Can Motherwell fans make a success of owning their club?

By Richard WilsonBBC Scotland
Motherwell players celebrate Marvin Johnson's equaliser against Dundee United
Motherwell have won four of their last five games to move into the Premiership's top six

Following the departure of Les Hutchison, the question for Motherwell supporters is what they want their club to become.

They have been presented with an opportunity to achieve full fan ownership, and their progress will be relevant to other leading clubs.

Four teams in Scotland are currently fan-owned - East Stirlingshire, Clyde, Dunfermline and Stirling Albion - while the Well Society and the Foundation of Hearts have clear routes to eventual ownership.

Rangers supporters are seeking to grow their stake in the Ibrox club, but along with fans at Motherwell and Hearts they have encountered similar issues.

The impetus for the organisations came from moments of financial crisis. The response of fans, over various time frames, was to sign up and pledge annual or monthly payments. Financial stability at the clubs, though, has curtailed memberships.

There remains a body of committed and hard-working supporters across Scotland campaigning towards fan ownership, but at individual clubs the critical mass is often absent. Hutchison has essentially challenged the Motherwell fans, and local businesses, to step up and support the club, having agreed to sell his 76% shareholding to the Well Society for £1.

Motherwell owner Les Hutchison
Les Hutchison took control of Motherwell in January 2015

The plan had been to originally transfer ownership over a five-year period, while Motherwell paid back the £1m that Hutchison invested in loans. As he acknowledged himself, though, the membership of the Well Society has plateaued, in part because of his presence - a wealthy individual with the means to be the club's financial safety net.

Yet the Society's membership levels are too low. They want 2,000 members paying on average £10 per month, but currently have a little less than 1700 members, some of whom are lapsed and no longer contributing financially. The aim for the yearly figure raised is around £240,000, but the current annual amount is around £96,000.

If the Society's ownership bid is to succeed, more fans need to sign up and commit to regular pledges, so that a cash reserve can be built up to cover the income fluctuations during the course of a typical season.

"The community-based, fan-owned club is the way forward for a club like Motherwell," said Douglas Dickie of the Well Society, who is now the Motherwell vice-chairman.

"We have a solid fan base of about 3,500 and we're getting support from local businesses, so there's a lot of people around us to help us achieve it.

"Nobody's kidding, it will be a lot of hard work, but we are dedicated individuals that are determined to make this work. From fans surveys we've been putting out, everyone is up for the challenge."

Hearts owner Anne Budge
Anne Budge took over Hearts in 2014, with a plan to transfer ownership to fans in 2019

The Foundation of Hearts worked tirelessly to secure the club's financial stability and there remains, for now, a plan in place for Ann Budge to transfer ownership in 2019. However, the membership has remained fairly stable at around 8,000.

Rangers First saw an upsurge in members during the run-up to regime change in the Ibrox boardroom last year, but from around 14,000 contributors, they are now at around 9,000 active members.

In some countries in Europe, such as Germany, Portugal and Spain, fan ownership is part of the football culture.

Establishing it in Scotland, where clubs have tended towards sole, wealthy owners, has moved relatively slowly. Dundee, for instance, were owned by their fans, who then voted to accept an offer from Texan businessmen, who are now the majority shareholders.

In effect, fan ownership means more than 50% of a club being held by a group that operates along democratic, one-member, one-vote lines. Yet there are clearly groups of fans who are not motivated by the prospect of owning shares in their club, but who want to engage in other ways, such as buying tickets, merchandise, and media subscriptions.

"Results from our previous surveys show 91% of supporters in Scotland think community ownership can work," said Andrew Jenkin, the head of Supporters Direct Scotland.

"The days of the benefactors and white knights are ending and the only constant will be the community of supporters that attend week in and week out.

"Community-owned clubs require supporters to think about how clubs can be viable social enterprises which put competitive teams on the park every week, but also financially sustainable and deliver social and community benefit.

"Our research suggests that community ownership opens up a number of benefits to a club that are much harder to, or not possible to, achieve in privately-owned clubs and what we all need to do is raise awareness so supporters can be proud committing to community ownership bids which deliver real benefits."

Rangers fans protest against club shareholder Mike Ashley
Rangers fans have protested recently against club shareholder Mike Ashley

Rangers supporters are about to be polled on a merger of the existing fan organisations into a single entity - Club 1872 - which would be independent of the club, hold an ownership stake that they would seek to increase to 25% and above, but also raise funds for other projects decided upon by members.

The hope is that it will be considered a membership rather than solely a fan ownership vehicle, with various membership benefits, to widen its appeal.

Different clubs will require different approaches, but key challenges are shared. Increasing the membership is the first obstacle, but for clubs there is the possibility of additional revenue streams.

For full fan ownership to succeed, there needs to be the cash reserves to help to fund even the most prudent clubs throughout the financial year.

Ultimately, though, for Motherwell, Hearts and Rangers, it is for the fans to decide what they want.