The membership model of football club ownership is considered outdated nowadays. Football clubs in Africa are opting for alternative ownership structures like partonage and joint-stock companies. There are a few clubs that are left to stick it out with the member association model mostly because of inertia rather than any regulatory hurdle. Gor Mahia, of Kenya, is one such team.

Is a member-owned football club inherently flawed? Not necessarily. Most such ownership structures have roots in being representative of a people or a mission. For instance, MC Alger was a club for muslims in Algeria and Al Ahly was part of Egypt’s independence movement.

In modern times, these lines have become blurred or erased altogether as football clubs keep up with the evolving nature of the game. Often times fans accept the changes but sometimes they do not. One of the most famous instances of the latter is the creation of FC United of Manchester. This team was founded in 2005 by disgruntled fans of Manchester United.

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Gor Mahia lacks the link between its modern day fans and the historic reasons for its founding because domestic league football was at one point and another irrelevant in Kenya. This means that it is unable to manifest itself as more than a football club as Barcelona does or the member-owned clubs in North Africa do. It does not affect any other sphere of life, apart from football, for most its fans and members.

Unfortunately, Gor Mahia fans and members have also been unable to demostrate the self-direction that founders of FC United of Manchester showed when they ditched Man Utd for good. Maybe it’s because the club has enjoyed on-pitch success, under chairmanship of Ambrose Rachier. But there has hardly been progress off it.

Gor Mahia’s off-pitch strategy

Ambrose Rachier Gor Mahia
What legacy? (Photo: Citizen TV)

The most successful football team in Kenya is beset by a recurring lack of funds to finance club obligations. Gor Mahia’s member subscription model does not generate substantial revenue. This is strange because membership is expected to be a key source of funding for a football club owned by members. In fact Gor Mahia itself recognizes membership fees as one of its nine streams of revenue. Annual membership fee at Gor Mahia is in the affordable region of $12 but this has not served to increase number of subscribers in any meaningful way.

Gor Mahia administrators always make appeals to Kenyans to register as members everytime they are plagued by financial difficulties or have club elections round the corner. Why does it not work out for them? These administrators do not center their message on the benefits of becoming a Gor Mahia member. Perhaps there are none.

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Typically, football clubs look to cash in on historic and social connections they have with their fans. Even then, they are aware that this is not enough and they go further to offer benefits that would otherwise not be realized if the fans were non-members. In Cairo, Al Ahly and Zamalek have leisure facilities for members and Premier League teams assure members priority consideration for their high-in-demand tickets. As far as I know, being a Gor Mahia member only allows you to vote. They just have not preached any other benefit loud enough.

The benefits conversation

Gor Mahia fans

If the club will persist with the member ownership model then “benefit” should be the first line of the conversation. Gor Mahia does not have sporting facilities to guarantee preferential treatment for members. They also cannot really push discounting of tickets and merchandise as a unique factor because these have no pull factor.

So, where can Gor Mahia find inspiration? They need not look further than Kenya, the country they are in. Member based institutions like Saccos (Savings and Credit Cooperative Societies) continue to thrive and the Kenyan Champions must borrow their best practices.

Membership will only thrive for Gor Mahia if they can exploit the fact that interaction between Kenyans is oft very transactional. This is why Saccos in Kenya can easily stick to an overarching goal but political parties will have no ideology whatsoever. That said, the very obvious offer Gor Mahia can give to the general public is the promise of ownership. The club should remodel accordingly to allow individuals, groups of individuals and the fan clubs called branches to buy ownership stakes in a company that will own the football and other commercial aspects of Gor Mahia.

This stake of ownership will not give immediate dividend but will pay off in being part of the club’s expanding commercial endevaours and a potential sell-off of stake in the future. The financial benefit of football club ownership is about equity or capital gain after all.

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This will mean that the message of membership will have to start being targeted and that the threshold be raised accordingly. Props to the club administrators that they presently have a graduated membership scheme. But it is inherently meaningless because of the lack of justifying benefits and the unclear message of who it targets. It seems to stop at ability to pay.

Even if they did have focused target groups for each of their membership offers, Gor Mahia will still be faulted for being very passive in reaching out to prospective members. There has never been any sign-on at the entrance of any mall; neither have the rough stewards that man the gates of their home matches suggested membership to anyone.

The membership outreach program has to incorporate digital platforms and potential as well. This would require Gor Mahia to minimize the relevance of their Elected Committee and start emphasizing the competence of their Secretariat, overseeing day-to-day affairs. The club leadership must grab the opportunity to leave a legacy. Fans do not want to be complaining about the same problems in a year’s time as they have been for the last eleven.

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