INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
You may have seen #SOSRealOviedo trending on Twitter recently and wondered what it was all about. We spoke to the man behind the hashtag, Sid Lowe, about the fight to save one of Spain’s grand old clubs by selling cheap shares to thousands of concerned football fans around the world…
Image: Javier Marino
Sid, the campaign to save Real Oviedo has grown very quickly and spread like wildfire, in large part thanks to the #SOSRealOviedo that you set up on Twitter. Are you a supporter of the club?
I am, yes. I’d love to give some long, romantic story but it’s quite a simple story really. My degree was in Spanish and History, which involved spending a year in Spain and, for no real reason other than chance, my year was spent in Oviedo. So I became an Oviedo fan simply through being there.
I ended up being a bit hooked on them, going to pretty much every game and a few away matches as well – I even saw one game in a wheelchair after breaking my ankle. It just happened through the chance of that being the place where I happened to spend my year abroad.
Now, I have ended up being very involved in this effort to rescue the club, but I must point out that I don’t actually have a position at Real Oviedo or represent them in any formal way.
So what has happened to them to take them from being Primera Liga perennials to being a lower league club in their current financial plight?
They have had a succession of bad owners, as well as political battles over the club and they were chasing a dream that they weren’t equipped to chase, a problem which goes back to the late 90s.
Spanish football, in general, doesn’t really generate cash beyond the “big two” and that has been a problem going back a long time. Several factors make the Oviedo situation different.
They were relegated back in 2001 (the year that Stan Collymore came to play for them actually) and, after they went down, they continued to struggle and they went down again. This time they got relegated two divisions in one summer after there was a battle between the players and the club because the players hadn’t been paid. The players denounced Oviedo to the players’ union.
Now, lots of players have denounced lots of clubs over the years in Spain, but none of them have got to the breaking point that Oviedo reached. After the players denounced them, the club couldn’t find a way around the problem and Real Oviedo, having been relegated on the pitch to the Segunda Division B, were then also relegated, administratively, an extra division for not having paid their players. This is the only club where this has happened.
They came back from there to the Second Division B, but that is a very difficult league to get out of and difficult to generate money in. So, because of the size of the club, Oviedo found themselves in trouble and essentially the fans rescued them in 2003 through a big civic mobilisation. After that, new majority shareholders came in, who saw them as a big club and, once again, started spending money they hadn’t got and getting the club into trouble.
So the very short answer to your question is that there was a series of very bad owners and some political battles surrounding the club.
Yes, the key thing is that the current board of directors is different because they have got fan representation on there for the first time. The people trying to bring this project to fruition are essentially fan groups; they are not people trying to make profit out of it. They are really keen, not just to raise the €1.9 million they need by 17 November, but also to make sure that fans and small shareholders have a voice and a presence at the heart of the club.
This campaign wouldn’t have happened with a different board of directors in place. So much so that I am tempted to say that the very phrase “board of directors” doesn’t fit. These are not “directors” in the traditional sense, these are fan groups who have come in, taken over control of the club to see through a process that is trying to rescue it. With a different board of directors, or different people in charge, I probably wouldn’t have supported this, but my faith in the people involved is much higher than it would have been with anyone before.
A lot of people are saying, “Why would I invest in the club when they are just going to throw my money away again?”
My argument is that, firstly, the current board won’t because they are trying to rescue the club and, secondly, the reason to invest is because we absolutely have to, otherwise Real Oviedo goes – it disappears. They are being very clear and honest about this situation by effectively saying “We are fucked. We need help.”
Now, of course, the problem I have with this – and the problem we all have with this – is that the fan reaction to help rescue the club ultimately will need serious investment to be viable in the long term. That serious investment may well come with strings; it will come with ownership. At some stage, we are going to end up with another owner – if we survive. Unless the fan reaction is big enough to make that unnecessary and, in any case, the aim is to maintain a huge supporter presence. But, yes, there will probably need to be another stage of investment and, in all likelihood, via a bigger shareholder.
