Later this month, the newly launched Electric City Football Club will play its first official game in the Ontario League One soccer league. Such a development for Peterborough, which had been seen as too small a market for a club with professional ambitions, will involve many firsts and new ventures for the city.
That includes one of Canada’s first established supporters’ trusts — the Electric City Supporters’ Trust — which officially launched as an independent non-profit on March 30.
“A supporters’ trust is an organization that seeks to facilitate the influence of the fans on the club they support,” the Trust’s founding president Jeremy Corke tells Peterborough Currents.
The supporters’ trust model is based on that popularized in the UK, where most soccer teams have some form of association representing fans’ interests. They are democratic, non-profit organizations that protect and promote supporters’ priorities. They aim to exert fans’ influence on their club, and work to hold a club’s board and ownership to account. While recognizing this crucial function of a trust, Corke says they see the Trust’s role in Peterborough more broadly.
“We’re trying to facilitate fan ownership of the game in the city in general. So while we definitely are aiming to put ourselves in a position to be advocates for fans of ECFC to the club, we’re also lucky to be advocates of the game and financial and material supporters of the game across Peterborough in general.”
Corke is appealing to a basic sense of autonomy over a game that is often unresponsive to fans’ interests as it becomes increasingly commercialized.
“We’re community-oriented, and we’re rallying around ECFC,” Corke says. “As president, my role is about getting people interested, and interested people together.”
Whereas ECFC supporters’ group The Current 1819 will focus more on the gameday experience of supporting the team, the Trust is ultimately about giving the opinions of fans in places supporters aren’t usually found, like in the boardroom.
“At the end of the day, football is unfortunately a business. And that’s where we feel like we need to be [in order] to represent fans,” says Corke.
The notion of fan ownership is largely at odds with the dominant sporting culture in North America, where professional and semi-professional soccer clubs are almost entirely franchises, built and owned through corporate structures and relationships. But it’s more common in the rest of the world, where professional soccer clubs have historically grown out of their communities, and today those communities still exert some control over their clubs.
In Spain’s top division, for example, club members of teams as big as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid elect the board and president, and a membership can cost as little as a few hundred dollars a year. In Germany, a ‘50+1’ rule ensures club members hold the majority of voting rights. And even at the elite and highly financialized end of the game in Europe — where clubs are now owned by hedge funds, investment groups, dynastic American families and even nation states — supporters’ culture still retains a unique power.
Arguably the most successful example of a supporters’ trust comes from AFC Wimbledon in the UK. Over the last few decades, that team has risen in the ranks of the British professional game while under the ownership of the Dons Trust, a democratic fan organization that works on the basis of one member, one vote.
“The nature of North American football is much more corporate than European football business,” says Corke. “When it comes to North America, the idea of any community ownership is such a foreign concept. I think that most people wouldn’t even comprehend it.”
The European model of supporters’ trust has been a source of inspiration for Corke and their fellow Trust leaders. Half of the board, Corke says, are members of English trusts — including the Dons Trust — and the board is looking to follow the example set by those organizations, and apply what they’ve learned here.
“We don’t want to see football as it explodes in popularity to become another NHL or NFL.”
And soccer certainly is exploding in Canada, with the women’s national team’s 2021 Olympic gold medal and the men’s national team’s recent world cup qualification driving interest in the sport.
For any Peterborough folks inspired by the success of the Canadian national teams — or the launching of a new community institution such as the Electric City Football Club — Corke sees the Trust as the place for them.
“I believe that football is the people’s game.”
In that spirit, the supporters’ trust is a fully democratic organization, with elected board members and a first AGM to come towards the end of the year. The growing membership will be able to vote on and propose motions, and to set the course of the Trust over the next few years.
“Everybody who will be a member of the trust will have a voice in what the trust does. That could be an active voice, or it could be a passive voice.”
As ECFC’s first games approach — April 21 away at Guelph United for the men’s team, April 23 away at Alliance United for the women’s team — Corke’s main focus is on attracting new members, and making more people aware of ECFC and the Supporters’ Trust.
“I think somebody should join the Trust if they want to be a part of supporting our game, in our city, and because the Trust wants to give the average fan a sense of ownership in the beautiful game,” Corke says.
Dan Morrison is a 2022 Peterborough Currents editorial fellow reporting on local sports culture. He moved to Peterborough from England after studying as an exchange student at Trent University. Since graduating in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Lancaster University, he’s co-edited Arthur newspaper and worked for Pagemasters North America. He is currently the editor of the food journalism magazine Sliced.