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Football “Franchises” – Right or Wrong?

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In a summer bereft of football, the release of fixture lists this week provide some form of respite for fans starved of action. Away trips are plotted, long weekends at some of the more far-flung fixtures are planned, and best mates are pleaded with not to hold their wedding on a certain date as it clashes with “the big one”.

But among all this, select fans from League One teams will also be studying the Conference fixture list, specifically AFC Wimbledon’s home games. This isn’t to do with loyalty to the London team, per se, but there are plenty of supporters who will object to visiting the MK Dons and will choose to visit Kingsmeadow when their team is away at the Stadium M:K.

Even though it’s now been seven years since the FA gave permission for Wimbledon FC to be moved to Milton Keynes, many fans still remain angry at the so-called franchising of the Dons and have never accepted the Pete Winkleman-owned vehicle.

But to observers from countries such as USA and Austrlia, where franchising is the norm, the fuss over one team (and not even a large team at that) relocating must seem somewhat confusing.


Not the first, maybe not the last

The MK Dons aren’t the first team to have upped sticks and moved in search of more money. The majority of teams who do this are often at non-league level, usually merging two teams to create an artificial club, as opposed to moving the club elsewhere. Rushden and Diamonds, Hayes and Yeading, and Dagenham and Redbridge (who themselves came from Redbridge Forest, another merged side) have all done this in the past.

But the actual uprooting of a club from one part of the country to another is still rare and, before the Dons, the most high profile move came back in 1913. Woolwich Arsenal from Plumstead were moved from south east London up north to Highbury, right by the tube station, and simply renamed The Arsenal.

At the heart of all this was, even back then, money. The club’s chairman, Henry Norris, also owned Fulham and had originally attempted to merge the two clubs. When that failed, Norris identified prime space in the capital in which to establish a football club and, despite protests from fans at the time, Arsenal moved north. The rest, as they say, is history.

Given that Arsenal were so successful in their relocation, it is fair enough to ask why more clubs didn’t simply move to a more profitable and accepting area if they were struggling for money.

The importance of community

First of all, it’s worth noting that Arsenal’s success didn’t just come about because of the relocation, although this did play a large part in their subsequent growth. Arguably, Norris’ feat of talking Arsenal into the First Division in 1915 had as much to do with fast-tracking them on the way to where they are today.

That year, Arsenal had finished 5th but, for no good reason and with more than a suggestion of dodgy dealing, were promoted at the expense of Wolves and Barnsley, both of whom finished above the Gunners. Norris, somehow, talked Arsenal into the top division.

But the idea that teams can be traded between cities, like players move between clubs, is one completely alien to the English game. Franchising just doesn’t enter the English mentality of football.

Many teams were started as works teams. Woolwich Arsenal was formed by workers at the munitions factory. Newton Heath (later to become Manchester United) was formed by workers on Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways. It doesn’t take a genius to guess at the origin of Horwich Railway Mechanics Institute, another team who relocated (to Leigh) in the belief it would help the club.

If it wasn’t workers looking for a kickabout, then often the church played a large part in forming teams. Aston Villa, Everton, Manchester City and Bolton, among others, were all formed around or by local churches. You wonder what the founders would have made of what the clubs have become today.

The majority of the clubs, then, were so rooted in their communities that it seemed inexpedient to move them to elsewhere. Even with some of the smaller league (and indeed non-league clubs) football was inextricably linked with the community. When the team was doing well, it often coincided with an upturn in the fortunes of the rest of the area.

Even in a short time the history and identity of the football club became interwoven with the history of the area. Rivalries were established, and football teams became badges of regionalistic pride. Liverpool v Manchester United, Swansea v Cardiff, Newcastle v Sunderland, even Exeter v Plymouth were all caught up in something that went beyond football. Franchising these teams and taking away the cultural identity would be unthinkable.

MK Dons mark 2

This may be a slightly simplistic way of explaining why franchising is so contrary to the principles of English football. The length of history and community roots means it would be seen as an abomination if somebody tried to uproot, say, Southampton to a place without a league club such as Cornwall.

It’s also why the football community reacted so strong to Wimbledon’s relocation. The Dons may not have been pulling in the same sort of crowds as other London Premier League clubs, but they had plenty of history, including their rise from non-league to FA Cup winners.

