Changes again at Ebbsfleet United, as after 5 years of ownership by the MyFootballClub Society they are to be sold to a Kuwaiti-based consortium. This should see Ebbsfleet’s ongoing financial troubles cleared, with a commitment to playing budget and ground development. This is good for both Club and Society and I hope both can find a path to prosperity.
As I explained in 2011 I was too busy and too tired to stay involved in the Society but have kept a casual eye on what’s been going on. Here are some thoughts on what went wrong, what went right, and what might happen next for Ebbsfleet and MyFootballClub.
When MyFC took over in 2008, Ebbsfleet had even larger debts, despite the high profile of the property developments in the Ebbsfleet Valley and the sponsorship of Eurostar (which was the reason they’d renamed from the historic Gravesend and Northfleet). These debts were pretty much cleared off in one go so there was huge potential to develop and sustain the club through the shared ownership mode. There were some early glories (Wembley!) and many situations where the Society made groundbreaking decisions and used their weight of numbers to get or fund what they wanted.
However, the realities and day-to-day mundaneness of football management clashed with the idealism and excitement, and it was a struggle to keep members interested. A large number were not interested in this specific club and had no further involvement. Others were adamant that the promise of “own the club, pick the team” should have been upheld, even as it was clear that the website operators weren’t interested in implementing a mechanism for this or pushing it through with the Head Coach. (and I don’t blame the club and Liam Daish for sticking by their guns).
Most football clubs run at a loss, funded by the whim of wealthy benefactors – that was where MyFC aimed to be different. A good deal of time was spent trying to analyse receipts and come up with some suitable ticket prices and packages, but the old attitude of “people won’t like this, we’ve always done it this way” meant that they were never implemented. For example, members voted for a free admission day for a cup match in January 2009, which quadrupled the average attendance, but also led to increased matchday spending. Despite the success, I don’t think this was ever repeated.
In the end, the financial model was unsustainable: the £800,000 fighting fund from the first 34,000 members was a one-off, the Society’s operating costs were pretty high and hiking the membership fee to £50 without offering any additional benefits did nothing to attract new members and retain wavering ones. This long-term financing was not made clear to the membership at the time of takeover and remained murky for a long while after.
The entire enterprise would have collapsed much earlier were it not for a lucky cup run and Wembley victory in the FA Trophy in 2008. Once this cash dried up, the pattern set in: constant appeals for cash from the members, causing further dissatisfaction. As far as I can see, it’s been the same ever since.
So what next?
For Ebbsfleet, an immediate cash injection, and future financial support that should be more than periodic scrabbling behind the sofa to pay the bills. The people in charge at the club will have to adjust to the new owner and accept their will. That didn’t always happen with MyFC as I said earlier.
Fundamentally they really have to throw something at the marketing, because regular attendance has always been low. That might reflects a lack of interest in the local community, who also have Gillingham and Charlton Athletic vying for their custom. Some improvements to the stadium may make the match day experience more attaractive but the ticket price also has to be acceptable for more than the hardcore, faithful fans.
MyFootball Club’s direction
As an Industrial and Provident Society, MyFootballClub has rules that govern what can happen with any funds and assets that are left from the sale of the club, and these define what can happen next. There is an excellent opportunity to regroup and relaunch, but the Society board need to move quickly to keep the interest of the existing members, as well bringing back some of those lapsed members.
After the announcement of the Ebbsfleet sale the other day, there was a positive response from my Facebook friends, who loved the MyFC concept but not how it was run and applied at the club. This article from November last year suggests that the board are bullish and the Society is healthy, but with very little publicity about the processes and decisions and how MyFC is working for the club these lapsed members can only go on their past experiences.
A new club?
Buying a new club again would be expensive, requiring someone to spend a lot of time negotiating with club directors, hire lawyers for financial due diligence. Any club that’s up for sale is likely to have debt problems, and even if these were cleared off satisfactorily (as was not the case with Ebbsfleet), there must be a clear benefit that the MyFC model can bring to the club.
I believe most of the problems with MyFootballClub and Ebbsfleet were not because of the concept of crowd ownership, but because the Society hadn’t had time to establish itself before takeover. The resulting lack the confidence and authority led to delays and obstacled between the members and the club. Before another club can even be considered, the Society needs to spend some time reorganising itself, establishing a clear management process for any new club or takeover.
In the mean time, the MyFootballClub website and community is itself a valuable asset, and could be used to post news articles and discuss issues relating to football finance, fan-run clubs and non-football crowdsourcing projects. This would attract web traffic (meaning the site was self-sustaining) and allow time to work out what the ultimate aim of the Society will be. MyFC can support struggling clubs by publicising their plight and marshalling local resources, e.g. ground clearance day, expertise sought on issues. This crowdsourcing was where MyFC worked best, and I think a lot of people would like to be a part of that again.
I’ve not written anything since September for several reasons, including but not limited to:
- the impending birth of my second child and hospital appointments thereof
- all the decorating that needs to be finished off before said child appears
- academic study and work and trying to base the former around the latter
- helping prepare a talk at Barcamp8 on the origins of social networking.
I’ve barely spent any time on MyFootballClub, though I still pop in for votes and follow their progress. The battle to get the website working for the members just wore me out, and having got a useful platform in place, some wonderful people running the social media side of things, and the Society in general looking a bit more positive, I felt I needed a break.
I was saddened to see that Southill Alexander have withdrawn from their league. This member-owned club was formed 2 years ago along similar lines to MyFC but seems to have struggled and I suspect that in their caution they went too far in the opposite direction. Will Brooks launched MyFC with huge fanfare and publicity, but no real idea of how to make the club accessible and accountable to members, but remain interesting enough to keep the funds rolling. SAFC launched with lofty ideals but also a high price for entry. It wasn’t obvious what was going on and how it would be better for the Club and the Member than the MyFC experience. So it was an “out” for me, even though I knew the people involved where fantastic, intelligent and well-intentioned.
…to be what you might have been – George Eliot.
But 6 months is far too late for a blog post. Life gets in the way, I guess!
Last time I said that the MyFootballClub website was going to be revamped, and sure enough, developers Big Spring did a fantastic job, working with members to make the public-facing page more dynamic and appealing. We also got the Facebook Group and Twitter accounts up and running, or at least started using them properly. Big thanks there to Paul Harrison of @carveconsulting.
A fancy website wasn’t going to be a panacea, and there are still improvements to be made at the Club and Society. But having a positive public image and a variety of methods to keep in touch with fans and members was a step forward from where we were in February. The next phase on from that was to develop the members’ site into what we needed to work properly as an organisation, and this happened over the summer. I confess that I ran out of energy to be involved in this, but Julio and Jon of Big Spring have really turned the site around and made it useful, interesting and lively again. A lot of the arguments over running the club might be the same, but it doesn’t feel as claustrophobic and desperate as it did before.
Sadly, Ebbsfleet were still relegated on the last day of the season, but in many ways (and this was voiced by old hands at the club) this was needed, as even before MyFootballClub took over there were thorny organisational issues that needed resolving. We did learn from the disruption of last season, and despite relegation, managed to retain more of the squad than in 09/10. The players have responded well, just outside promotion playoffs at the moment.
So things are looking up, and I believe we can start to attract people who were previously interested in the project, but put off by the lack of engagement. Not to mention people who were interested for the same reasons as I was: to be part of a community that was trying to do something new and different.
When you look at the problems at Liverpool at the moment, you remember why MyFootballClub was an attractive concept back in 2007. In September 2010, MyFootballClub is now getting close to what it should have been from the start.