The way the Spanish refer to it is that this is a match point and we have to save this match point to even stay in the game. Then we have to hope we win the next set and the next set as well. We’ve got the problem that, at some stage, there will probably have to be major new investment and new ownership but we have got to get through this point first. Then, of course, there is the question: What will the intentions of the new owner be?
But, right now, these people have to be courted (within reason and taking care over future investors), so the aims of the people trying to push this through are financial, but they are also emotional. One of the key aims is about principles; it is about getting in as many fans as possible and making this about the fans. So it’s not quite turning us into an AFC Wimbledon, but there is an element of that mindset, of the fans saying, “We want to make this about us and not about some owner.”
Have you been surprised by the interest and investment from British football supporters?
Yeah, absolutely overwhelmed.
I think it can be explained, by the way. I think lots of people have missed the point and I also understand why they are making the point they are making. The vast majority of people that have responded to this have been positive and I’ve been genuinely touched by that response – it’s incredible. Your faith in humanity is a little bit restored by things like this. But there have been some people who have complained about it.
Are you referring to the argument that other clubs in Britain have faced similar dire situations, so why didn’t the same movement take off for those clubs?
Exactly, and I don’t think it’s a bad question to ask. Why are British people chucking money behind a club they have probably barely heard of and why didn’t they do it for a series of British clubs in similar circumstances? Then there is another question I have had, which is why am I doing this?
Well, I think there is an explanation for why this is different and I think the situations are not comparable.
The first question: Why am I doing this?
Well that’s quite simple – it’s my team. It’s a bit bizarre that one or two questions I’ve been asked have effectively suggested that I should somehow say sorry for trying to rescue the team I support. That is obviously a nonsense.
But I do understand the other question about why British people would get involved now and not in previous instances with British clubs. I think that’s explained by a number of factors. The first one – and I don’t want this to sound dismissive – is that the reality is that Oviedo are a bigger club than, say, Hereford, or Darlington, or any of those clubs.
The reaction is partly coloured by that and, from a British point of view, I think the reaction is also coloured by a certain degree of gratitude in that the Mata, Michu and Cazorla effect is huge. I have heard from a lot of Arsenal fans saying: “They gave us Cazorla, we should give them something back” and the same from Chelsea fans, with Mata, and slightly less so from Swansea fans, with Michu, simply because there are fewer of them.
I think the impact of those three players has really made a difference because it’s given something tangible to connect them to Real Oviedo. Arsenal fans, for example, will feel like they are helping Cazorla’s team somehow, and I think the fact that it’s tangible also explains a lot of other things.
For starters, there is the awareness and the fact that lots of us have been shouting about it has created an awareness. People have asked why we didn’t help Darlington or Hereford and, to be honest, I wasn’t aware of there being big campaigns to help them and, if there had been, I might well have got involved in some way, although obviously no way near as much as I have done.
Image: Javier Marino
The other tangible thing that is really important is that this isn’t a club saying, “We’re in trouble, please give us something”, this is a club saying, “Buy a share and become one of our owners.” So people are buying something tangible.
Now, the reality is they won’t have any tangible benefit because these shares are effectively worthless and, ultimately, it is a charitable donation. But I think there is something seductive to people to be a part-owner of a historic football club, even though that share is worth a fraction of a percent. I also think it is affordable and the target is reachable. When you say to someone, “Buy a share for €10.75”, you are not just asking for them to give money and leaving them wondering how much to give. It’s something tangible and concrete: “Give me nine quid and you will become an owner in our club.” That makes it easier for people to jump on board.
The other thing is that the target is €1.9 million, which in modern football terms sounds like nothing. So you’re offering people the chance to buy a share, which is tangible, at a price which is reasonable and towards a target that seems very reachable. You’re giving people the chance to be part of something that they can see very easily being done. This doesn’t look that difficult. So I think all of those factors are making people in Britain want to get involved in a way that maybe they wouldn’t have done with another club. I think partly that’s because we have made it easy for them to become involved.
Is this an example of the power of social media sharing?
Absolutely, and I’ve been completely blown away by that. I didn’t expect it to become this big or for it to run so fast. The really amazing thing for me has that it has ended up being tangible, to go back to that word again.