Moving the club to Milton Keynes left 3,000 displaced fans and, ever since the formation of AFC Wimbledon, both teams have argued that they have the rightful claim to the old Wimbledon’s history and trophies (although both, strictly speaking, are new teams).

There’s also a feeling that teams who are ‘franchised’ and take over a team’s league position are interlopers who haven’t earned the right to play at such a level.

It’s why the spectre of Methyr Tydfil moving to Bridgend was met with horror from both Methyr’s fans and the wider footballing community.

Owner Wyn Holloway, who’d taken the club to the brink of liquidation, raised the spectre of the club moving from the valleys to the Welsh town as he looked to offload the club. It wasn’t just the club that was for sale – it was the Martyrs entire place in the football pyramid.

Although Bridgend were in the League of Wales, Methyr, in the Southern Premier, would have been an interesting and attractive proposition for any side looking to break into the Conference or the League. Thankfully, the scheme came to nothing and the authorities appeared lukewarm at best to the idea.

Holloway and Bridgend are unlikely to be the last to try and relocate a club away from its spiritual home, as owners or ambitious businessmen look to do a quick one. Thankfully, the footballing authorities seem reluctant to view the Wimbledon situation as anything other than a one-off at this current point in time, although that’s no guarantee it won’t happen again.

Made in America

This all may come across as a criticism of the current American model of soccer. It isn’t meant to be. Indeed, if the MLS had tried to replicate the way English football was born, it would have probably died an unlamanted death a long time ago.

If you’re looking to establish a major football league in a country that hasn’t previously been known for its love of the game the franchise method is, at the moment, quite possibly the best way to go about it, as both the States and Australia’s A League are currently showing. It also makes more sense to implement a system that’s closer to what the public are used to with other sports.

And as the game grows and the clubs develop their own history, rivalries and even places in the community then that attachment to an area grows – just look at the current situation with DC United.

The MLS side are having issues over their stadium, raising the spectre that one of the MLS’ best-known teams could be forced to move, or franchised to another city. DC United fans, along with bloggers, are campaigning to keep the club in the capital.

There’s nothing wrong with franchising done in the right time and place. But that time and place isn’t the English game. Moving a club from its roots still feels wrong, and no matter how many years pass, AFC Wimbledon will no doubt continue to get “away” fans partaking in their own small ongoing personal protest against the creation of the MK Dons.

Comments (14)

  1. I’d just like to make a quick clarification, having been contacted by Dagenham fan, rather disgruntled that I’ve grouped his club in with the MK Dons. And, on reflection, he’s every right to be a tad disgruntled.

    The three non-league clubs mentioned were examples of how new clubs have been created by merging old ones. It’s kind of franchising, albeit in a very different way. It’s also very very different to the MK Dons, who really were stolen away from Wimbledon. The others have more been borne, mostly, out of the harsh economics of non-league football.

    Whether it’s right or wrong to merge two, often struggling, clubs for the greater good of other bigger club is open to debate (I’m not a fan, personally), but at least the team has stayed within or near to the community, unlike MK Dons who’ve been franchised. As the Daggers fan pointed out to me, his club have a soul, the Dons just have a bank account. I couldn’t agree more. (I can also recommend Dagenham as an away trip. It’s a tidy little ground and they’re a nice bunch down there. Just don’t go as an away fan when it’s tipping it down in the middle of winter).

  2. Actually it will be the season to visit as an away fan as we will have our brand new covered stand to use. :)

  3. Its not even just with moving its also with name changes. When the NY/NJ Metrostars became the NY Redbulls many of us in NJ refuse to support the team. And now look how bad they are. Even though the new stadium will be closer to many of us and in the core area of soccer fans, I will refuse to support the NY Redbulls until they once again share the New Jersey name.

  4. The Australian A-League isn’t so much a franchise system as a licensing system. Licenses are sold to bidders in each city once they fulfill requirements, and a team is created, the teams cannot be sold and relocated to another city in the same way as American sports.

    The franchising system is as foreign to Australians as it is to English fans.

    The system used to start the A-League was born out of necessity to grow the sport and appeal to the broader public. Most genuine football fans felt no affiliation to existing teams in the old National League that were based on (represented) various migrant groups in Australia.

