Could English Football Clubs Adopt A 50+1 Rule?

Josh Collins

The fallout from the failed European Super League project has led for increased calls for clubs in England to adopt the so-called ‘50+1 rule’ which would see fans owning a majority of their football clubs.

The rule, which has been in place in the German Bundesliga since 1998, requires all clubs to be at least 50% fan owned, plus a share. The main aim is to prevent external investors from gaining a majority share of a club and ensuring that the fans have a say and choose the direction they want the club to take.

Numerous fans in England have been dissatisfied with the decisions taken by owners, particularly the move to create the Super League without consultation. A petition on the UK Government website to enforce the rule in the UK has attracted over 80,000 signatures at the time of writing.

The government has also announced a fan-led review into English football, which will include analysis of the effectiveness of the 50+1 model. Conservative MP Tracey Crouch, who is leading the review, said it will “take the necessary steps to retain the game’s integrity, competitiveness and, most importantly, the bond that clubs have with its supporters and the local community”.

[The 50+1 rule in Germany was] designed to prevent investors from taking over clubs purely to serve as a profitable business, [but] there are a couple of notable exceptions to the rule

The clause in the Bundesliga specifically bans any club from participating in the German first division if private owners own more than 49% of the club. Designed to prevent investors from taking over clubs purely to serve as a profitable business, there are a couple of notable exceptions to the rule. Clubs can apply for an exemption if owners have had a large interest in the club for over 20 years, such as Wolfsburg – founded as a club for Volkswagen employees to play and still owned by the car manufacturer – and Bayer Leverkusen, founded and currently owned by workers of pharmaceutical giant Bayer.

The system can still be open to exploitation, however. Whilst the rule means that members can vote in presidential elections and certain decisions regarding club policy, there is no set rule on how clubs can offer membership. Bayern Munich, by far the most successful club in Germany, have over 290,000 members who have full voting rights in exchange for an annual fee. RB Leipzig, formerly a fifth-division team before skyrocketing to the Bundesliga after being taken over by energy drinks giant Red Bull, have just 17 members – all employees or associates of the parent company.

 owners have pumped billions into the sport to achieve success at the highest level

Some people argue that the rule doesn’t go far enough. Several fans believe a 49% stake in the company is still enough to have a large amount of control over a club, and the only way to fully democratise football is for 100% fan ownership of teams. There are a number of fan-owned clubs in the UK, most notably AFC Wimbledon, formed after the side formerly known as Wimbledon FC was relocated to Milton Keynes by its owner, an extremely unpopular decision. The new club became a subsidiary of The Dons Trust, giving fans full control of decisions whilst maintaining a board of directors to make day-to-day decisions regarding the running of the team. There are worries, however, that football has become so reliant on money that a fully fan-owned model is unsustainable for clubs in the Premier League, whose owners have pumped billions into the sport to achieve success at the highest level.

Football clubs are an inherit good to society, giving people a reason to be proud of their team and community, but actions off the pitch are often as important as on it. Many teams have a proud history of community engagement, with affiliated charity trusts becoming more common as football looks at how it can best give back to the people that give so much time to them. The 50+1 rule is a brilliant way of allowing fans more to contribute, influence and feel more a part of their sides, but must be adopted with caution to prevent financial mismanagement and allow this to be a sustainable business model to benefit all football fans.

Josh Collins

Featured image used courtesy of Tim Wang via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image use license here.

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