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Fan-Owned Football Teams: Which Clubs Are Run By Their Fans?

In an age in which billionaire businesspeople buy football clubs as toys to demonstrate their wealth and others buy teams as an attempt to make a quick buck, there are still some clubs that are run for and by their own community.

Fan-owned clubs are run by the supporters for the supporters, in a system that means everyone’s voice can be heard. The term refers specifically to teams where over 50% of the team is owned by members of the local community and the grass-roots nature of this ownership eliminates the need for wealthy investors to come in and make wholesale changes to the status quo.

Why Do Clubs Become Fan Owned?

Group of People Icons

There are many situations in which a group of supporters might feel the urge to buy their team. Sometimes it may be fans buying the team from an owner they do not trust in order to return to the team’s core values. On other occasions, supporters will re-form a club that has been liquidated, or even form a completely new club in protest at the current owner of the team.

There are two main focuses of most fan-owned clubs: financial sustainability and community support. Many supporter-run teams have gone through financial instability in the past and with a lack of funds from private investment, it is essential that they operate in a way that means the team are never at risk of liquidation. Balancing a club’s budget effectively also allows for them to support the local community. Most fan-owned teams are run as an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS), this means that they are not running purely for revenue to be made, and any surplus money is pumped back into the club and its supporters. This allows for more and better community outreach projects to be carried out, and fan-owned teams have a better understanding of what it is the community needs (rather than picking causes that might just provide good PR).

Fan-owned teams are controlled by a board of trustees who represent the views of the fans. The trustees are elected by supporters who pay a nominal fee to become members of the club, and this gives them the right to vote on important issues and elect the people that run the club. A board of directors often still exists to oversee the day-to-day running of the team, however over half of the board members will still be trustees of the club to ensure that the fans are always put first.

We’ll have a look at the English clubs that are majority controlled by their fans, as well as some notable examples from across the world. Exploring the potential benefits of a team that is run by its own supporters, and some of the scenarios in which it can’t compare to the huge financial resources of a private investor.

There are various categories of fan-owned teams including supporter buyout clubs, minority supporter-owned clubs, phoenix clubs and those that could be dubbed “protest clubs”. Here we’ll take a brief look at the teams that fall into each of these categories.

Supporter Buyout Clubs

Football on Table Against UK Flag

Also known as supporter takeover clubs, these are most common category and involved fans banding together and buying out the current owners of a club so that the fans group gains control.

Exeter City

Exeter were ejected from the football league at the end of the 2002-03 season after finishing second from bottom in League Two. It emerged from this relegation that the club were being mismanaged by the board of directors, with two members later being convicted of fraudulent activity whilst in charge of the club.

The Exeter City Supporters’ Trust purchased a 53.6% controlling stake in the club in order to help it survive this troubling situation. In the Conference, the team managed to rebuild, with the Trust in control they started initiatives to help fans fund the club’s survival, in order to clear the millions owed in debt.

Through the “Red or Dead” scheme, fans pledged hundreds of pounds each season to help the club meet their debt repayment scheme. The magic of the FA Cup also helped the team rebuild, being drawn against Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup earned them over £600,000 in ticket sales for the game at Old Trafford and when they managed a 0-0 draw, a replay at their St James Park ground helped to raise even more funds.

Fan ownership helped Exeter City rebuild in the conference and at the end of the 2007-08 season, they managed to get promoted and regain their place in the Football League, where they have remained a staple in League Two for years. Thanks to the shrewd management and passion of the fans for the club, they finally have ownership that cares about them.

Other Clubs Bought Out by Supporters

There are plenty of other clubs from further down the footballing ladder that fall into this category including the following:

  • Atherton Town FC
  • Aylesbury United FC
  • Bamber Bridge FC
  • Banbury United FC
  • Basingstoke Town FC
  • Bath City FC
  • Congleton Town FC
  • Dorchester Town FC
  • Grays Athletic FC
  • Hendon FC
  • Hull United AFC
  • Hyde United FC
  • Kempston Rovers FC
  • Lewes FC
  • Litherland REMYCA FC
  • Newark Town FC
  • Newport (IOW) FC
  • Peacehaven & Telscombe FC
  • Pilkington FC
  • Prescot Cables FC
  • Saffron Walden Town FC
  • Tonbridge Angels FC
  • Wythenshawe Amateurs FC

Phoenix Clubs

Football in Flames

Exeter were purchased by the fans before the club was forced into liquidation, but some teams aren’t as fortunate or their fans aren’t quite as organised or able to raise the required funds in time. When poor financial management is not stopped, a club’s debts are often too significant and nothing can be done to stop their demise. This brings in a new category of fan-owned clubs: the “Phoenix Club”. This is where fans re-form the team they love, taking control so it can operate in a way that supports everyone.

