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Why every football fan should be up in arms about what is happening at Millwall

Decades of obnoxious behavior by Millwall fans shouldn’t mean that everyone should let the club die without a fight.

Millwall v AFC Bournemouth - The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

It would have to be Millwall, wouldn’t it? It couldn’t be Leyton Orient or Charlton or Notts County or Oldham? No? Fine. Okay, then, so it’s Millwall.

Millwall Football Club has a dark history. No other team in England, not even West Ham or Chelsea or Cardiff, most reminds fans of the dark days of hooliganism. And there are decades of ill-will and plenty of reasons that almost every football fan despises the club. West Ham is perhaps the biggest rival of Millwall, so much so that a movie was even made where Frodo Elijah Wood becomes a West Ham fan and gets into fights with Millwall fans. Edgy. No wonder that Millwall might be the victim of gentrification efforts in London.

As most people know, Millwall is located in the South Bermondsey area of the Lewisham borough of London. It has been an unglamorous part of London for decades, if not longer, but it is a few minutes away from the financial center in the City of London. And since London contains some of the most expensive real estate in the world, gentrification efforts are going on all over the city. The Lewisham borough council, seeing an opportunity, are looking to redevelop the area. There are a number of rail and Underground lines and stations that lie near Millwall’s stadium, The Den, making it an attractive area for new development.

Efforts by the Lewisham borough council to redevelop the area, however, seem to be focused on using their governmental power to compel property owners, including Millwall, to sell to the council’s preferred developer, using what in England is referred to as a “Compulsory Purchase Order” or CPO. Americans refer to this kind of arrangement as “eminent domain”. This sort of arrangement typically involves something for “the public good”, usually when building a road or another public works type of project.

A rather infamous case in the United States that was resolved by the US Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London is where a woman and her neighbors were forced to sell their land to a private developer in New London, CT. The state had empowered the city to condemn existing buildings in a “blighted” neighborhood in order to build a new development on the site, along with some of the area that was already owned by the government. The case was settled in favor of the city of New London and the property developers, but the developers never were able to complete the project and the land now sits unused. Many states have passed laws to prevent the use of eminent domain in similar situations.

Does this case sound eerily familiar to the use of CPOs to acquire privately held land for the use of redevelopment around Millwall? It certainly would seem so. Additionally, in the case of New London, the two main reasons that the development failed was timing, as right after the case was finally settled in 2005 and before development could take root the US entered a recession in 2008, and the main employer and tenant of the mixed-use redevelopment, Pfizer, closed the New London facility. The potential effects of Brexit on the financial sector of London might create the same sort of problem in this case, with a development started and never completed, with only a large, empty, unmaintained lot to show where a neighborhood used to exist.

The off-shore developer in the case of Lewisham, Renewal, conveniently, has ties to the members of the council as well as murky ownership details. Renewal wants the property around The Den, including Millwall’s car park and community trust building, where the academy is located. Milwall has stated that these CPOs will signal the doom of the club in their traditional location, and they would be forced to find a new home, probably outside of London.

Renewal has courted controversy as a document appeared to suggest that they wanted to more or less “flip” the property on to other third party developers. Renewal, somewhat incredulously, claimed no knowledge of the marketing brochure that advertised the property to other developers, saying that a real estate group had made the marketing material without their knowledge or permission. They have also been claiming that an agreement with Sport England was in place to help fund a community sports center, a key part of the development’s claim of “public good” for the neighborhood. However, it has recently come out that no pledge or funding of any sort has come from Sport England.

Millwall v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship
Getting ready for a match at The Den
Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

So Millwall get screwed, so what? This is the same team that had fans lay waste to Luton, shout racist abuse at visiting players, and literally sing that “no one likes us, we don’t care”. So why should anyone else care if the teams exists in London or even exists at all? Because almost any team in London, or even other areas of England, could easily be forced into the same fate.

Property developers seem to view existing neighborhoods and residents as inconveniences in their master plan. And it appears that football clubs might also be considered inconveniences to the master plan of building expensive new flats that only children of oversea oligarchs seem to be able to afford. And while it’s easy to ignore it when it happens to a club no one likes, Millwall can be seen as a canary in a coal mine. It’s easy for other fans to ignore Millwall’s plight because they’re Millwall, but a dangerous precedent will have been set, local councils can abuse CPOs to boot out football clubs and tear down football stadiums, all in the name of “progress”.

2013 MTV Video Music Awards - Outside The Barclays Center Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for MTV

For Americans, this all seems so confusing. Don’t sports teams usually abuse eminent domain to get stadiums built by cities for their teams to play in? In the US, most sports facilities are owned, and built, by the local governments. They are the property of the city, although almost always the local sports team control most, if not all, of the revenue streams from the arena and/or stadium. Revenue from concessions, parking, concerts, etc., are almost always collected by the sports team that manages the arena for the local government. Along with the payments from the leagues and TV money, it is almost impossible to lose money running a major-league sports team in the US, with a few notable exceptions. At the very least, most teams are good investment vehicles, as they always seem to increase in value, even if the ownership’s management of the team isn’t very good.

The lower leagues of English football, however, are not so lucrative, much like minor league sports in the US which seem to constantly be in state of flux. English football teams below the Championship have to rely on gate revenue and sponsorship money to fund the club, and most teams seem to be a couple of relegations or bad years away from being bankrupt. Even with the large influx of cash into the Premier League from international owners and massive television deals and petro-dollars from the Middle East, teams in the lower leagues have struggled to stay alive. And so clubs like Millwall, who have seen average attendance drop in the last three seasons, are most at risk going bankrupt and having developers hover like vultures over their stadiums.

Recent developments in the Millwall CPO saga might yet save the club from the developers, as an unlikely political coalition of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have called for increased scrutiny in the links between the off-shore property development company with no apparent history of redevelopment and the Lewisham borough council, not to mention the use of CPOs force the exit of a local football club that has been part of the neighborhood for over 100 years. In fact, as this article was going to press, the mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, has said that the CPO “should not proceed.”

Even if this battle between football clubs, history, tradition and gentrification is won by Millwall, the risks to local football clubs still exists. As London continues to grow, and East and South London continue down the path of gentrification, look for teams such as Leyton Orient or Charlton to feel the pressure. “It’s just a football club”, the developers will say, “Can’t they just watch Arsenal and Chelsea on TV or go watch West Ham at the new Stadium?” And everyone can surely agree that having Millwall and West Ham fans together would be a terrible idea. After all, the last time the two clubs played each other in 2009, there were some feelings of ill-will between the two sets of fans.