  5. A most well considered piece.

    As an AFC Wimbledon fan it must be because I’ve not seen the red mist descend with any obvious inaccurancies or MKD perpetrated lies!

    Time, is for some, a healer but for some of us who lost our club – irrespective of the arguements surrounding that – we will never accept that entity should exist.

    Think how you would feel if your club didnt exist any more (and there are clubs falling by the wayside this close season as we write). To me Franchising throughout the world is associated with the death of a team, without the thoughts of the fans.

    Of course for other clubs, the real injustice of the MK move was the purchase of the League Championship place at the time – a place that had not been earnt on the football pitch by anyone connected with the enterprise. This also then exacerbated the demise of the local non-league club MK City which died within its shadow.

    Certainly no club below them in the league at that time should have been happy. The years of trying to better oneself within the leagues was obliterated in the stroke of a pen.

    Perhaps if/when Celtic or Rangers are parachuted into the EPL (Ugh!) other teams (including the Prem League team) even above where MKD entered will understand the injustice of it all. Particularly if it is their club that is displaced out of the chosen 22 (or whatever comes about)

    Real justice for all of football will, of course, be served on this particular club when AFC Wimbledon pass them in the League Pyramid at whatever the level.

    Then I suspect I and others will accept it as closure and also hope it sees the demise of the idea of franchises within the English Game.

  6. Excellent piece Gary. By looking at the big picture you’ve nicely avoided the petty, internecine sniping that goes on over the creation of Franchise FC. It is the long term implications for the game that are the most important (to anyone except a Wimbledon fan of course, you’ll forgive us if we still harbour massive resentment towards those responsible for the MK debacle). It is still to the great shame of both the FA and Football League that neither has ever either apologised for letting the MK move happen or taken sufficient steps (the FL slightly changed its rules) to prevent it happening again. How can any fan have any faith in the administrators of our national game, when the spectre of franchising and businessmen using football clubs for their own personal gain or purposes still hovers over the game at all levels?

  7. “But there are plenty of supporters who will object to visiting the MK Dons and will choose to visit Kingsmeadow when their team is away at the Stadium M:K.”

    Maybe a few years ago.

  8. @John (7) Um, no, seriously, I know a fair few from different clubs who still do this. There’s a small number of fans from each club who still feel strongly enough about this that they’ll go to Kingsmeadow over the Stadium MK even today.

  9. another poorly researched article from this website

    1. You clearly don’t know what a franchise is. A franchise is a segment of an entity “owned” by a third party in exchange for a fee and in many cases a percentage of profits. Think burger king…

    Within american sports franchises are cartels. That is they have exclusive territory rights over an area and bleed it dry. This is done through price fixing (Salary cap) and keeping the product scarce (30-32 pro teams). If a franchise isn’t making money they move it to a more lucrative location. Sport comes second fiddle, hence why owners don’t complain if a team doesn’t win and they like the salary cap as they don’t lose money and everyone is a winner. All revenue is pooled, that includes merchandise and TV income. The franchises have an obligation to ensure the sucess of fellow franchises as it has a knock on effect on their revenue. (You can argue the same sohuld be the case in the footballing world, that is that all clubs should work together and look after each other more.)

    Based on that MK dons AREN’T a franchise. They are an independent club who relocated. Same as any club who moves stadium, the only difference they were wrongly allowed to relocate outside of their catchment area in pursuit of riches but unlike american sports where riches are guaranteed to owners, in Europe they are only guaranteed to super rich. That’s not to say small/medium clubs can’t be run fiscal and turn a profit, West brom is a case in point, but unless you are huge to run fiscal you will eventually hit a glass ceiling in the crazy world of modern football (West broms glass ceiling is bottom of the premier league).

    The theory of milton keynes was that given it is a fairly sizeable city which is set to double in populaiton by 2020 a club from this place run fiscally and prudently won’t hit the ceilling until the premier league where riches are to be had for an owner of a well run club. It was an investment and it’s a joke that it was allowed, but to call it a franchise shows your own ignorance. I know it’s parlane in the UK to call club relocation franchising but this is an article, not a chat over a beer.

    MK dons are one of the reasons ALL clubs should be not-for-profit organisations owned by their members as is the case with German clubs and Barca/Real Madrid.

