Soccer Premier League

Supporters Increasingly Becoming Owners

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Wrexham FC, whic became majority-owned by its supporters' trust in November 2011, averaged nearly 4,000 in attendance in the Conference Premier last season. Photo from Mark L. Photos/flickr

The proposed sale of Portsmouth FC to its supporters, delayed earlier this month by a court, would add to a steadily increasing list of soccer clubs in which their fans have become owners.

Approximately 30 English clubs are wholly or partially owned by their supporters' trusts, according to Supporters Direct, an organization founded in 2000 to provide support to member trusts that wish to have a say in their clubs' operations.

Purchasing a club is a financial risk for new owners. Many buy in expecting to earn a profit, but in reality, few English clubs have produced a profit in recent years. Often, they are left with debt that might be recovered only if the club is sold. The trusts, however, are formed as not-for-profit organizations; members of each pay for shares but are not responsible for any losses.

Portsmouth's case fits into most of these supporter-bought clubs, as they often are bought in an effort to save the club. Once the club is purchase, though, many supporters no longer are just fans. Some clubs have a democratic format, in which members vote on club matters; members at other clubs may be limited to determining board members. In both cases, they can be represented at the top level of the club's operations.

These clubs also have a way of building upon community interest. Many members spend time volunteering for the club within its offices or grounds and assist on match days. They also work on projects within their neighborhoods, taking more of a community pride than if they were just fans.

Clubs owned by its supporters are not limited to Britain. Laws in Sweden, Turkey and Germany mandate its clubs be majority-owned by supporters' trusts. In Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona are fully owned by their supporters. Some of the clubs are assisted by Supporters Direct, which has expanded into about 20 countries in soccer, rugby and ice hockey and has UEFA and the European Commission among its funders.

Five examples of supporter-owned clubs, many with stories of success on the field after their purchase, follow.

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Exeter City

Exeter City plays in a 2012 friendly against FC United of Manchester. Photo from Mark. L. Photos/flickr

Exeter City was severely debt-ridden when it was relegated to the Conference Premier in 2003. The Exeter City Supporters Trust gained majority ownership and was able to secure agreements with creditors to reduce the club's debt. A pair of FA Cup ties with Manchester United, and fundraisers, enabled Exeter to clear its debts by the end of 2005. Exeter gained promotion to League Two in 2009 and auto-promoted to League One in 2010, but the club could not hold its position as it returned to League Two for this season.

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Wycombe Wanderers

A team bus advertises the Wycombe Wonderers club, which was bought by its supporters' trust in 2012. Photo from fatphil48/flickr

After plans for a 20,000-seat stadium and "sports village" was rejected by the local government in 2011, the owner put Wycombe Wanderers and the London Wasps rugby club for sale. That was before he was arrested in April 2012 in the Metropolitan Police computer-hacking scandal. The Wycombe Wanderers Supporters Trust came through as they bought the club, its Adams Park stadium, and the training grounds, in June after it was relegated to League Two. The trust's purchase began a season in which the club celebrates its 125th anniversary.

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AFC Wimbledon

AFC Wimbledon players salute their fans after winning promotion to the Football League in 2011. Photo from Matthew Wilkinson/flickr

When an FA board granted approval in 2002 for the owner of Wimbledon FC to move his club to Milton Keynes, fans reacted by forming AFC Wimbledon. The club, lovingly referred to as "The Wombles," were highly successful from the start as it won five promotions in nine seasons to move from the ninth level of England's football pyramid into League Two in 2011.

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FC United of Manchester

FC United of Manchester was formed in 2005 by fans who opposed the takeover of Manchester United by Malcolm Glazer. Photo from Green&Gold_LUHG/flickr

Like AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester was created out of anger. Manchester United supporters, incensed by the takeover of their beloved club by American businessman Malcolm Glazer in 2005, protested by forming their own club. It has been a success on the field, with two promotions and narrowly missing a third into the Conference North last season, and off it with attendances that are the envy of Conference clubs. The Red Devils, who share a ground with Bury of League One, are working to gain government approval to build its own stadium in time for the 2013-14 season.

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Swansea City

Swansea City players stand with the Championship playoff trophy after the Swans won promotion to the Premier League in 2011. Photo from LesD90/flickr

When the Swansea City Supporters Trust joined a group that saved the debt-ridden Welsh club in 2001, the Swans were in danger of falling out of the Football League. Instead, the club began a steady progression that saw it win promotion into the Premier League in 2011. The trust holds a 20-percent share of club ownership, and with four other major owners holding between 13 and 23 percent of the club's shares, fans can provide input into the club's operations.