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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fleet Of Foot

The phrase "things are going to get worse before they get better" springs to mind when thinking of the put-upon supporters of Conference club Ebbsfleet United. During the summer, they suffered the indignity having their name of over fifty years changed from Gravesend & Northfleet to that of a soon-to-open international railway terminal, and this morning it was confirmed that 20,000 people, the vast majority of whom almost certainly know nothing whatsoever about their club, are going to be taking over as their managers. Yes, indeed. An informal agreement has been made between the website MyFootballClub and the owners of Ebbsfleet United and, subject to due diligence (which is a fancy way of saying "making no-one has been cooking the books there for the last few years to make it look like its worth more than it is"), they will shortly be taking over at the club, which is based on the south side of the Thames Estuary.

The volume of interest in this is such that the club's official website has collapsed, but a quick journey to their independent website features an interesting look at the reactions of various parties to the announcement. Unsurprisingly, the Fleet chairman, Jason Botley (presumably interviewed in the driver's seat of his new, diamond-encrusted Bentley) is "delighted" with the new partnership - conveniently overlooking that, although they only purchased a 51% share in the club, the website are now the majority owners and what they say now goes. His official press release on the subject went as follows:

"We are united in believing this is a great opportunity, this extra finance and support will enable our club to progress. This extra finance and support will enable our club to progress up the leagues, and the club will get significantly increased media coverage".

Whilst there is an element of truth in this (the short term interest will almost certainly mean more money being put into the club), it is difficult to see how this can end well for the football club.
One might expect that reaction from the man that has brokered the deal. More surprising, however, is the reaction of Jessica McQueen of the Fleet Trust: Consider the immediate response attributed to her this morning, as per the FleetNet independent website this morning:

"Being a Trust, our members understand the MyFootballClub concept immediately. We very much look forward to working with the MyFootballClub members for the benefit of Ebbsfleet United".

One of the major stated goals of a Supporters Trust is to promote community involvement and seek to stake a claim in the running of the clubs themselves. By not opposing this, the Trust would seem to be completely undermining its own opposition. The organisation that will take control of the club is a Trust, though the one that owns the club is a different organistation to the company that owns MyFootballClub - this is a private company, and is acting exactly as a private company would in taking £7.50 from each membership to cover "administration costs". I have seen it put forward that Fleet Trust may be seeking to stay "onside" with the new owners if a small membership means that their influence is currently limited, but I fail to see how they, as a trust, could not see their numbers swell as opposition amongst their support grows. It is the natural place for people concerned by this development to go, and they would be acting highly irresponsibly if they are seen to be acting as patsies to what is, ultimately, a private company that has acquired their club. The Fleet Trust web site hasn't been updated today yet, but a press release from Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct stated the following:

“Fundamentally, playing fantasy manager is not about responsible democratic supporter representation or community ownership, which are the core values of the trust movement. Indeed we are one of the most vigorous exponents of reform of the ownership structures in football, but our interests are in long-term sustainability and governance of clubs. This might be seen as a one off gimmick, and harmless enough by many, however this is a real football club, these are real finances, and real fans. The question needs to be asked what happens to the club finances and its supporters if the novelty starts to wear off?"

Interestingly, Fleet Trust appears to taken a somewhat more ambivalent viewpoint than the initial report on the Independent Ebbsfleet site might have indicated (though, curiously, the initial statement hasn't been taken down yet). In a statement released this afternoon, they said:

"The Fleet Trust wish to respond to the press reports this morning about the imminent takeover of Ebbsfleet United Football Club by the 'myfootballclub.co.uk' consortium, to ensure there is no misunderstanding as to the position of the Trust in respect of the deal.

We were informed of this deal less than 48 hours ago by the current owners and have not yet met with any person representing 'myfootballclub.co.uk'.

We have not seen any business plan from my 'myfootballclub.co.uk' outlining their plans for the club.

Until we have met as a board, we will not be issuing any further comment."

A period of contract signing will now begin which, it seems likely, will result in the club being taken over by company funded by people with very little at stake personally in the long term well-being of Ebbsfleet United FC. Whether that organisation has 2 members of 20,000 strikes me as being utterly irrelevant. Ultimately, this club has been sold to be the plaything of a few thousand would-be Alex Fergusons. There is a reasonable chance that, in the short term, it will be successful. The media coverage promises to be massive, and a number of people that have paid their £35 subscription may well make a few visits to Stonebridge Road to see how their investment is coming along (though how welcome they'll be made to feel is open to question). However, football is not about the short term. More important than any short term success is the long term security of that football club - the knowledge that the club will still be there in five or ten years time. With all of this in the back of my mind, I would be interested in knowing what the answers are to the following questions:

- No-one has ever made any money out of non-league football through being successful on the pitch. What is MyFootballClub's exit strategy if the financial going gets tough?

