This Arsenal initiative could pave the way for others to follow

Arsenal FC have endorsed a plan to invite their fans to buy shares in the football club at a reduced rate. The so-called Arsenal Fanshare initiative allows supporters to buy portions of shares which currently trade at over £10,000. Accordingly fans will be asked to contribute a minimum of £100 to acquire a fanshare. In return Arsenal fans can expect a voice and a vote, as they will be able to attend the annual general meeting, hold directors to account and democratically decide policy. It is a model which operates in the Bundesliga and La Liga but is it in the long term interests of the club? Can fan power go too far, becoming detrimental to the smooth running of a club?

Passionate fans can easily feel isolated when their beloved club is in the hands of a benevolent oligarch or shadowy elite. This is certainly the view of the Fanshare scheme which was established by the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust five years ago. After witnessing the Green and Gold campaign at Manchester United and the anti-Hicks and Gillett protests at Liverpool, the four shareholders who majority own the north London club have welcomed the idea. The supporters who devised the scheme object to the notion of the club residing with one affluent individual and believe their huge domestic and overseas fanbase will combine to provide a sizeable stake.

It is hoped this scheme will avoid a takeover which would be prompted if Stan Kroenke increases his share in the club to 30%. Through the purchase of fanshares supporters will bolster their influence yet nearly 90% of the shares remain in the hands of the four majority owners who would presumably be reluctant to relinquish their stake. Fans who understandably fear exploitation are arguably being duped into believing that their presence will have a discernable bearing on decision making. Accountability may be weak too, with a membership spread across the world. Arsenal’s chief executive Ivan Gazidis told the Guardian, “The important thing is that the supporters are valued and nurtured, not exploited.” It was hardly a ringing endorsement for supporters actively leading the way in setting policy. Cynics would additionally argue that despite accusations of ‘kamikaze spending’ at Manchester City there is considerable investment being made in the long-term future of the club. Around £15 million has been ploughed into their youth academy system in the past two years.

Nonetheless when super rich individuals buy football clubs there is inevitably talk of a brand or commodity which can generate income across the globe. These grandiose statements do not find much credence with loyal fans. Investors and owners may come and go but it is the fans who provide a club’s enduring identity. Uefa president Michel Platini who backs the idea of fan ownership, once said of supporters: “They at the end of the day defend the club’s identity. They are always there. They are always watching the games.”

Arsenal’s proposals have been backed by Sports Minister Hugh Robertson and the examples of Barcelona and Real Madrid show that it can work. Both clubs are majority supporter owned and therefore can never be taken over by a passing billionaire. However their structure and extent of democratic participation differ. The model of democracy and means of accountability at Arsenal will have to be debated. Potentially though fans will contribute to setting policy with other stakeholders on issues such as ticket pricing and player transfers. From those who regularly follow the club home and away to those who sell fanzines outside the stadium, there is little evidence to suggest that their opinions would be any less hasty or ill-advised than those of the club’s wealthy investors. The club which has innovated in the last decade in relation to player recruitment, training and diet could now lead the way forward in fan ownership.

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