When I first tweeted about it, I did so with the idea of suggesting the idea to a few people. But then I saw that people were responding and I saw the momentum building. I was responding to people’s questions and giving answers to a lot of the same questions over and over, which made it look like I was going crazy. It became very clear, very quickly that the #SOSRealOviedo was taking off.
However, what’s been really amazing is that the trending has translated into positive action, with people actually doing something and not just retweeting. It has taken that jump from social media to concrete action. So I talked about it with people at the club and they decided they needed to make it possible for people to take action, which is when they set up a PayPal account and made it possible for people, internationally, to turn a social noise into something real.
What are the things that people need to bear in mind before investing, even if it is only €10.75?
I recognise there is an additional point to address, which is that we are basically encouraging people to throw away their money. That is one of the reasons I have tried to be really honest all the way through. I have sent quite a lot of tweets saying, “Please don’t spend money you haven’t got” and “Please don’t think you’re going to get anything back from this”.
Now, as it turns out, they are looking like they will get something out of it because the club decided they were so grateful they announced that, for every single new international shareholder, whenever they go to Real Oviedo, they can go for free. Effectively, this has become the cheapest season ticket in history! When you buy one €10.75 share in Real Oviedo, if you’re a foreigner you can go to games for free for the rest of your life. Mind you, at some stage the club might have to back out of this promise, once they see how many people actually start turning up!
It has created excitement about this and a certain degree of identification with Real Oviedo. The long-term solution will necessitate proper investment, but I think what has happened with the short-term reaction and the sheer numbers is that any potential major investors who may be doubting whether Real Oviedo would be a worthwhile investment, might start thinking, “Wow, it really is worth it.”
Now, all of a sudden this is a club with thousands of new investors all around the world and there could be an impact to be made, even if it’s only in terms of marketing. That is appealing to someone’s cynicism but, inevitably, when you are talking about financing companies, you have to appeal to cynicism to a certain degree.
That’s one of the contradictions at the heart of all this. This is a big fans mobilisation, which maybe at some stage will lead to a new investor and then we have to hope we can trust them when that happens. And we have to safeguard the position of the club to make sure that we can. The sheer number of shareholders within the club – over €500,000 worth of shares so far – will of course add up to a huge voice within the club. That is control and power that can’t be ignored.
It sounds like it’s been well-received, but have you encountered much cynicism from Twitter users?
Well, with regard to the former players thing – with Michu, Cazorla and Mata – a few people have tweeted me saying, “Rather than getting them to retweet it, why don’t you get them to put their money where their mouth is and buy some shares?” Well the answer to that is they have – all of them.
But, ultimately, when we get towards the end of this process, because we have until 17November, those last four or five days will be a sprint. If, at that stage, we are, for argument’s sake, €400,000 short with two days to go, then I think there will be people chasing people like mad to try and get that last little bit to get over the line. Then I suppose, some of us will dip back into our pockets again and I’m very conscious that the money I’ve put in is just money I’ve thrown away, but it’s not really about that.
You know, the perfect scenario is that Oviedo survive, we end up back in the First Division, some big investor comes in and he buys all these shareholders out. So we save the club and then one day, all these people who have so generously helped to rescue the club get their money back! But, realistically, that’s probably not going to happen.
So what are they going to get for this? They are going to get a share certificate, a piece of paper to put on their wall. But, that is quite nice isn’t it? It comes back to the same thing again – my obsession in all of this – which is that it is tangible. There is the idea of having a share certificate on your wall that says you are a part-owner of a biggish football club.
I think it’s really important, and people at the club have been saying this as well, that we are honest with people. The last thing I want is to be complicit in effectively fleecing people. So, please don’t invest money you haven’t got. In fact, don’t think of it as an investment, think of it as a donation, but a donation for which you get a nice certificate.
I should point out that new shareholders are not liable for any debt now or any future debt. In other words, they are not buying into Oviedo’s problems. I went to the club and asked on behalf of a few worried people and they said absolutely not, it’s the current shareholders who have all the liability. That tells you something about the people at the club – these are people who have put themselves on the line to try and help the club they love – these are not people trying to benefit from it.