Bury AFC

Facing huge debts, Bury FC were expelled from the Football League in August 2019. Although they had not gone into liquidation yet, fans set up a phoenix club and named it Bury AFC in December of that year. Within just a year the team had been accepted into the English football pyramid, playing in the North West Counties Football League, and had attracted over 1,000 members who each pay £5 a month to fund the club. The team’s motto of “By the fans, For the fans” demonstrates what is at the heart of the beautiful game when it’s at its best.

Chester FC

Chester City were forced into liquidation in 2010, as financial problems mounted and the team were being consistently relegated, seeing them drop out of the Football League. City Fans United were set up in this period to protest the ownership of the club and when Chester City looked destined to be wound up, they established their own phoenix club, Chester FC. Chester were placed in the Northern Premier League Division One, the eighth tier of the football pyramid, and they quickly earned back-to-back promotions. At the time of writing they now sit in the National League North, one step below the Conference in which the original team were disbanded. But now they are owned by people that actually care about the team and its community.

Darlington FC

Despite efforts from supporters, Darlington FC were forced into liquidation in 2012. The same supporters set up a new club but weren’t allowed to keep any elements of the old team. Darlington 1883 were entered into the Northern League Division One, with the pitch standards of their ground not allowing higher entry into the football pyramid.

The team are 100% fan-owned with different supporters’ groups merging to make up an 82.3% stake in the club and individual supporters owning the remaining shares. Eventually, the FA gave in and allowed the team to reclaim the name Darlington FC, with impressive football seeing them making it up to the National League North.

However, it will likely be a long time until they can make it any higher, with a lack of funds allowing them to develop the infrastructure required to move higher up the English leagues.

Hereford FC

Hereford United were disbanded in 2014, and Hereford FC were set up by a local supporters group with the backing of local businessman Jon Hale. All issues from the team’s kit and crest, to the management structure of the phoenix club, were voted on by members of the local community. The Hereford United Supporters’ Trust have become entrenched within the club with over 50% of shares, ensuring that the fans are always first to be considered within the club and that they are never run into the ground again.

Entering the Midland Football League Premier Division (ninth division) of English football, the team have performed well helping make it all the way to the National League North, a meteoric rise in five seasons for a team that had no money when formed.

Other Phoenix Clubs

Other examples of phoenix clubs in some of the lower echelons of the game include the following:

  • AFC Croydon Athletic
  • AFC Rushden & Diamonds
  • Canterbury City FC
  • Fisher FC
  • Hinckley AFC
  • Runcorn Linnets FC
  • Scarborough Athletic FC
  • South Liverpool FC

Protest Clubs

Group of Fist in Air Icons

Another category of fan-owned clubs is the so-called protest club. These are teams established by supporters after some kind of significant conflict with the original club’s owners or board of directors. The aim is to separate form the main club in an attempt to become the “true home” of their supporters. There are a couple of notable examples of teams like this.

AFC Wimbledon

When the board at Wimbledon FC decided to move the club to Milton Keynes (around 60 miles away!), loyal supporters were understandably outraged and set up their own club to support instead.

AFC Wimbledon were formed in 2002 and entered into the Premier Division of the Combined Counties League (9th division). Within a historic story, Wimbledon achieved six promotions in 13 seasons, and – at the time of writing – now comfortably sit in League One making them the only team formed in the 21st Century to make it into the Football League.

Meanwhile, the original Wimbledon team were renamed MK Dons with the two becoming bitter rivals, creating a high-pressure environment on the rare occasions they face each other.

FC United of Manchester

Despite limited footballing success, FC United of Manchester are an extremely well-known example of an English fan-owned club. Formed in 2005, Manchester United fans came together in opposition of the Glazers’ takeover of the Red Devils, to create the club.

They entered Division Two of the North West Counties Football League and they currently take part in the Northern Premier League Premier Division at the time of writing. FC United are considered the largest fan-owned club in the UK, having the highest number of members, who each have a say in how the club is run, and one of the highest home attendances in non-league football.

Minority Fan-Owned English Teams

Pie Chart and ShadowThere are several other English teams where fans have a minority stake in the club. This helps to ensure supporters are properly represented within the football club and that owners and board members are fully accountable to the fans. Part-owning clubs ensures that no one person or entity has too much power within the club, helping to create environments in which the best interests of the local community take centre stage and in which the clubs act in a fully transparent manner.

The Accrington Stanley Supporters Fund, for instance, own 12% of Accrington Stanley in League One, whilst Grimsby Town supporters group the Mariners Trust own a 14% stake in the team. Carlisle United are owned by local businessmen, Andrew Jenkins, Steven Pattison, and John Nixon, who allow the supporters’ trust, United Group, to own a 25% stake in the club. In this setup, at least one member of the Trust is guaranteed a place on the Club’s board, ensuring fans are properly represented within the club when it comes to the big decisions.

