D-Day approaches for MyFC and Ebbsfleet

A year to the day this Thursday internet site MyFootballClub.co.uk completed their takeover of Ebbsfleet United but any anniversary celebrations are likely to be muted as the club desperately needs members to renew their subscriptions ahead of this week’s deadline.

While the past 12 months has delivered a number of landmarks and one piece of silverware in the form of the FA Trophy, February 19th 2009 will arguably be one of the biggest dates in their history. If not enough MyFC members renew their subscription – which is an increasingly likely scenario – then Ebbsfleet could be in serious trouble.

The MyFC takeover

When MyFC announced its intentions to take over Ebbsfleet it was meant with no small amount of fanfare. Media outlets rushed to hail it as a historic first – a victory for fan power. There was bullish talk from MyFC members about their ambitions to take the club into the league, and the whole concept was painted as a different way to the corporate moneymen of the Premier League.

The concept was simple and, to those fans growing weary of the Premier League or fans of Football Manager or both, instantly appealing. Members would pay £35 to join MyFC. That cash would then go towards first buying and then funding a team. Members would get the opportunity to vote on all key issues from financial budgets to picking the team.

This last aspect was MyFC’s biggest selling point. Here was a chance to make fantasy football become a reality. The manager would be doing the fans’ bidding. It was pure democracy, theoretically, in a football club. To help members, the MyFC website would be equipped with videos, stats and other tool to help far away members make informed decisions.

What was actually taking place in Kent was somewhere more complex than the picture painted above (and continues to be so). Ebbsfleet’s then directors were struggling. Although the team was doing well in the Conference and pushing for a playoff spot, the club itself was in serious need of a cash injection to keep it going.

The club had already gone through a rebranding – from Gravesend and Northfleet to Ebbsfleet – in order to take advantage of the new town planned around the Eurostar terminal in Kent, but without major investment, the directors had, at best, taken the club as far as it could go. At worst, the club would struggle to make it beyond the summer. Enter MyFC.

The reaction among the Fleet faithful was a complete mixture. Some welcomed MyFC with open arms and immediately signed up. Others, knowing the club needed investment, gave it a cautious welcome.

Another group reacted angrily to the takeover – their main grievances were they had never been consulted and were worried that a large group who of people who would rarely be able to watch Fleet games in person would be picking the team with little or no knowledge or what they were doing.

But there was no stopping the momentum and at the start of 2008, just over 18 thousand MyFC voted to pay £600,000 to take over Ebbsfleet. Fan power had arrived in Kent.

Successes and milestones

In the short-term, MyFC appeared to be success after success. The site had around 20,000 members when it first announced its intention to buy Ebbsfleet. Pretty soon that had risen to over 30,000. At its peak, the site had over 32,000 members.

Soon after, Ebbsfleet’s manager Liam Daish, wrote to the members thanking them for their support and, while sounding some understandable notes of caution, noted that the MyFC cash had enabled the club to improve their training facilities and equipment.

That extra cash clearly paid off and Ebbsfleet finished the season on a high. They may have just missed out on a playoff spot, but they reached the final of the FA Trophy. Around 26,000 Fleet fans – old and new – packed Wembley to watch them defeat Torquay United 1-0 and take the trophy.

It was a historic moment in Fleet’s history, although, again, the talk of fan power in the media was somewhat over-egged. The cash from MyFC had given Ebbsfleet a much-needed financial boost, meaning they could continue to push for honours. But much of the credit for the win had to go to Liam Daish and his team, most of whom were already at the club when MyFC took over. It was Daish, not the fans, who picked the team and it was Daish and the old board who’d brought most of the team together.

Nonetheless, the Trophy win saw a surge of new members and new milestones. Members voted to freeze season ticket prices in May and in June members again voted on the playing budget. One month later, MyFC members and Fleet fans grouped together to raise the £20,000 needed to sign striker Michael Gash from Cambridge City.

More was the follow. At the end of the August transfer window, MyFC members voted to sell teenage striker John Akinde to Bristol City for £150,000 – the first time fans had voted in a major transfer dealing. Then, in January, the fans voted again on another transfer dealing – this time to buy defender Darius Charles from Brentford for £25,000.

These, then, are the successes. But behind them all lies a worrying apathy with the MyFC process. For all the milestones passed with the votes, the numbers actually logging on to register their opinions are worryingly low, and this is reflected in the low membership renewal rate ahead of the deadline. And the fans still haven’t voted to pick the team. Yet.

Number crunching

The number of MyFC members voting gives something of a clue as to why the site is struggling with renewals. Remember, MyFC has roughly 30,000 members, and while it’s understandable that there won’t be a 100% turnout for every vote, some of the numbers are surprisingly low.

Last year’s vote to approve the takeover of Ebbsfleet saw 18,112 of the 30,000 members vote on the issue, with over a third not bothering to register an opinion on the first and most important vote in the site’s history.

The vote on season ticket prices had 6,765 members voting while 5,482 voted to confirm the playing budget for this season. The Akinde transfer did a little better with 7,452 members voting (82.3% said yes) while around 3,000 voted on whether or not the club should buy Darius Charles or not.

But one vote that didn’t get quite as much publicity was when the match-by-match vote ahead of the postponed Wrexham game last month on whether Liam Daish or the MyFC members should pick the team saw a difference of just 38 votes on the issue. The total number of votes cast was 492, of which 265 voted for Daish and 227 voted for MyFC members.

This meant that just 1.6% of the MyFC membership voted on this issue of team selection and the decision to let the fans pick the squad could have been decided by just 0.8% of the total membership.

