King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Web site buys English soccer team, fans to manage by vote. Click here to shoot! Plus: Michael Lewis skewers college football's Big Lie.


King Kaufman
November 14, 2007 4:00PM (UTC)

Forget about the power struggles that go on in the front offices of your favorite teams. Never mind the petty tugs of war between this or that Steinbrenner. How'd you like to be one of 20,000 owners? Each, no doubt, with very precise ideas about how to lead the home 11, or nine, or five, or whatever, to glory?

Well, no time like the present.

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The Web site MyFootballClub, which promises fans of English soccer that they can "become an owner-manager of a real football team," has agreed in principle to buy a controlling share of Ebbsfleet United FC, with an option to buy the club outright.

The BBC reports the deal should be complete in a few weeks, pending a due diligence process.

For 35 pounds, about $72, you can "have an equal say in team selection, player transfers and the running of the club," the Web site says. "MyFootballClub members will own the club, vote on team selection, decide which players to buy and sell and guide the club up the leagues."

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The team, known as Gravesend & Northfleet F.C. until this spring, plays in Gravesend, Kent. It plays in what had been called the Conference National, but thanks to a new sponsorship is being called Blue Square Premier. It's the top level of "non-league" football, meaning teams are four promotions below the Premier League.

The new ownership group is off to a great start. It voted on which team to buy given a set of criteria laid out by the site. The club had to have at least 51 percent of its shares on the market, with manageable or no debt, that sort of thing. The members voted and the winner was ... Leeds United!

Ebbsfleet United came in second. But that's the way things go. You can't always get what you want, as another English club once said, so the voters don't necessarily decide everything. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out when the members are telling the manager how to set the lineup. For now, Liam Daish, who's being retained as manager, though his title is changing to head coach, made happy sounds to the BBC about the new arrangement.

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MyFootballClub has been inviting would-be owners to sign up for free, with the 35-pound fee required to have a say. It says 50,000 have signed up and 20,000 have paid. That's a big cash infusion for a fairly low-level team, but it's also a lot of cooks stirring the broth.

The Schaumburg Flyers, an independent minor league baseball team in the Chicago suburbs, has invited fans to choose the team's lineup for the last two years through an online promotion called Fanclub Reality Baseball. Fans guided the team to an overall record of 39-57 this year, one game better than the worst team in the league.

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There are lots of reasons beyond lineup decisions why a team goes 39-57, but managers who go 39-57 get fired a lot.

The idea of 20,000 -- or 50,000 -- owners squabbling over whether to play a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-4 reminds me of A.J. Liebling describing what it's like to be at a boxing match in the opening pages of "The Sweet Science."

Liebling wrote that attending a match is much more satisfying than watching one on TV because you can shout instructions to your fighter. And some fighters take instruction quite well. For instance Liebling would always yell, "Let him have it, Joe!" to Joe Louis, "and sooner or later he would let the other fellow have it."

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But a problem arises when another fan takes to yelling out bad advice to your fighter. This is the problem the 20,000 owners of Ebbsfleet United are going to have with each other.

At a moment when you have steered your boxer to a safe lead on points but can see the other fellow is still dangerous, one of these maniacs will encourage recklessness. "Finish the jerk, Harry!" he will sing out. "Stop holding him up! Don't lose him!" But you, knowing the enemy is a puncher, protect your client's interests. "Move to your left, Harry!" you call. "Keep moving! Keep moving! Don't let him set!" I sometimes finish a fight like that in a cold sweat.

Multiply that by 19,998, and you might have something like what it's going to be like in the owner's box at Ebbsfleet United matches.

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The virtual owner's box, that is.

Then again, the wisdom of the crowd has had some managerial success. In 1951 St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck dreamed up a promotion called Grandstand Managers Night. Fans in a special section were given placards with "Yes" printed on one side, "No" on the other.

During the game the Browns coaches held up signs asking the crowd what it wanted to do in the current situation. "Bunt?" "Steal?" That sort of thing.

The fans, who had already benched two Browns regulars when they voted on the lineup, held up their placards to answer, with a local judge acting as the arbiter. The team's manager, Zack Taylor, shod in slippers, sat in the stands in a rocking chair and smoked a pipe.

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Of course the Browns beat the Philadelphia A's, 5-3. And the crowd of managers couldn't even look the stats up online before they voted. Ebbsfleet United should be just fine.

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College grid hatchet job of the day: N.Y. Times [PERMALINK]

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We seem to have reached that time of year when we're talking about what's wrong with college football. That is, when the big writers for the big papers talk about it. I talk about it when everybody's still wearing white shoes and holding clambakes.

So just in case John Feinstein's cri de coeur -- that's French for cri of coeur -- in the Washington Post Monday didn't satisfy your smash-the-state (university's football program) urges, here is Michael Lewis writing in the New York Times.

And Lewis' piece, which ignores the triviality of the Bowl Championship Series and focuses on the Big Lie of college sports, is fantastic. Well-reasoned, well-argued, and just plain right. Headline: "Serfs of the turf."

Pointing to the various factors that make it obvious football players are on campus for the business of playing ball, not to go to class, Lewis writes, "It's not that football players are too stupid to learn. It's that they're too busy. Unlike the other students on campus, they have full-time jobs: playing football for nothing. Neglect the task at hand, and they may never get a chance to play football for money."

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He rightly points out how slim that chance is for most, and how little that matters: "Less than one percent actually sign professional football contracts and, of those, an infinitesimal fraction ever make serious money. But their hope is eternal, and their ignorance exploitable."

Lewis talks over the finances of Division I football with an NFL executive, who guesses, based on NFL values and college revenues, that Vince Young would have been worth about $5 million to the University of Texas during the 2005 season.

"In quarterbacking the Longhorns free of charge," Lewis writes, "Young, in effect, was making a donation to the university of $5 million a year -- and also, by putting his health on the line, taking a huge career risk. Perhaps he would have made this great gift on his own. The point is that Vince Young, as the creator of the economic value, should have had the power to choose what to do with it."

And there's just no arguing with that by saying, "Yeah, but he gets free room, board and books."

As a bonus for a job well done, Lewis had his name spelled correctly by the Times. The Post spelled Feinstein's name without the first n.

Previous column: Dungy: Timeout killer

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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