvement in governance was identified as beneficial by one local government respondent.
Dunfermline Athletic Football Club Limited expressed a preference for the dual Board structure involving an Executive Board and a Supervisory Board, with the former accountable to the latter, which comprises people "who understand the concepts of corporate governance, social responsibility and commercial confidentiality". The proposed Supervisory Board was envisaged as being non-executive in nature with its primary purposes being to ensure the Executive Board conducts its affairs in line with the club's agreed, published strategy; and that each member of the Executive Board is fulfilling his or her role properly. The Supervisory Board would have responsibility for liaising most closely with the club's stakeholders including its supporters, with supporters/supporter groups having the right to make appointments to the Supervisory Board.
A very small number of individual respondents argued against a Dual Board model, largely on the grounds that the supporters' Board would be ineffective, not taken seriously and would comprise an added layer of bureaucracy, requiring effort but holding little power.
Very few respondents provided views on the proposed Fan's Parliament Model outlined in the consultation document. The balance of opinion was in favour of such a model, although one respondent expressed concern that this could generate bickering amongst fans.
A few respondents made recommendations for what they saw as potential alternative models for supporters to be involved in governance, with the key ones being:
- Supporters' Involvement Forum, or Supporter Panel, perhaps with members elected by peers.
- A system of supporter voting, for example, by inviting supporters to buy shares in a club, or a season ticket, with this enabling them to vote on key issues.
- Informal engagement activities such as fans' forum public events and online question and answer sessions with club officials.
A small number of respondents commented that, rather than make efforts to establish supporter governance mechanims at club level, the most appropriate context for their input is at national governance level within the Scottish FA and SPFL where they can impact on national strategy and future development.
Exemplary models of good practice exist, according to some respondents. Germany was identified repeatedly in this regard, but also individual clubs such as Barcelona and, closer to home, Wimbledon.
"I would fully support the implementation of the German model of football club governance which also includes a minimum portion of the club that has to be fan controlled, a club salary cap and a limit on foreign players which we can see has significantly boosted the German national team. Anything that would be good for fFootball in Scotland should be assessed and copied and the German model seems to be the prime example currently in Europe" (Individual).
Views on achieving representativeness amongst supporters involved in governance
A recurring theme was how to ensure that supporters involved in governance are representative of the wider supporter base.
A shared view was that the selection of supporter representatives should be transparent and structured according to set rules. Some respondents proposed formal elections for selecting suitable representatives in a democratic manner. However, different views emerged on who should be permitted to vote in these, with proposals including: season ticket holders; supporters (and definitely not club officials); and members of supporter groups.
It was emphasised that supporters chosen for such roles should be broadly representative of diverse groups with gender balance a key target. Although, it was highlighted that it could prove very difficult to achieve supporter representation to everyone's satisfaction, particularly as different supporter groups can hold contrasting views and different representatives may have specific agendas.
One respondent called for attention to be given to financial, social and physical barriers which could preclude some supporters from being able to take on governance roles.
Views on training and guidance for supporter representatives
Very few respondents provided any substantive views on the Working Group recommendation that training and guidance be made available to supporter representatives.
One shared view amongst individuals and a few local government respondents was that supporters and Directors of Boards should be treated no differently with regards to training, and upskilling for their role should be a requirement for all involved at Board level. Whilst a few envisaged training as mandatory, others acknowledged that those taking Board positions will bring different skills and may have varying requirements regarding improving their skills.
A few individuals recommended that training and guidance be targeted to ensure that suitable individuals are not excluded from representation on Boards on account of their lack of experience or disability, and a key purpose of training should be to equip people from all walks of life with the skills and confidence to take on a Board role.
Questions were raised over who would conduct the training, whether a central body would delivery this or whether this would be delivered through a customised, local approach, and who will pay for training.
Summary of key points
Whilst opinion was mixed over whether or not supporters should be provided with opportunity to govern their club, the majority of those who expressed a clear view on this question did not agree that this should be enshrined in law.
The main 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 of clubs.
Despite the majority view against legislation, the general principle of involving supporters in governing football clubs received considerable support. In particular, respondents envisaged supporters bringing passion and loyalty to their governing roles; they would have the best interests of the club at heart; and it made business sense to make best use of resources with supporters considered to be forward-looking and innovative.
Concerns were raised, however, over whether 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 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 the same in terms of training provision and upskilling for their respective governance roles.