    2. Wimbledon averaged around 18,000 in their final seasons in the premier league, similar to wigan. The difference being 18,000 in 1999 (22nd best) wasn’t as bad as 18,000 is in 2009 (30th best).

    3. Both teams haven’t argued that they are the rightful owners of the history. MK dons were the “rightful” owners in terms of lineage, but they did the right thing and surrendered the history to Merton council (south west London) and their formation date is considered 2004. AFC want the history and hopefully they will be granted it.

    4. what a terrible quote this is

    “Norris’ feat of talking Arsenal into the First Division in 1915″

    Arsenal were promoted in 1919 FFS as there was the little matter of WW1, a little common sense could;ve figured that out. Arsenal were also promoted “legitimately”.

    It was decided after the war to expand the league, and in those days when it was expanded elections were held. Traditionally the bottom two (relegated) clubs were re elected and the normal promoted clubs were promoted. When i say traditionally i mean the last time it happened. However Chelsea who finished second bottom were granted clemency because Liverpool threw their final game against MAn united in a betting scandal, this relegated Chelsea, rather than United. Tottenham on the other hand were obliged to be re elected (as it didn’t affect them) against a whole host of second division clubs. Arsenal were the most convincing (illegal or otherwise)and were promoted. It is no different to the way teams had to be elected into the regional 3rd then 4th divisions until the mid 1980s. It was all about who you knew, and Henry Norris was mates with the league chairmain John Mckenna who just happened to be Liverpool’s chairman…

    As you can see with a little bit of research you can make an alirght narrative into one which can inform as well.

    Just to clarify i am against the way MK dons was created, but anyone can see the way the league is set up there are humungous barriers to entry for a small club. Lots needs to be done this was a wake up call of sorts to show us the direction football is going but no one is heeding the warning.

  10. Humngous barriers to entry to the League? The only real barrier is the existence of only two promotion spots. Most promoted Conference clubs have found themselves doing rather well – certainly most often better than what’s already there (ironically, look at Dagenham and Redbridge), and many ex-League clubs find the Conference way more competitive than League 2 (Camb Utd, Torquay, Exeter [have] remained there for some years). It’s more the problem of sustaining it without someone pouring money in or racking up debt (eg: Darlington – though this is more difficult these days with the Salary Cost Protocol in League One), and climbing to the upper-echelons and staying there beyond one or two seasons (Crewe managed it but fell away, though clubs like Swansea and Plymouth, who seem to have done it sustainably, have stayed; probably more to do with bigger fanbase combined with being better run – in the case of Swansea, the 19% shareholding on the part of the supporters’ trust has been critical).

  11. Sorry – I mean in that the Salary Cost Protocl is in League Two. AFAIK, in League One it’s still not manditory.

  12. @9 I think Wibble Wobble has neatly taken apart the humngous barriers to entry to the league claim (and I’d go as far as to say that relegation can be a good thing in the long term for some of these clubs – one step back, two steps forward, that sort of thing). I’d also like to add Doncaster to that list who really are the benchmark for any club looking to bounce back from the brink. And personally I think two up two down from the Conference works just fine at the moment. There’s a lot of small clubs who’ve gone bust trying to reach the league dream. We don’t need any more. And if you’re taking issue with how football is today, money-wise, the Premier League is generally the best place to start.

    Er, Arsenal were promoted due to WW1? That’s a genuinely new one on me. You’d have thoughts Wolves and Barnsley would have also been in with a decent shout. Anyway, you’ve mentioned Norris’ friendship with McKenna and said it’s about who you know… so how is that different from talking your way into the league?

    Also, re franchising (and I’m having real trouble grasping all of what you’ve said as you jump around an awful lot), I’ve not actually called the MK Dons a franchise outright (and made a conscious effort to avoid doing so as they’re not a franchise per se but are the nearest thing English football have to one). I’ve alluded to their nickname (Franchise FC), and used “franchise” rather than franchise. There is a subtle but significant difference between the two.

    As for point 2 – 22nd and 30th in what? I’m assuming not the Premier League. And re: point three, I’ve already said in the article that both MK Dons and AFC are new teams and Wimbledon as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore.

  13. @ gary and wibble wobble

    1. I don’t see where there was an argument about humungous barriers to entry but it seems as with always on the internet those who can’t argue a point attack throw away remarks and claim victory.

