Soccerissue interview with: Antonia Hagemann

What hope does the parliamentary inquiry offer football in the UK?

More than 50% of the evidence received by The Culture Media and Sport select committee inquiry into British football was from fans and fans’ trusts. Yet only 2% of actual witnesses talking to the committee were fans. This, unfortunately, is typical in English football.

The fans are there, giving themselves to the game unconditionally, investing their emotions and time to fix the game they love. Yet they are rewarded by the authorities’ indifference to their efforts. All the football owners and administrators know and repeat the battered cliche about “the fans are the real owners of the club/game.” Yet just a small minority of them really want to give fans more power.

Actually, most owners enjoy their position of football dictators. Doing what they want with the club. But hopefully not for long. Once parliament will publish its suggestions for reform in football fans will get more say in the game. A game that according to Supporters Direct’s , Antonia Hagemann, is in a “disastrous situation”.

Soccerissue: Hey Toni, are you encouraged by the committee inquiry into football?

Antonia Hagemann: Hopefully at the end, it will lead to a public policy to encourage supporter community ownership in football and developing football regulation to encourage supporter community ownership in football. We’ve launched two papers about it (as can be seen here). We, for example, suggest communities should be allowed a certain time frame to buy their club in case of an ownership change. They should also be allowed some tax breaks because all those big rich guys it’s easier to buy a club and they get the tax redactions.

Soccerissue: Why should the government help communities own their football club?

AH: Well, first of all football in England is in a disastrous situation. There’s too much debt in football and as a German researcher said about English football clubs: most of them are like the living dead like zombies living on debt and the money of sugar daddies. The Premier League generates the highest revenue in Europe but at the same time has 56% of the total debt in Europe. Since its existence more than 50 clubs went into administration. It’s a shaky model.

Second, football is a big part of the community yet it lacks the proper licensing that protects the community from administration and disappearance of its football club. This is happening again and again the moment the benefactor of the club disappears – putting the very existence of the club at risk.  So yeah, the government needs to address this issue.

Third, it is acknowledged that a football club has a certain responsibility to serve its’ community and football as a whole has an interest to save clubs from going broke. Football is not just another business- and on field rivals need each other for their business. If Burger King went bust McDonald’s would be delighted. But if Liverpool would have gone bust (and it was very close to it) then Chelsea, Manchester United and all the other clubs in the Premier League would be hurt economically.It’s a circle of competition and cooperation and proper regulation is key to help clubs to be run in a more sustainable way to ensure both.

Roman Abramovich. "Sugar Daddy model is shaky"

Soccerissue: Ok, yet supporter ownership is easier said than done.

AH: Now it’s impossible for fans to buy clubs in the Premier League, because of the price and legal situation. But in the Bundesliga clubs are  owned by the fans. They have an understanding that a club cannot be dependent on just one individual. Democratic accountability, transparency and a long-term vision embedded in proper regulation are the key to success. The select committee have been over to Germany and spoke to clubs, governing bodies and fans, and hopefully got an understanding for that.

Soccerissue: Yet, a lot of people say – there’s no difference between a football club and a normal business. It’s an enterprise and many businessmen have made their clubs a better competitor.

A.H: Well first of all, a normal business doesn’t have fans like a football club that will go with it in sickness and in health. Second, most clubs don’t exist to win the Champions League. The most important thing for them is to exist. Third, businessmen tend to want to make profit out of a club hence ticket prices are going up and a lot fans from the community can’t afford to go to the games played for the community. I think most people would rather know their club is safe for 50 years rather than have it win the Champions League trophy and then disappear. By the way, evidence from all over Europe shows that businessmen running football clubs very often don’t get things right.

Soccerissue: Can clubs owned by fans make money?

A.H: It is proven that clubs owned by their members have big potential to be successful on the pitch. The level of democratic involvement of fans varies from club to club, but fans involvement is important to ensure accountability. To keep the books balanced and most importantly to chose the right people to lead the club. It’s more complex than private ownership, but leads to better governance of the club and eventually to better governance of football.

Soccerissue: So what’s the best thing that can happen to English football following the parliament hearing?

A.H: The perfect scenario would be having community ownership of clubs encouraged and football regulated properly by the FA. With better regulation, it would be more difficult for individuals to make a football club their own toy and playing with something important to too many people. Football is way too important to be left to the mercy of the liberal market.

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