What is the biggest football club in the world? It is a difficult one to judge as you need to define the criteria. Is the biggest club the richest or the one with the biggest global support? Or perhaps the most successful, which opens up all sorts of debate (I once received hate mail for suggesting that Rangers weren’t the most successful team because Real Madrid had won more “meaningful” honours). What about the one who gets the most column inches written about them? All such subjective measures wouldn’t you agree?
To me, the biggest football club is the one with the most owners, or members and despite Manchester United’s attempts at global dominance that honour falls to Barcelona. The Catalan giant, and undoubtably the best team in the world today have over 170,000 members or Socios, each of whom pays a minimum of €121 per annum for the privilege. Since the 2003–04 season, the club’s membership figures have risen from 100,000 to 170,000 Socis, a 70 percent increase. The sharp rise was attributed to the influence of Ronaldinho and then-president Joan Laporta’s media-strategy, which focused on online media in Spanish and English. As of June 2010 there were 1,335 officially registered fan clubs or “Penyes” around the world, representing an 11 percent increase since 2003. It is any co-incidence that the huge jump in membership (and in membership fees which were less than €50 back in 2006) has come during the most successful time in the club’s history? Well what you have to bear in mind is that despite the huge amount of revenue the Socios produces (simple maths of 170,000 x €121 = €20.6m per annum), the club are still over €442m in debt according to Deloitte’s. Success comes at a price.
But the ownership model means that no one person can every own the club, and every single Socios has an equal say in who manages the football club (in terms of off the field) as well as being able to stand for election themselves. Democracy rules right?
So if it is good enough for the world’s best team (*subject to debates I know), then why haven’t we seen a rush of other clubs adopting a similar model elsewhere? One reason is that to make that change from a ownership model based on capitalism principals requires the agreement of the whole board of directors. In England we have seen a few examples of it working – AFC Wimbledon, AFC Telford United and of course FC United of Manchester. But one club has the aspiration of being the “Barcelona of Non League football” through this scheme, and that is Lewes Community Football Club.
As regular readers of this website will know, I have a soft spot for Lewes. It is in my opinion the finest place in Britain to watch football, nestled in the shadow of the South Downs, with the best pint of Harveys beer known to man being served in the Rook Inn. However, things had not been going strictly to plan, with the club finding themselves back in Blue Square Bet South after a disastrous venture into the Blue Square Premier. Things off the field were bleak, with the tipping point the issue of a winding up order over an unpaid tax bill in early 2010.
However, thanks to the efforts of a small group of fans who wanted to re-establish the club at the heart of the community and well as the community at the heart of the club, Lewes Football Club became Lewes Community Football Club in July 2010. Things off the field started to improve thanks in no part to the introduction of a “Pioneer Ownership Scheme” which gave anyone who invested a one off £1,000 into the club a share in the club. The rules of the community benefit scheme state that no one person can own more than one share in the club and thus a real say in the future of the club. People came from far and wide to sign up for this unique scheme, thus forming the first group of Sussex Socios.
The dream of the Directors was to widen the ownership opportunities for the club, and so last week the new owners scheme was launched, offering people a share in the club for just £30 per season. It should be noted that this is not a “my Football Club” scheme. For the £30 fee people will get a physical share in the club, and one vote in the election of a new board as well as other membership benefits. Of course people can pay more if they want, but this is an annual process with the idea of building Lewes CFC into the “Barcelona of the Non Leagues” (in terms of ownership anyway).
So why would non Lewes fans invest? Well, this is a relatively unique opportunity in the world of football. Lewes like to try different things. They were one of the first clubs to give under 16’s free entry into every single game at The Dripping Pan. Their programme has been one of the best in the league for the past few seasons. Their match day posters are things of beauty. Who wouldn’t want to invest 60 pence per week in being part of the evolution of football clubs? Less than the price of a Mars Bar in the dodgy shop round the corner. We all want to be heard, we all want to be able to say we’ve contributed and we all want to put something back into the game we all love don’t we?
So do something good today. Go to http://lewesfc.com/owners and join the evolution!