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.
One of the big challenges in recent months has the issue of the home ground at Stonebridge Road. Currently leased for the next 16 years, it’s not really the most attractive sporting venue in the world, though the pitch is immaculate, maintained by the rapping groundsman, Peter Norton. The Club were looking at a new stadium before MyFootballClub took over, and discussions have continued since then.
These seemed to fall through in August when the local councils (Kent County and Gravesham Borough) and said they would not support a community stadium on the old A2 site. Following this blow, the freehold was put up for sale by the owners, Land Security, who also gave the club the opportunity to make an offer before the 21st Sept auction. A group of MyFC members, directors and other supporters of the club got together to raise the funds – not an insubstantial amount, somewhere between £400-600,000.
And that was going reasonably well until Gravesham Borough Council stepped in on the 17th September and bought the ground. This has changed the game again, as there are now two options:
1) Continue to raise the funds in order to buy the ground from the Council
2) Take up the offer of long-term, peppercorn rent
Learning to Juggle
Both have their good and bad points, but I feel that the Society Board members should not be pushing one argument over another, which has happened before and cause a lot of division. Instead they should be monitoring the debate, providing information where needed and pushing things through at the club on behalf of members. Despite the usual circular and emotive debate, thankfully both sides have been allowed to discuss the options.
As an organisation, we’re still struggling to deal with more than one item at a time, a shame as important issues are neglected whilst everyone’s energy is focused on the Big News. Again, this is something that I was hoping for from the new Board – to each take ownership of different areas and foster groups of members to deal with the issues and come back to the Society.
Good news in this regard is that the Operator is planning a revamp to the website which should make this more of a reality. This should also improve communications, allowing casual members to easily see what’s going on and feel involved. This is essential for maintaining and growing membership beyond the hardcore MyFootballClub fans and local Ebbsfleet fans.
Incidentally, funds for the ground purchase are still being raised by the new company, MyFootballGround. Going on what we’ve done before and the way the forum discussion’s been going, if the full amount isn’t reached MyFG will probably continue and become the company that develops the stadium. All quite exciting, whatever the outcome!
If you’re interested you can email 0800 334 5605 or e-mail Trustboard@myfootballclub.co.uk