Is football good for local communities?

infocus headerAs football clubs focus on money and global prestige, they are increasingly disconnected from the communities in which they are based. As a new season kicks off, Austin Macauley asks whether the beautiful game can be a force for good.

Last season it was everything from an owner wanting to ignore decades of history to change their club’s name to a team having to play home games in a town 30 miles away due to financial problems. The actions of football clubs continue to fuel growing unrest among supporters about the state of their beloved game – and this season is unlikely to be any different.

Teams kicked off last month just as analyst BDO’s annual football finance survey revealed more than one in five Premier League bosses expect to sell part or all of their club in the next 12-18 months. The figure was zero in the previous report.

Whether it’s fixtures being dictated by TV schedules, rising ticket prices, astronomical wages paid to players or clubs limping from one financial disaster to another, the overwhelming feeling is that of a game that’s increasingly divorced from both fans and the communities in which they’re based.

An ICM poll published last month shows 44% of fans think ‘football is broken’ and 54% of fans believe ‘football clubs should be run as a combination of a community business that balance results on the pitch with work in the local community’. Fans’ organisation Supporters Direct, which commissioned the survey, said it showed they not only cared but also wanted to play a role in reforming clubs.

This unrest has opened up a wider debate about the role of football clubs in their localities and the economic and social contribution they make. Football is a powerful tool, particularly around issues like youth engagement and tackling social exclusion, but are clubs making the most of their potential? And to what degree is their commitment and impact tied up with their form of ownership?

Big clubs, big plans
Nowhere is the contribution of a football club to regeneration more visible than in east Manchester. In June, the city council formed a partnership with Abu Dhabi United Group, Manchester City FC’s billionaire owners, that will see 6,000 homes built as part of a ten-year plan involving £1bn of investment in rundown areas. It comes on top of the significant impact the sport already has on the local economy.

A report by the Sport Industry Research Centre and Cambridge Econometrics estimated that football could be worth £2.5bn to Greater Manchester over the next 20 years. Its research found the conurbation’s football clubs already generate the economic impact equivalent to hosting an Olympic Games every four years. But it also highlighted the social contribution made by clubs, with around 15,000 people involved in community football projects. In places where City in the Community – Manchester City’s community arm – runs Kickz projects (pictured) to engage young people in deprived areas, they have seen a 23% drop in crime.

KickzIn neighbouring Liverpool there are hopes that its two professional clubs will have a similar impact in the north of the city to that seen in east Manchester. After years of stop-start plans, Liverpool FC is set to finally upgrade its stadium. It forms part of a £260m regeneration scheme for the Anfield area that includes new homes, businesses, shops and community facilities. Aligning the club’s plans with the city’s priorities for north Liverpool has been achieved after much relationship building, according to Mark Kitts, the council’s assistant director of regeneration.

‘One of the key factors in any regeneration project and the success of it will be the relationship issue,’ he says. ‘We have made a big play to have a good relationship with the two football clubs and they play a key role in the regeneration of the city.

‘One of the big pieces of work we have done is the North Liverpool Strategic Regeneration Framework. It made it clear that both football clubs are key stakeholders and proposals that involve both clubs are seen as transformational. From a strategic context they are extremely important to the future of the area.

‘We have a really solid relationship with LFC and have worked very hard together to make sure we can develop a wider regeneration focus that ensures the development around the club complements what is happening in that wider community.’

That perseverance is paying off. Liverpool FC’s decision to redevelop its existing stadium and the area around it has brought certainty to an area crying out for investment. ‘We’re now getting more inquiries around investment in Anfield than we have had for many years,’ says Kitts. Things are looking good in terms of development opportunities in Anfield and we feel it’s brought about by stimulating a good relationship with Liverpool Football Club. We’re on a good curve.’

Healthy eating workshop co-run by Arsenal in the Community

A partnership approach for broader social impact

But what of day-to-day community work? Most clubs throughout the football pyramid have a community programme of some kind, with the top 20 clubs able to access £1m each from the Premier League to help fund their activities.

Many employ sizeable teams of staff and operate as arm’s length organisations. Bolton Wanderers Community Trust, for instance, is affiliated to and supported by Bolton Wanderers and runs sports and educational activities that reach 80,000 children every year.

Rory Carroll, head of communications at the Football Foundation, believes Bolton is shining example of why England’s football clubs ‘are the best in the world at outreach work’.

‘The Premier League is the most successful in the world, it has the best stadia and its outreach work is far more sophisticated than clubs in other countries without a shadow of a doubt,’ he says. ‘If you look back to 20 years ago it would have been the standard football in the community stuff: an ex pro sticking a few cones around the pitch – that was really it. Now it’s diverse and in depth. Outreach work is being done by clubs everywhere and it’s increasing.’