- What will be the future involvement of Fleet Trust in the day-to-day running of Ebbsfleet United FC? Will they be offered a position at board level, and what viewpoint will MyFootballClub take if the Trust decides to oppose this take-over?

- On the MyFootballClub website, much is made of the protection offered to members should the football club run into financial difficulties. Will the same protection be offered to the football club itself?

- What, exactly, is there to stop MyFootballClub from spending wildly on players, and then pulling out? Are they aware of the Blue Square Premier wage cap, and how it works?

- How is budgeting for next year working? Does MyFootballClub already have any sort of estimate of how many people will renew their membership next summer? If the number of members falls off dramatically, where will liability for what could be a huge financial shortfall lay?

Ultimately, I would put this question to everybody reading this: Would you want this happen to your club if MyFootballClub's offer had been made to them?


Post Script: There is still much to be said on this subject, and I will be spending most of my spare time today poring over various documents relating to this agreement. I would also suggest, to anyone reading the comments section, that you note that the most important question that I asked of MyFC members, just above this, still hasn't been answered. I'd also suggest to anyone looking for further reading on the subject to type "fans focus ebbsfleet" into Google and have a look at the chaos going on at their messageboard right now. It's entertaining, if nothing else.

Ballhype: hype it up!

13 comments:

Tom said...

I was under the impression mfc.co.uk are a trust registered with the FSA.

Duffman said...

According to their website they are a limited company registered with the FSA. It describes itself as a trust in its FAQ's but that doesn't make it one.

I think this venture is doomed. Pretty soon, the memebers will get bored, or start arguing among themselves and the club will end up being run by a small group of people who administer the funds. At best, it will be no different to any other club. At worst it will become paralised and end up tumbling down the leagues or out of business or both.

Worth keeping a close eye on.

200percent said...

From the venerable One Touch Football this afternoon (and written by arguably the best qualified person in the country to talk on the subject - so, in other words, not me):

"The Mutual Society which I understand owns the club is separate to the private company which 'administers' MFC. That takes a flat 7.50 per member for admin, which is another way of saying that before any club gets a penny, the people behind the idea take 21% regardless. And presumably could sell this private company for a sum too.

So, in essence, a not-for-profit shell giding a for-profit company run by the people behind the idea. As far from a supporters' trust as you can be, really."

I have much more to say on this subject but was limited in what I could say because of time constraints - I'll be expanding this piece tonight.

Brian said...

Duffman, I agree. This feels like one of those late-90s dot-com-bubble stories that's designed to excite the press but has little practical effect. Surely so few of the 20,000 new owners will ever even be able to see Ebbsfleet play that an enormous amount of influence will fall on the founders and a few determined forum posters? My guess is that the best-case scenario would see a de facto corporate board arising from the democratic chaos.

I have a probably too cynical take on this up at The Run of Play in which I lump this phenomenon in with every other Web-2.0 press-release blizzard from recent years. 200percent, I've linked to your post and described the feeling of agreeing with it while I ate breakfast. See it here:

You, Too, Can Be One Two Hundred Millionth of the Next Roman Abramovich

200percent said...

Thanks for the link, Brian. I've added you to my blogroll. As you can see, I've tried to expand on my earlier post this evening, adding bits and pieces that have cropped up this afternoon and developing the arguments that I was foaming at the mouth over at lunchtime.

I'm a little more touchy than most on this subject because Ebbsfleet are more or less the same size as the club that I support. I fundamentally cannot reconcile myself to the idea of a football club ultimately being the subject of a "Big Brother" style experiment. Ebbsfleet United may only have 1,000 or so supporters, but it matters just as much to them as anyone else's club does to anyone else. It's too big a gamble to justify, and I still can't see how it can, in anything like the long term, end well for the club.

Gary said...

Excellent post, and kind of sums up my feelings on the topic. It could work, but there's a whole host of reasons stacked against it.

Great publicity, but I can't see this being anything other than a footnote in footballing history (and probably the relegation of Ebbsfleet).

I'll give it 36 months before it all goes tits up.

doheochai said...

It continues to astonish me that people are so willing to comment on MyFC without having the first clue about how it actually works.

I will comment on your questions as a member of MyFC

"No-one has ever made any money out of non-league football through being successful on the pitch. What is MyFootballClub's exit strategy if the financial going gets tough?"

