How I See Fan Ownership Working

First published October 2015

  • I’ve been an advocate of fan ownership for many years even though I’ve only been vocal about it for the last couple of years.
  • However I do not see it as a simple one-size-fits-all solution and fans at each club need to tailor their solution to the realities of the day-to-day needs of the organisation.
  • Here I briefly outline how I’d like fan ownership at Leeds United to work.

In a recent article from the BBC Alasdair Lamont spoke to a broad range of people connected to fan ownership in the Scottish game. Not everyone was supportive and highlighted some of the problems faced by fans.

The full article can be viewed here: BBC Fan Ownership Article

The interesting point of the article, for me, is how the successes and failures match up to the challenges at Leeds United. As one of the early founders of, and an investor in, Leeds Fans Utd I’ve obviously tied my colours to the mast; but just what are those colours? There are many forms of fan ownership from 100% fan owned clubs through 51% ownership to fans groups just getting a small shareholding.

The different clubs throughout the UK who have fan ownership embrace each of these models (and indeed many more) but which one do I think is right for large clubs like Leeds United?

The answer to that is quite simple and comes down to three categories, investment, control and influence.

Under the investment heading I advocate a fans’ group holding shares in Leeds United obtained by buying those shares so that they provide cash for the club to use. A year ago I was dissatisfied with the influence GFH had over the running of the club and how they seemed to be holding back investment in the club; that position has changed significantly over recent months and GFH now seem to be content not to interfere with day-to-day matters and Massimo Cellino is able to invest at the required levels.

So my position has shifted over the summer months and whereas I once wanted Leeds Fans Utd to use its money to buy out GFH completely I would now prefer to invest most into new equity share capital so that the investment cash goes into the running of the club – especially if that cash is used for lasting infrastructure projects such as buying back Elland Road or Thorp Arch. I still want GFH gone but the more money the fans put towards such infrastructure projects the more cash the club (via profits or investment from other owners) has available for on-pitch investment.

I have been asked many times how I see fans getting control of the club through directors on the board and I’ve been clear in my answer (I hope) and this position hasn’t changed – I don’t see fans getting control in the boardroom! I don’t like dictatorships where the dictator only has eyes on his own agenda (be that dictator an owner or a fan group); I like strong people who take decisions after seeking advice and having informed debate with a wide range of interested parties and who then follow a plan that fits most well. Fans are a VIP (Very Interested Party) and need to have their representatives fully conversant of the facts both of the whole fan base and the club so they can enter a proper (and confidential) debate. By being board members fans representatives will be informed and able to contribute to the decision without being in 100% control.

So this means I am in favour of fans getting real influence in the boardroom. This is a big difference to control and means that the majority owner may still have the final say in many matters but the fans’ voice will be heard around the boardroom table and the points we put forward must be discussed. If a decision is taken that the fans representatives do not like it must be explained to them in a way that does not alienate them. As I said in another blog, as minority shareholders fans will have legal recourse if the majority shareholder exercises unfair prejudice but that is a final action that would only be used when fair dialogue has broken down.

Having fans on the board of a club through the legitimate means of buying shares is much more powerful than participating in a fans forum (as some people have advocated to me) since a fans forum tends to be run by club employees rather than directors and any outcome of a fans forum (or focus group) tends to be edited and simplified before it is presented later to the directors to consider. Whilst this may be a step forward for some clubs I much prefer the notion of fans speaking directly to other directors as equals and not as “customers”.

So to summarise, I’m in favour of fans investing new equity into the club to a level of 10 to 25% of the shareholding, which leaves the possibility of another shareholder holding more than the magic 75%. The other shareholders in the club (currently controlled by Massimo Cellino and GFH but could in coming years be any new owner) have nothing to lose by having fans work with them and we can only bring benefits.

Our season ticket sales, away support and shirt sales are just a few indicators of the level of investment fans are willing to make to support the team and help the players and coaches succeed on the pitch. I’m sure that fans are also willing to invest into the club to support the management and help them increase the chances of on-pitch success.

These are my views and are not policy of Leeds Fans Utd but by being a member I’ve been able to make my views known to the Exec.
Mike Thornton