The numbers, then do not look good for Ebbsfleet, especially when renewals are taken into consideration. It’s a little difficult to give be exactly certain at this point in time on how many members Ebbsfleet will have for next season, especially as there may be a late surge between the time of writing (Sunday) and the deadline on Thursday but the figures are roughly along these lines:

In the last ten day to seven days, there were roughly 3,400 who had renewed their membership for another year or longer. There are also around 4,300 members who don’t need to renew on February 19th because they either signed up after this date last year or signed up for more than one year. But either way, the money from this latter group will have either been spent or budgeted for.

Add on extra renewals over the previous few days and taking into account a late surge of renewals, the number of MyFC members for its second year in charge of Ebbsfleet probably will be somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000.

To make Ebbsfleet sustainable over the next year, the hierarchy has said they need around 15,000 to renew (although this isn’t clear if this includes members who signed up for more than one year or post-Feb 19th 2008 members). Whichever way you look at it, there’s going to be a shortfall of anywhere between 5,000 and 11,000 members. And that will mean serious problems for Fleet’s bank balance.

A bank balance for the Stonebridge Road club is somewhat difficult to find but the general consensus appears to be that the club isn’t that healthy and needs extra money. The club has enough cash-flow to keep going but there is a deficit.

A rough estimate of the club’s annual losses stands at around £800,000, with the wage bill being around £150,000. Working on an rough assumption that MyFC will have around 9,000 members after February 19th, 5,000 of which will be paying their £35 for another year, that means MyFC’s total income from membership renewal will be around £175,000, which will be just enough to cover the wage bill and a bit more.

To put this is perspective, if all MyFC members were suddenly to renew tomorrow, the income would be around £910,000.

Why the drop?

It’s worth noting that the above figures don’t take into account additional income from things like sponsorship and gate receipts, and in the latter area Ebbsfleet are doing quite nicely. They’re one of the few clubs to post a rise in average attendances, which are up by just over 20% to 1306. Given that Fleet are struggling in the Blue Square Premier this season and doing much worse than expected, this is an impressive achievement and one that can probably be put down to MyFC.

But it’s a small piece of light in what will, as likely, be a difficult coming 12 months for both Ebbsfleet and MyFC. The low voting numbers suggest they have a hardcore of somewhere between three to five thousand fans, not including the existing Ebbsfleet fans who’ve not joined.

Of these, few will be able to get to watch the team at Stonebridge Road on a regular basis. Nonetheless, Ebbsfleet have definitely attracted a new set of loyal followers. This is above average for the Conference.

But how much use these numbers will be remains to be seen. Most observers, and plenty involved with a club itself, expected a slight drop in membership numbers unless the team were doing exceptionally well, but this level of drop-off is higher than even some of the scheme’s biggest critics could have imagined.

It’s difficult to point to any exact reasons why the drop off has occurred but there are a number of factors that are likely to have influenced this. The current economic climate is an easy starting place and although £35 isn’t a lot of money, many people may decide it could be better spent elsewhere.

This also links to one of the problems that was flagged up when MyFC first purchased Ebbsfleet. Of the 30,000 who joined, few were likely to be existing Ebbsfleet supporters. The club itself is not the easiest place to get to if you live outside of Kent or London and the club itself was already established with its own history and supporters, many of whom didn’t ask for the takeover in the first place.

The MyFC project is not the same as other fan-run clubs like FC United and AFC Wimbledon who have literally built clubs from scratch, or Telford, whose supporters resurrected their collapsed club, or Stockport and Exeter, where the Supporters’ Trust dragged them back from the brink of liquidation. Instead, it is a group of general football fans with allegiances to other teams who’ve grouped together.

Although this has earned Ebbsfleet a good number of extra fans, there was always the danger than, for whatever reason, these fans – who had no connection to Fleet – would decide to cease their involvement. It’s easier to walk away from a project such as this than a team who’ve supported all your life.

Then there have also been issues with the way MyFC has been run. The Pick The Team option, which was a large point of MyFC’s initial selling point, didn’t appear until about seven months after the takeover went through, and even that required a vote asking them members if they wanted to pick the next game’s team.

Indeed, when the fans did come close to voting for this (albeit less than 1% of the total members) Ebbsfleet’s Chief Executive David Davis said: “”If that is what the members want, then we have to do it. Liam [Daish] has always said he hopes it never happens but if does we have to deal with it.”

There have been other issues about the amount of information MyFC members have had access to, while the existing Ebbsfleet fans have never quite taken the new arrivals to their collective hearts.

It may be one of these issues in particular that has had members electing not to renew, or it could be a combination of them, but they’ve all contributed to Fleet facing another potential funding crisis.

Going forward

For all Ebbsfleet’s current problems, it’s worth noting that it’s not all been a bad or even a complete failure, although it is increasingly looking less like a valid business model and more like an interesting if flawed experiment. The next year may well see MyFC significantly adjusting their model, aims and goals, assuming they survive.

MyFC’s cash injection last year was money that was vital for the future of the club and the Michael Gash transfer was proof of what could happen when the fans bonded together. MyFC also opened their gates for free for the recent FA Trophy clash with Swindon Supermarine as a gesture of goodwill towards all fans.

And it’s the more active MyFC members and the older Fleet fans who may be the future of the club if MyFC can’t sustain their investment beyond the next twelve months. The website has said in the past that if they do pull out, then they’ll pass control to the Supporters’ Trust, which would mean the fans really would own and control the club.

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