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Day 75: The Slow, Agonizing Fall of Ebbsfleet United and What It Tells Us About Fans

October 23, 2010

Back in 2007, Ebbsfleet United, a 5th-tier English soccer club based in the London suburb of Kent, was facing administration (the professional soccer version of the SMU “Death Penalty”).  Their debts were getting out of hand and the club needed an infusion of cash FAST.  The story was typical of the troubles facing many English soccer clubs at every level.  The business of the game was failing.  Multinational conglomerates purchased teams not as sources of glory but expansions of a corporate portfolio, a shelter for debt.  Merchandise, concessions, viewing licenses for television and ticket prices skyrocketed.  Foreign owners began to snap up the most revered clubs in the world; Arsenal (America & Middle East), Chelsea (Russia), Manchester City (Thailand then Middle East), Aston Villa (America) and Liverpool (America & Canada) were buying the game away from British fans.

In a moment of inspiration, British columnist Will Brooks contrived an idea to form a consortium of fans over the internet to pool together and purchase the club.  The caveat being that once the online group, known as MyFootballClub (“MYFC”), would hold final approval in every significant decision made by team management.  This included ticket prices, concessions, merchandising and, most daringly, player signings and gameday starting lineups.  The idea was pitched to soccer fans as a chance to prove “I could run this team better than these dopes!” and, simultaneously, a chance to take the game back.  Any profits would be placed in a trust which, upon sale of the team by the membership, would be distributed to the Fleet’s charitable organizations.

The strongest part of the emotional appeal for fans to buy in was the mysticism of the English Football Ladder: the “English Dream” that a club could ascend the ranks through merit to join the top tier of English Soccer, the Premier League.  You wouldn’t just be taking the game back for the average fan, you’d be helping a club and its long-suffering fans achieve an impossible dream.  The pitch certainly appealed to me; my dissatisfaction from my disillusioning experience working in pro sports made it difficult to feel any deeper attachment to the industry.  The chance to contribute to a team’s growth, in any small way possible, was something I needed to connect with again.  Ebbsfleet was the most efficient way to do it.

MyFootballClub went live to much fanfare with 35,000 fans agreeing to pitch in their share of 35 British Pounds ($50US at the time) and in February of 2008, received approval of the Ebbsfleet United executive board to take over a 75% operational share of the club.  Within a matter of months, “The Fleet” recorded arguably its greatest accomplishment in club history: A 1-0 win over Torquay United to win the FA Trophy ( a season-long single-elimination tournament comprised of all teams residing in the Football Ladder’s 5th through 8th tiers) in front over 40,000 fans at Wembley Stadium.

 

Wembley Stadium, May 10, 2008 - Ebbsfleet United wins the FA Trophy

 

Two years later, the team stands in financial shambles.

As one of those initial members, I noticed problems would arise from the first few e-mails.  The first few dozen votes requested approval of local advertising, sales solicitations, minor improvements, etc.  Not very thrilling stuff (and items that should be handled by the day-to-day employees of the club).  Then, as the team started accumulated victories in the FA Trophy competition, hesitation arose to hand over gameday selections to the populace, wresting the responsibility away from the able incumbent head coach, former Ireland national team member Liam Daish.  The membership voted shortly thereafter to “grandfather” managerial decisions to Daish until he left the club.  The decision effectively removed the “pick the team” fantasy-to-real-life aspect of MYFC membership, the single most intriguing part of the initial sales pitch.

Initially, members pooled money together to purchase new equipment to the tune of a $3500 funds drive in the span of 24 hours.  This was the realization of a new happy merger: sports + crowdsourcing = crowd-sportcing?  “The team needs something?  Let’s pitch in a buck to make it happen!”

The FA Trophy win came about two months before the fallout from the sub-prime mortgage market’s collapse.  Once the world’s financial stability wavered, the wallets of fence-sitting members tightened.  Suddenly, the members weren’t so inclined to part with their income.  The e-mails asking for my votes didn’t just slow down…they stopped altogether.  The club’s communications department cut its updates to members drastically (nearly all together).  I no longer felt like an active participant in the process.  When the time came to renew, I had to compare my financial investment in the Ebbsfleet Dream with the highly-valued Emotional Return on Investment…and the scales were no longer balanced.  I withdrew my membership from MYFC, resigned to follow the club from the outside.

Corporate sponsorship dipped once the novelty wore off, and when the club’s self-imposed salary cap was lowered, Daish was unable to maneuver the transfer market once injuries began to plague the squad to start the 2009-10 season.  The losses and draws piled up and before the patchwork club could muster a win streak together, the season closed.  Ebbsfleet finished the year in 22nd place and was banished through the cruel meritocracy of relegation to the 6th tier.  The Ebbsfleet Dream of going up to League Two (4th tier)…was now stuck in a horrible reverse.  Diametrically, their FA Trophy opponents, Torquay United, are currently in their second season in League Two.

The Fleet are currently adrift in a limbo between full-time and part-time, battling to claim one of the top five spots in their conference for a shot of regaining their pre-MYFC status.  MYFC, meanwhile, has collapsed at a disastrous slope.  Over 90% percent of the original membership has not renewed since their initial investment in 2008.  The difference in lost membership revenues for Ebbsfleet United hovers around US$1 million.  All the data suggests the sad reality: the fans failed, then quit on the club.

I,  myself, hold a share of the responsibility for the mass abandonment of MyFootballClub and Ebbsfleet United.  My guilt is tempered by justification.  I felt my money and my voice were not being properly utilized.  I suddenly felt the same disengagement that had brought me to the experiment in the first place.

And yet, despite the epic near-collapse of the internet ownership, Ebbsfleet not only stands in a playoff spot to return to the 5th tier but also retains hopes of advancement to the first proper round of England’s cherished FA Cup, the nation’s all-inclusive knockout tournament involving all the teams from the top 10 tiers of the ladder (a total of 759 this season).  If Ebbsfleet can sneak past Boreham Wood, they’ll stand only two wins away from inclusion in the Third Round Proper alongside clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and all of the teams from the Premier League.

The Ebbsfleet Dream of competing alongside some of the top teams in the world may be realized in a matter of weeks.  If it does happen and by some miracle of chance Ebbsfleet United’s 5,000 seat Stonebridge Road hosts a dream match-up with a potential Champions League contender, the players and staff of Ebbsfleet United will have accomplished this success and brought about additional financial windfalls on their own in the face of a heart-breaking exodus of fan ownership.

It will serve as the final nail in the coffin for MyFootballClub, which launched with the noblest of intentions but failed to capitalize on the collective knowledge and abilities of its initial membership.  The team is battling back with the 3000 or so that have rode through the storm and are stuck putting the pieces back together.

As fans, we were given the keys to the family stationwagon…but we never cared to change the oil.

DR

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