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28 July, 2010

Confessions of a Club Owner

I admit it. I owned a Blue Square Conference Football Club (since relegated from the 5th division of English football). Well, technically, I was part owner. Along with some 27,000 others, I plopped down £35 to form a kitty of about £700K to buy a club in January 2008.

At the time, we weren't even sure which club we would buy. There were rumors of York, Mansfield and Oxford, but those never materialized. All I knew was my team was going to the top, just like I did with my fantasy club on Football Manager.

Man, was I ever excited to learn I had bought Ebbsfleet United (formerly Gravesend & Northfleet FC). We had an official sponsor in Eurostar. We were already in the FA Trophy tourney and we even had an English C Team keeper as well as a nephew of Eric Cantona on the squad. How could we lose?

But therein lies the problem. I made the mistake of thinking everyone would be of similar mind in how to run a club. I mean, the concept is noble. You take a bunch of people, you reach a consensus on a topic and you follow through. Too bad the term "too many cooks in the kitchen" was more apropos. When you have owners arguing over if the manager should select a squad for a game or 30K fans, who never have even made a practice (and the fans nearly won that vote) you have a problem.

Piddly arguments soon rose to the surface. How should we spend our profits (we hadn't any profits at the time and never did)? Should we rename the team again(it was changed just months prior to our purchase)? Should we go with environmentally and worker friendly kit makers? How should we select a starting lineup?

Perhaps most disappointing was that several owners took vocal control of the team and suggested such strange moves as selling all our best players. Now granted, it's great to see a player from your club move on and to a bigger team, but lest you not forget who got you where you were in the first place.

It truly was being treated like Football Manager. We saw no profits from team player sales or revenues. Those were to be plowed back into the club for equipment, new players, etc. How could we not become a great club that everyone wanted to play for?

Yeah, well, I'm surprised the manager and half the team didn't leave immediately. Perhaps our fortuitous run and win in the FA Trophy Final at Wembley stalled their move. Either way, within a year our numbers dwindled to 9000 owners from a highpoint of ~32,000. That'll kill revenue for a club.

Now, two years removed, the club can barely brag of ~900 owners. I'd venture to say that many of them are still the true supporters who attend games, and perhaps were local fans to the team as well.

The club has fared just as poorly. They were recently relegated to the Conference South (6th div. football) and have recently sold their starting keeper. Of the squad available when I purchased the club, only 2-3 are still left. It seemed every time we had a bigger club sniff around a player, we would sell them up even if it was for only a few £s more than we paid. Not very good business. It's not like I was the direct cause of the team doing well, so why should I expect to sell all my good players and then build a completely new team that can do better next year?

Basically, to own a team you need to do a few things:
  1. Let the manager do his job
  2. Don't sell your players until you have found a suitable replacement
  3. Too many people involved in a club is a bad thing
  4. We can't all manage a real club as well as a video game, so stick to what you know, and that's being a fan. If that's not good enough, go get your license and become a coach
  5. A fad is a fad, so be prepared when reality comes crashing back down
  6. Clamor for the attainable. Good year last year? Great. Then only bring in one to two new players. Off year? Fine, re-tune and bring in a handful of good, younger, supporting players (i.e.- opposite of Liverpool in firing a coach)
I didn't renew after my first year. I already saw the writing on the wall when we sold Akinde. The club operates at about an £800,000/yr so unless actions are taken, the team will be looking for a buyer again soon.

My bad run as manager hasn't dissuaded others. Purchase clubs have since sprung up around the world in the wake of the Ebbsfleet purchase. One was even started to purchase SC Fortuna Koln (an old favorite of mine and formerly the pine riding spot du jour of Jovan Kirovski, currently of the LA Galaxy). I doubt any will be successful. Clubs need fewer owners with more money involved if they want to get anything done effectively. Ebbsfleet, at one point was relying on volunteerism to clean the stands, do the accounting and even the advertising because they couldn't afford to pay people to do so.

Now granted, other fan owned teams such as Barcelona or even the Green Bay Packers in the NFL do well, but remember, they are much bigger, have a much larger population to draw from than Ebbsfleet and also sell multiple stock shares rather than allow "one share/one vote". It could be argued that they were better positioned when they started selling the owner shares as well.

Maybe it wasn't the right time for me to buy a team. Maybe I just wasn't ready to splash some cash on a new club since I knew full well that I'd have to keep finding ways of generating revenue.

My advice? Stick to your fantasy teams and your Football Manager video games. You aren't ready to run a club, so you shouldn't bother telling your favorite club what to do. I don't and I have my FA Trophy win at Wembley as an owner.

Photo: Ebbsfleet

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