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Community Ownership: Our past and our future

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If you roll back the years to the sepia-tinged pictures of our great grandfather’s era, the clubs in Scotland were all owned by the communities from which they emerged. In Glasgow we often hear the tales of the four young men who had a vision and created Rangers FC, or of Brother Walfrid wanting to create a community project called Celtic that would help raise funds for the sick and the poor of a deprived East End. Each one of our clubs has a proud history associated with their birth, maybe not as dramatic or as famous as our two largest clubs; but as equally important to every single one of us as football fans.

What has been exciting for us at Supporters Direct Scotland is to be involved in the developments at a whole range of football clubs. Now we have started to see a return to clubs being owned by communities rather than corporations or wealthy benefactors – who can have a very different level of benevolence based on their own objectives. Scottish Football history plays host to a line of less than honourable villains who have used our clubs as play things and have often left them broken for us – the fans – to pick up the pieces. For those with short memories we have to remind you that there have been 154 instances of administration and insolvency at football clubs in the UK since the year 2000.This is a business like no other.

The one piece of good news is that clubs tend not to die. Unlike those lovely old brands like Woolworth’s and Comet that can’t survive the horror of an administration event, football clubs are made of sterner stuff. The reason is that unlike those giants where we as customers can adjust quickly and buy our paperclips and televisions elsewhere, it is impossible for us to transfer the loyalty and affection for our team to another. In simple terms LOVE is why clubs survive. Just ask the fans of Gretna (2008) and Clydebank, who still watch their club week in week out. A noticeable consequence and significant fact is that in recent cases of administration, the fans are now regarded as a real viable option to get the club back on an even keel, rather than administrators taking a risk with “another” benefactor. Of course part of that is a consequence that there are very few entrepreneurs who now think they can make money from football. If they can’t do that, then one would anticipate that their objectives are purely vanity driven; unless you genuinely do have a philanthropic desire to support the local Rovers or Athletic.

The interesting dynamic that is emerging in Scotland is that without there being a significant amount of buyers available, many clubs are rightly exploring alternative options for their long-term future. So when it comes to succession planning why would you not consider the fans as your first option? An obvious solution to the ongoing problems at Ibrox would be to not just take season ticket money, but make the most important people the owners? Just maybe this revolution can come at the right time for the Rangers First group.

At Annan Athletic, Ayr United and Motherwell it is not the impending financial meltdown that is driving a change in strategy; but more about long term planning, where the community is placed right at the top of the pile as the most important asset the club has. Players, managers and coaches come and go but following our clubs is for many of us, stronger than any religious devotion. I know I stopped going to Church 30 years ago; but I can’t stop going to Firhill no matter how good or bad they are playing.

A few weeks back we held a series of events and activities to celebrate our Community Ownership week. It included presentations at Holyrood and at Westminster where we took the opportunity to explain much of the work that we are involved in. A learned MP asked a very simple question that demonstrated just how our landscape is changing; “Is Scottish Football in the process of changing to become more democratic through community ownership?” Of course in simple terms the answer is yes and fans have the power to inspire other fans; part of the thinking behind our recent week of celebration. So maybe we should look at why it might work?

WHY COMMUNITY OWNERSHIP?

There are several key benefits to community ownership. Below are some of the areas in which such an ownership structure can greatly benefit a football club and its supporters.

STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS

• It allows clubs to develop deeper and more long-term strategic partnerships.

• A greater sense of shared agendas and partnerships between local authorities, clubs and business.

• Ownership structure and increased transparency helps build trust between organisations.

• Easier for supporter community owned clubs to align agendas with public or private strategic partners, meeting strategic objectives.

FINANCE

• Community ownership creates a greater sense of financial responsibility; an increased recognition for clubs to live within their means.

• It allows clubs to raise finance in other, more innovative ways; such as through ‘Community Shares’.

• Placing clubs in the hands of supporters allows more transparency in terms of clubs’ finances and makes relevant information more accessible to fans.

SPONSORSHIP

• Sponsors are attracted to community owned clubs due to their high attendance figures when compared with competitors at the same level; e.g. FC United of Manchester and AFC Wimbledon.

• It is also the reputational value of sponsors being associated with a club owned by its’ supporters that is added value for sponsors.

• Reputational value can help to forge longer-term relationships between club and sponsor.

TRANSPARENCY, OPENNESS AND TRUST

• All supporters trust owned clubs have to publish annual accounts which have to be approved by members at their AGM.

• Provides a level of scrutiny and recourse for supporters as well as a level of public transparency that is often lacking at other clubs.

• Level of openness and transparency a key factor in developing and maintaining strategic partnerships, notably with public authorities and with fans.

Over the next four months, SDS will be exploring the possibility of the Scottish Green Party’s proposal to extend the community ‘right to buy’ beyond the scope set out in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. This would give supporters groups a greater opportunity to purchase a shareholding in their club, or to buy out right. Seeing proposals like this emerge just shows how the landscape is changing and fast.

As we progress and confidence in community ownership grows, there is no reason why we can’t continue to bring more clubs into the fold. To build a group of clubs that are completely representative of the fans, who go on that roller coaster every year from August to May, from the cradle to the grave.

If you want to know more about community ownership, you can watch our series of videos at http://www.scottishfans.org/scottish-fans-videos/

Paul Goodwin is Head of SD Scotland, a position he took up in 2012. Paul led the acquisition of Stirling Albion by its supporters’ trust in July 2010, making the club the first in Scotland’s top four divisions to be owned by its supporters. Paul served as a director during Albion’s time in the First Division.

Paul has extensive experience of working with football clubs and authorities, following a successful career as a marketing executive managing campaigns for some of Europe’s biggest brands.

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