Will Brooks, a 36-year-old advertising copywriter from London, thinks fans can run a professional soccer team just as capably as a well-paid general manager. And he has more than $1 million to prove it.
This spring, Brooks, a lifelong soccer fan and former soccer writer for the BBC, launched the My Football Club website (myfootballclub.co.uk) to gauge interest in a team owned and managed by fans. There was interest, all right-thousands of fans around the world pledged their support, drawn by the promise of participating in the most democratic of sports franchises, where fan-owners would vote over the internet on everything from which coach to hire to who should start in goal. By August, 53,000 people had registered, and Brooks sent an email asking them to make good on their promise to pay a $70 annual fee when the venture officially launched. The take in the first 24 hours: $500,000. The club, formed as a trust, is not-for-profit, and members are limited to one share and one vote.
"Football fans don't want to make money off of football," Brooks says. "They're perfectly happy to invest for the love of the game."
There are more than 90 professional soccer teams in Britain, with those at the highest level, known as the Premier League, generating nearly $3 billion in annual revenue, according to Deloitte U.K.? Brooks says the trust's $1 million may be enough to buy a club at the League Two or Conference level, three and four rungs, respectively, below the Premiership. Teams in these leagues generate roughly $5 million each in annual revenue but often operate at a loss. A My Football Club team would have all the traditional revenue streams-ticket sales, concessions, merchandise-plus the additional income from members' annual dues. (Cond� Nast Portfolio bought a share to gain access to the website.)
Brooks says he and his adviser, Michael Fiddy, former managing director of the Premiership team Fulham, are now negotiating with several teams. Fan-owners have ranked preferred targets on the website (Leeds United was No. 1 at press time), but Brooks doesn't have to stick to the list. He's hoping to close a deal by the end of the year. If a team is bought, Brooks will draw a salary and hire a small staff for the website. (If he doesn't complete a deal within 12 months, the trust will be dissolved and members will get their money back, less a small administrative fee.) As for the fan-owners, the trust agreement is written so that all profits are reinvested. If the team is ever sold, the proceeds will go to charity.
Several sports franchises, including the National Football League's Green Bay Packers, have some form of fan ownership, but few, if any, have placed everyday decisions in the hands of the fans. Brooks said some decisions, like selecting the players and coach, will be put to a vote on the club's website. The group will determine which other issues go to a vote once it finds the right balance between the practicalities of day-to-day management and the ideal of direct democracy.
The push for greater fan involvement in English football has been driven, in part, by the British government. In 2000, the government pushed for the creation of Supporters Direct, a group that promotes community ownership of local clubs. In 2005, members of the supporters' trust for the Premier League club Manchester United tried unsuccessfully to block Malcolm Glazer, a Florida businessman who also owns the N.F.L.'s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, from taking over the team.
Back in 2001, Phil Tooley, then a manager at a building-materials company, organized 500 fans of his hometown team in Chesterfield, England, to buy the local squad (and its $3 million of debt) for $10,000, though the fans don't manage the team. While he wishes Brooks well, Tooley questions whether a group of far-flung owners will have the same passion as the locals.
Some critics, and even Brooks, liken My Football Club to a real-world version of the fantasy sports leagues that make managers out of fans. But where the critics see Brooks' effort as a gimmick, he sees it as an opportunity to test the notion that decisions made by a crowd can outdo those made by an expert few. And he says that soccer, with its simple formation of 11 players, makes a perfect laboratory for the experiment. Couple that with the internet, which makes it easy to coordinate thousands of votes, and Brooks says he's confident he and a diverse band of soccer fanatics can field a winning team. For some, like shareholder Josh Friedman, a lawyer from Cambridge, Massachusetts, My Football Club is simply about being part of a great soccer tradition. After hearing about the site, Friedman registered and began messaging British members. "We're passionate about sports," he says of Americans, "but for them, it was different. It was life or death. It was intoxicating."
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