Another notable example of a team that is minority-owned by fans is Wycombe Wanderers. They were bought outright by the Wycombe Wanderers Supporters’ Trust in 2012, to secure the clubs financial future. Competent management helped to stabilise Wycombe’s budget which helped them secure promotion from League Two all the way to the championship in the 2019-20 season.

However, in 2020 they were provided with financial backing by Rob Couhig who purchased a 75% stake in the club. But the Supporters’ Trust still operates with a 25% share in the club to ensure the fair running of operations, so that they don’t return to their earlier financial woes.

International Fan-Owned Teams

Camp Nou, Barcelona, Night Match

Despite being a rare occurrence in the UK, fan-owned teams are far more common in other countries. This is most famously the case in Germany where the historic setup of teams is backed up by league regulations, meaning that no team can be owned by a single person.

Most clubs there are required to be owned by at least seven different people, in a system known as “50+1” which stops anyone having a controlling stake in a football team. Although this has notably been bypassed in Germany on several occasions, with RB Leipzig, for instance, being owned outright by Red Bull, who managed to take control of the club through an intricate system of legal loopholes and are often criticised across Germany for this.

In Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona are also controlled by the fans. Members can buy into the team to form an assembly of representatives called a “Socis” who vote on major team decisions. This includes the election of a club president who oversees the running of the day-to-day team operations. The way Spanish teams are run helps to foster a greater connection with the local communities, becoming the lifeblood of the area. It also helps to hold the club’s board to account properly, where members can vote to remove a president from their position when they stop acting in the interests of the team.

Benefits of Fan-Owned Teams

Football Fans Holding Up Blue and White Scarves

There are many clear benefits when the fans own, and control, a football club. The most obvious is that supporters are always put first. When Wycombe were owned outright by their supporters’ trust, they put a great emphasis on improving the fan experience by creating state-of-the-art disability access to ensure all fans are included.

Fan ownership helps to foster a greater connection with the community through fan ownership. Teams set up in the IPS format don’t take a cut for themselves, and instead they reinvest money within the local area helping with community outreach to provide aid to those in need. Although this is still done in many teams that are privately owned, fans have a better idea of what is needed from their football club, and when they have a vote on the team’s decisions, they can ensure aid and support is properly directed.

Due to the lack of private investment to buy players, fan-owned teams often place a greater emphasis on their own youth system. It is far cheaper for a club to develop players to compete within their first team than to buy established players from elsewhere, and fan-owned teams often do this to help keep the wage bill down, with younger players getting less money. It also helps to invest in youth systems as a player who makes it big can help earn the team a fortune in transfer fees, and this helps to form a major part of the club’s budget to develop their own infrastructure and keep essential players.

Moreover, with a fan-owned stake in a team where members have voting rights, there is far greater accountability within the club. When a team is owned outright by an individual there is no real mechanism to remove them, as seen when Liverpool was owned by Tom Hicks and George Gillett, all fans could do was protest until the Americans wanted to sell. But when fans have an actual stake in the club they can vote to remove those not acting in their best interests or those of the club as a whole.

Drawbacks of Fan-Owned Teams

Coin Stacks and CalculatorThe obvious negative of a team owned outright by supporters is the clear lack of financial resources. There isn’t often money available to buy top-rate players and, instead, an emphasis is placed on developing a successful youth system.

The probable lack of financial clout of fan-owned clubs can also impact how the club can progress within the football pyramid. Darlington FC have been refused promotion several times as their playing facilities don’t meet the standards required within higher divisions of football, and they lack the funds to meet these regulations. This shows why there aren’t many fan-owned teams within the Football League, as most of the time the Trusts are trying to keep the team afloat and not able to fund the development of any new infrastructure.

Another issue with fan-owned teams is ticket prices. Despite wanting to act in the best interests of the supporters, the main income of a team owned by supporters is sales on the gate on matchday. This means that they need to keep ticket prices high enough that the club can afford to pay their wage bill, potentially making the matchday experience that bit more expensive. Although this may seem contradictory to focusing the club’s objectives on improving standards for fans, this is a necessary evil that helps ensure there is even a team for fans to support.

Many supporters’ trusts are often led by local businessmen; however, despite this expertise, there can still be a lack of business knowledge within fan-owned teams. This makes it harder for the trust to run day-to-day operations. A team run by a billionaire may be able to get better deals on sales negotiations, and debt management, where private investors often secure loans on their private assets. However, if a team is run by a collection of supporters, this possibility isn’t there and the fans have to fight tooth and nail to get what the club really needs.

Despite these potential drawbacks, fan-owned teams are ever-present within England, and they could even be on the rise as more clubs face financial difficulties. They centre a football team around the local community, instead of purely existing to earn money, and help ensure the club that people love is financially sustainable. Overall, there’s no way that the existence of fan-owned teams could be a bad thing, and if anything they should become a standard across the UK to make football fairer and more transparent. Though there would no doubt be plenty of opposition in the upper echelons of the game if anything approaching a German model was mooted in England.