The news that a supporters group organised through the internet has taken control of Ebbsfleet United, in the fifth tier of English football but heading in the right direction, got a lot of publicity in the UK (and beyond). Some of it was sceptical. The story is connected to some long trends which take some unpacking. And slightly to my surprise, I found myself changing my mind about the Ebbsfleet takeover – from positive to negative – as I researched and wrote this (quite long) post.

The Ebbsfleet story goes like this. A former football journalist, Will Brooks, set up a website with the intention of raising enough money to buy a club. 20,000 fans had contributed ¬£35 each (membership has since raced to 50,000), and they reached a deal with Ebbsfleet. The plan is that “every MyFootballClub member will have an equal say in team selection, player transfers and the running of the club. Members will own the club through their MyFootballClub Trust, and together they will attempt to guide their football club to success.” The club had approahced the website, and was chosen after a vote of members – for its potential as much as anything else.

Obviously this is a shot in the dark: can an online fans network make collective decisions about tactics and players which are better than the traditional hierarchical approach? The club’s existing supporters are reported as being apprehensive – although football fans can’t be worse owners than many of the shysters who have taken control of smaller teams in the past, attracted by the opportunity to asset strip the ground. So trend 1 is about an experiment about the notion of the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ – the evolving theory, recently the subject of a popular book, that groups – if asked the right question – can make better decisions that individuals. Liam Daish, the current manager, will stay as head coach and be a link between team and the MyFootballClub Trust – perhaps attracted by the prospect of significant potential investment in players. Gates and publicity are also likely to benefit.

Trend 2 is – obviously – about the ability of the internet to search out people with a common interest even if they are geographically spread, and to animate them. On this reading, MyFootballClub is similar to pledgebank, on which site people make a commitment which they’re willing to carry out as long as a specified number of other people also sign up to do the same thing. And it’s also worth noting that when Wimbledon Football Club was re-located in 2002 by its owner from south London to Milton Keynes, the internet was influential in letting its abandoned fans set up and finance their own club, AFC Wimbledon, which has so far climbed to the 7th tier of the League.

The third trend is possibly the most interesting. The top of the game has become absurdly rich in the last fifteen years as a result of Sky’s pay television deals and the revenues from the Champions League. But much of the rest of the game has suffered. Supporters Direct, which was set up (with some government funding) as a mutual organisation in 2000, has promoted the interests of supporters in clubs in the rest of the leagues, helping to develop Supporters’ Trusts at more than 100 clubs across the UK. 59 of these have an equity stake in their clubs, 38 have board representation, and 8 (2 League clubs: Chesterfield and Lincoln) are owned by Trusts. Trusts have been instrumental in saving more than a dozen clubs from closure. There is academic research on their social impact.

And tracing this back a little further, the Supporters Direct movement came out of the grassroots supporters movements of the 80s, at a time when club owners seemed clueless and disconnected. The Football Supporters Association was set up in 1985 after the Heysel Stadium disaster, and national fanzines such as When Saturday Comes and Off the Ball were both launched in 1986. (These in turn owed a debt to Foul (1972-1976) which had a punk sensibility before punk.) Off the Ball founder Adrian Goldberg wrote in the first issue:

“It is frustration that has led to the formation of OTB.We as supporters refuse to lie down and allow a self-elected clique with no other authority than their personal wealth to determine the nature of our pleasure”.

WSC, by the way, has just reached issue 250.

While it’s hard to see – right now – the ‘big four’ of the Premiership having problems, if only because of the way they and their European counterparts are able to rig the entry rules of the lucrative Euro competitions in their favour (why should a club finishing third – third out of four – in a Champions’ league group get a second chance in the UEFA Cup?), there are signs of a fragility in their base. Kids are more likely to support them than their local teams (there are, according to BMRB, more Chelsea fans in Bolton than Bolton supporters) but they can’t afford to get to many matches and are more likely to switch alleigance if form slips. Long-term fans are deterred by prices – the prices of everything, from tickets to ‘colours’.

And I was struck by a post on a Sunderland fans’ list from a long-term supporter who said that watching his local team, Histon (now in the same division as Ebbsfleet), had given him more pleasure than Sunderland’s promotion back to the Premiership.

So there’s a real gap opened up here between football as celebrity and football as community. It seems to me likely that more fans will choose to support both a ‘famous’ club and a local one. The local one will be easy to get to and won’t cost a fortune, while the famous one will as like as not be followed via television or online. The problem with Ebbsfleet and MyFootballClub is that it has the appearance of a community initiative – it’s fans, it’s the internet – but none of the substance. When you strip away the spurious grassroots pizazz over the online part, there’s no difference between MyFootballClub buying Ebbsfleet and A.N.Multinational Tycoon acquiring Liverpool, Manchester United, Aston Villa, Manchester City or Chelsea.

Other sports-related posts: : A sustainable football stadium; Cycling, doping, and the pace of change.