A maintenance worker tends to the field at Kingsmeadow, AFC Wimbledon’s home stadium in Kingston upon Thames, England. John Green uses advertisement money from his YouTube channel’s series featuring the team to sponsor the North Stand.
A 2002 decision on the fate of Wimbledon FC has inadvertently created one of the most inspirational and incredible sports stories in modern history.
Wimbledon FC, a team based in southwest London from 1889 to 2002, competed in relative obscurity for the majority of the club’s existence, allowing for the use of the 15,876 capacity Plough Lane as a viable option for a home stadium. During the 1980’s, however, the team quickly rose from amateur leagues to the Football League after three consecutive Southern League championships between 1975 and 1977.
The team quickly rose through the four top professional divisions to reach the First Division in 1986, reaching a peak of success for such a historic club with a victory over defending First Division champions Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup at Wembley Stadium.
The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster of April 1989, an event that led to the death of 96 and injury of 766 people attending an FA Cup semi-final game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, resulted in the release of the Taylor Report in interim form in August 1989 and fully in January 1990, a document regulating safety for top division stadiums.
The disaster was caused by human crush, stemming from overcrowding of standing-room-only areas and allowing more than capacity into the stadium in an attempt to ease overcrowding outside.
The Taylor Report required all top-tier teams to convert to all-seater models and that all ticketed spectators have a designated seat, as opposed to some being obliged to stand. The report also required a limit on the sale of alcohol within stadiums, crush barriers, fences, turnstiles, and other aspects of a stadium in regard to spectator safety.
Wimbledon FC’s rapid rise meant that they had not been able to raise a revenue at a rate that was comparable to the success on the field. Being unable to renovate Plough Lane, the team was forced to share a stadium with fellow London club Crystal Palace in 1991.
The team continued to play in the First Division until they were relegated in 2000. Owner Sam Hammam attempted to move the team Dublin to Milton Keynes and Dublin, Ireland multiple times through the 1990’s in search of a personalized stadium after feeling a lack of support from local government to fund a new stadium for Wimbledon FC. He sold the club in 1997 to two Norwegian businessmen, Kjell Inge Røkke and Bjørn Rune Gjelsten.
Much to the opposition of Wimbledon FC supporters Røkke and Gjelsten decided to move the club north to Milton Keynes in order to prevent the club from folding. The Football League refused to allow permission to move the club, to which Wimbledon FC filed an appeal, leading to a Football Association arbitration hearing.
Lawyer Raj Parker, Aston Villa operations director Steve Stride and Isthmian League chairman Alan Turvey made up the Football Association independent commission who voted by a two-to-one majority that the owners of Wimbledon could end 113 years of history and uproot the club 56 miles to Milton Keynes on May 28, 2002, renaming the team MK Dons, after the Wimbledon nickname.
Disgruntled and understandably frustrated Wimbledon fans decided that the best course of action to combat the relocation of the generationally admired club was to form their own, from scratch. The only stipulation? The club was to be 77% owned by the Wimbledon Football Club Supporters Society. A stark contrast to the Wimbledon FC side that had left the area less than a week earlier.
By June 13, 2002, the city of Wimbledon had already conceived the idea of a community-based club named AFC Wimbledon and announced to fans a new manager, kit, crest, and stadium. The team held open trials on June 29, 2002, for 230 hopeful players in order to assemble a competitive team before the start of competition in the 9th tier of English football in August.
The team played in front of fewer than 50 fans during away games. Home games at Kingsmeadow drew in over 1000 spectators in support of the newly founded team. Success of AFC Wimbledon felt like witnessing the success of a child to supporters and local who had followed Wimbledon FC for the entirety of their lives. The community of players, managers, and fans feel same the family values of the club as they do for their own family. Each group in support of AFC Wimbledon has a part to play in line with dreams of reaching First Division football again.
AFC Wimbledon’s success rivals the success that Wimbledon FC saw in the 1980’s as the current club earned promotion from 9th Division Combined Counties League Premier Division to 4th Division Football League 2 in only 9 years. The 4th Division through to the 1st Division in English football are regarded as League Football, or truly professional.
John Green at an AFC Wimbledon game in his seating area. His sponsorship has allowed the club to continue to succeed despite being majority owned by fans. His celebrity status has also garnered more interest in AFC Wimbledon as a whole.
This promotion caught the eye of John Green, a critically-acclaimed author, filmmaker, and YouTuber. The Fault in Our Stars author was included in Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2014.
Green and his brother Hank run a gaming channel among other topics on YouTube. After hearing the story of AFC Wimbledon, Green decided to create a YouTube series managing the team in the video game FIFA 14, attempting to win the league title. The videos reached thousands of people, bringing in advertising revenue for Green.
After hearing about the story of the Wimbledon club and the love that the community has for such an overachieving club inspired Green to use that advertisement money to sponsor the team itself. His famous acronym “DFTBA” which stand for “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome” can be seen on the back of the teams shorts in both real life and FIFA.
As he continued to gather revenue from the videos he posted to his YouTube channel his attachment to the actual club only grew stronger. A year later, Green used his ad revenue to sponsor the newly built North stand. It was appropriately renamed John Green Stand.
Currently, AFC Wimbledon play in the 3rd Division, the same league as MK Dons. They are the only club formed in the 21st Century to reach League football in England and are currently seven spots out of the playoff for promotion to the Football Championship and two spots above MK Dons in the English League One table.
The differences between American and English sports culture are evident in the story of Wimbledon professional football. A professional team in the United States move cities seemingly on a season-by-season basis in pursuit of more revenue, disregarding fans, culture, and history that may surround a franchise.
The connection between Wimbledon FC and the city of Wimbledon’s people was so strong that they felt it was a better option to start a team from the bottom of professional football and work their way to glory than to simply support the old Wimbledon club in a new location.
The Green Bay Packers are the only publicly owned professional franchise in the United States having sold stock in 1923, ’35, ’50, ’97, and 2011. The first three stock revenue saved the franchise from bankruptcy while the second two were used to raise funds for stadium renovations. The franchise has 360,760 stockholders who own a collective 5,011,558 shares. The shares, however, do not grow or diminish and there is a limit of 200,000 total shares to prevent a majority owner.
AFC Wimbledon is owned 77% in part by its fans meaning that they must form their own sense of revenue in order to pay player wages, operating costs, and League fees. The people of Wimbledon invest in their club simply to keep it functioning and players competing at a high level. Green Bay Packers fans purchase stock mostly for the novelty of “owning” a piece of their favorite team.
Sometimes it only takes one person to bridge a gap between cultures, traditions, and societies. John Green’s endorsement of AFC Wimbledon has helped give a team that has accomplished an unprecedented amount in its short history a realistic hope of play Premier League football again. Although, he thinks of his sponsorship as an obligation, rather than a random act of kindness.