MyFC is not trying to make money - it is a provident society that is interested in allowing football fans have a say in running a football club. With a vote of 75% of the MyFC membership MyFC can sell the club (in all likelihood for a nominal fee to the local supporters trust). A vote is automatically triggered if the membership falls below 15,000.

"What will be the future involvement of Fleet Trust in the day-to-day running of Ebbsfleet United FC? Will they be offered a position at board level, and what viewpoint will MyFootballClub take if the Trust decides to oppose this take-over?"

MyFC wants to see the active involvement of the ST. MyFC would encourage ST members to actively participate in the running of the club and would support the inclusion of a ST representative on the board. Indications are that the ST are favourably disposed to the possibility of a takeover. I am sure that there will be ongoing discussions with the ST over the period of the due diligence process to outline the nature of the involvement of MyFC and the potential input of the ST.

"On the MyFootballClub website, much is made of the protection offered to members should the football club run into financial difficulties. Will the same protection be offered to the football club itself?"

Yes - MyFC rules prohibit the taking of any decisions that can place the club in a financially vunerable position. In effect the club will have to be run on a break-even basis.

"What, exactly, is there to stop MyFootballClub from spending wildly on players, and then pulling out? Are they aware of the Blue Square Premier wage cap, and how it works?"

As above - this is prohibited by the rules of MyFC. Yes MyFC is aware of the wage cap and how it works. MyFC has engaged a very well-known established legal firm (who have significant experience in the football environment) to act as MyFC's representatives - and has also secured the service of leading financial services experts to oversee the process.

"How is budgeting for next year working? Does MyFootballClub already have any sort of estimate of how many people will renew their membership next summer? If the number of members falls off dramatically, where will liability for what could be a huge financial shortfall lay?"

Yes - MyFC is engaged in this process. Already a proportion of the membership have taken out 3-year subscriptions. Additional revenue streams are also going to be put in place to ensure ongoing and significant financial investment into the future. MyFC cannot engage in any activity that could affect the club if there was a drop off in revenue from falling membership figures. During the process of acquiring a club MyFC operated off of existing financial resources and not off of any potential resources that could accrue in the future . This will continue to be the strategy.

In future I would suggest that you carry out appropriate research - the rule of MyFC and the terms and conditions of joining are available for anyone to read - before posting. If you had done so you could have included them in you blog and I would not have had to go to the trouble of answering the points.

200percent said...

Unfortunately, I don't have the time now to answer your points now, but I have a copy of the MyFC rules and a peculiar little document called the "Operating Agreement", which I will be returning to later today. It makes for interesting reading.

Your answers are, I'm afraid, too vague for me, and phrases like "MyFC cannot engage in any activity that could affect the club if there was a drop off in revenue from falling membership figures" are untrue and unhelpful. I'll have a fuller explanation for this later on, though I don't think you'll find it particularly happy reading.

Bet Blogger said...

Well, I honestly think that all Ebbsfleet fans should be pleased with the development. Firstly, the website has been fully vetted by all the official routes and no stone will be left unturned by the FSA and FA apparently. I think it's a genuinely brilliant idea and cannot wait to see what it could do to Ebbsfleet, who, possibly could be the first of many clubs to go down this route.

sp3ktor said...

I think, betblogger, we'd all love it too be as brilliant as it appears - the sad fact of the matter is that, especially in football, if something is too good to be true it usually isn't.

The points made above are extremely valid and if I was a fan of Ebbsfleet I'd be immediately concerned.

A look on any football forum highlights the deep divides - over selections, formation, quality of pies. This takes a worrying turn once these otherwise throwaway ramblings become the basis of your team's future.

If Ebbsfleet fans want a say in their club they will be compelled to pay an extra £35 to have your voice lost in a mass people who, while motivated by the best intentions, have no real stake in your club.

sp3ktor said...

... and doheochai - what load of old cock

So basically MyFC are there until it looks like it's turning shit, then they fuck off. Nice one - just what any club wants from a new investor.

Robert Tilling said...

An excellent article - especially the questions at the end. Financially, I would not trust 20,000 people to run my old Tuesday night 5-a-side team let alone a football team.

Will the interest wane? Almost certainly. Their first poll on the website at what most be the pinnacle of news and media coverage: only 10,000 votes have been registered! Where are the other 10,000?

I have quoted the questions from this blog (with credit and link) - I hope this is ok!

200percent said...

Thanks for your comments, Robert. The devil is in the detail, and it all makes me very uncomfortable. It's a subject that I will be returning to shortly (you'll be unsurprised to hear).

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