    Anyway the humungous barriers to entry REMARK refers to the point that to get a club from a small town into the league they invariably have to start from the 8th/9th tier and have to put massive investment and get very lucky to get promoted within a time frame of 4 years. We have 5 national leagues which is retarded. Basic economics!!

    2. When did i ever say Arsenal were promoted because of WW1, you claimed that arsenal were promoted in 1915, but i explained to you that in 1915 there was ww1 and they didn’t decide to expand the league until after the war, keep up son.

    It was a vote, any team was eligible Arsenal won, simple as, the fact is I never said it was different to talking your way in, however your paragraph didn’t make clear that the vote was legitmate, so the layman reader would believe Arsenal were voted in “for no good reason” as you put it.

    3. you’re having trouble grasping what i said because you haven’t got a clue, nothing more nothing less. You used the term numerous times and only once did you use inverted commas, and even then with all your claims of subtlety it is ignorant even to use the word in the in the first place.

    4. on your point on Point 2, (you are so slow), it refers to ranks of English teams in the average attendance chart. It’s quite clear, but ummm…

    5. on your point on point 3, you’ve done it again, argued an irrelevant point. When the hell did i say you didn’t say they weren’t new teams? (although you said strictly speaking, when strictly speaking MK dons aren’t). I refuted your claim that both clubs claim the history when both clubs don’t claim the history.

    See that’s the problem, someone has highlighted the flaws in your argument but instead of holding your hands up, you have TRIED to nitpick at points that you think you can answer or made up new arguments to divert away from the issue. Your article is filled with factual mistakes just admit it and we can move on!

  14. @Thebrain

    Wow. Trying to nitpick and make new arguments to divert from the issue. Pots, kettles and a dark colour spring to mind.

    Look, you can’t have it both ways. I could just as easily say the same, and I’m damn sure if I tried to pass off something I said in the comments and called it as ‘just a remark’ you’d have gleefully seized on it.

    I’ve no doubt you’ve got a couple of decent points that are worthy of further discussion but, seriously, you do jump all over, contradict yourself a lot and I have to reread your stuff several times before I get exactly what you’re getting at, and you’re the only commenter I’ve ever had to do that with.

    Plus, I’d be probably more likely to sit back and be a bit more considered if I didn’t think I was being addressed like a brain dead spaniel. Perhaps it’s just me, and I’m overly touchy on this point, but, anyway, the patronising tone doesn’t help things. Any chance you could stick a comment up without resorting to insults? It’s a bit like punching your cat because you’ve lost your job: irrelevant and not constructive to the point in hand.

    Anyway, that aside. First off, apologies that I didn’t quite get what you were on about with WW2. I’ve read that back again and it’s still the first thing that I assume, but I get what you’re on about now. Let’s leave that there.

    I suspect we’re not going to agree on the point about Arsenal’s election. I’d love to know why Wolves and Barnsley didn’t get promotion. Perhaps their chairmen weren’t as good talkers as Norris? I know things were done a little different back then, but fifth? I’m sorry, I just don’t buy your argument.

    Re: inverted commas… God, this feels so petty to even discussing semantics like this. I’ve read back the article. I’m happy that when I said franchising I meant that and when I used inverted commas, I meant that. And as for the new teams… that seems perfectly relevant to me.

    Why is having five national leagues retarded? Once you get lower down, and smaller clubs, they often can’t afford long trips. Gloucester in particular will suffer for this next season having been placed in the Blue Square North? Keeping it regionalised below Conference makes perfect sense to me.

    And these days very few clubs start right from the bottom. Those that have – AFC Wimbledon, FCUM – are making fairly decent progress. No team should expect to walk the league, they have to have the right infrastructure, budgets, etc. Those that reach too high inevitably fall back down. There’s a lot wrong with football in Britain. The pyramid structure is nowhere near the top of the list. If the 5 national leagues is so stupid, what would you put in its place?

    Anyway, somehow I don’t think you’re going to be happy until I’ve self-flagellated to the point of exhaustion then renounced all my writings and vow never to put my fingers anywhere near a keyboard again. Which isn’t going to happen.

    I also suspect we’ll be going round in circles until kingdom come, so I’m probably going to leave it here, but feel free to continue venting your spleen if it makes you feel happier.