The Foundation – a charity funded by Premier League, The Football Association and the government – invests £30m a year in grassroots sport, often in the shape of new community facilities. Its funders expect results, says Carroll, which is why the Foundation adopts a ‘through life’ approach to projects.

‘The work starts when a facility is built,’ he says. ‘These are more than just sports facilities, they are hubs for the community. Every year we come back and monitor the usage and impact of the facility. A whole range of elements need to come together to ensure that assets are sweated so that a diverse range of people benefit from them. That way they don’t become white elephants. They get used and they get looked after.’

In north London a partnership between Arsenal in the Community, Arsenal Foundation, anti-poverty campaign Islington Giving, charity Global Generation and developer Argent is using football as a hook to engage local young people. Arsenal in the Community already ran coaching sessions but by partnering up is now able to target specific, vulnerable groups – and use the beautiful game as a gateway to other activities such as healthy eating sessions. It is also getting involved in work with older people experiencing isolation, offering its facilities to host get-togethers.

Nicola Steuer, programme director at the Cripplegate Foundation, one of the partners of Islington Giving, says the collaboration has enabled Arsenal to extend its reach.

‘We are creating new partnerships, introducing them to a number of organisations they haven’t worked with before,’ she says. ‘If you think about their assets, their buildings, their kitchens, catering, cafes – there’s something about the physical space that a football club operates, especially the higher end clubs. Something creative could be done to open that up. We talk about local authorities making better use of their assets – why not football clubs?’

Arsenal in the Community is part of the club rather than a stand-alone organisation. Steuer believes that has made it easier for Islington Giving to engage with staff across the football club. ‘There’s a bit of interaction with the club’s top people. And if Arsenal in the Community see opportunities to widen their work out they are very open to being led, to work jointly and try new things in order to meet local priorities.’

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Flying the flag at an FC United match. Photo by Mick Dean

A different type of ownership

While there is no denying that clubs at the top of the game have successful community programmes, will it ever be more than an add-on – particularly when, more often than not, business and political goals lie at the heart of their motivation?

It’s hard to envisage anyone in the Premier League adopting the wholehearted approaches seen among smaller, community-owned clubs. FC United – a club formed and owned by fans unhappy with the takeover of Manchester United – has a community ethos that runs to the core. Its outreach work is as important as performances on the pitch.

Robin Pye, FC United’s community and education manager, says he admires the work of some privately-owned clubs but believes at the ‘extreme end’ of private ownership there would be issues that would undermine them adopting a community focus.

‘One is trust – the question that most community organisations and public bodies would be asking is, “Can we work with a football club where there are real question marks about the integrity of the owners?” And secondly, to what extent does the club see its community work as adjunct to its operation? I can say that I get tremendous support from the club for the community work that I do.’

Of the 92 professional league teams in England and Wales, just four are majority owned by fans – Portsmouth, AFC Wimbledon, Exeter and Wycombe Wanderers – while Swansea City is part-owned by a supporters’ trust.

Is it possible that a club in private hands would align its objectives to benefit the local area economically and socially?

Four years ago the research cooperative Substance produced a study for Supporters Direct examining the social and community value of football. It said all clubs could deliver positive social impacts, but added: ‘There is an added social value to supporter (and other forms of community) ownership that the dominant private model in football restricts as it discourages the inclusion of a more appropriate, wider range of external stakeholders. Single, remote and private ownership prevents a more holistic integration of community needs in the form of open access to club ownership that supporters’ trusts models provide.’

Supporters Direct helps fans set up supporters’ trusts with the aim of enabling them to run and own clubs. Substance’s research has become the backbone of its push for greater democracy in football with fan ownership being the primary route to achieving that.

In the early days it tended to come about as a result of circumstances, for example a football club going bust. But clubs are increasingly approaching Supporters Direct for help because they see it as a better model and an antidote to the debt-ridden, unstable type of set up that currently prevails.

‘What’s happened is people have seen us build up the evidence base,’ says Kevin Rye, development manager for campaigns and communications. ‘Despite the poor regulatory environment in football and very little oversight, fan-owned clubs operate better. They are financially transparent and are more open, in a game that can be a bit opaque. People see them as something else, something different. It’s not just a different type of ownership, the way you relate to people is different.’

It’s also an alternative to the short-term mindset found in football – whether in terms of business planning or results on the pitch.

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FC United fans. Photo by Mick Dean

‘If you say to a person running a football club, “how far are you looking ahead at in terms of the business?” you may be lucky if it’s a season – it’s all very short term,’ says Rye. ‘With us the vision needs to be one, five, ten years in terms, for example, for developing your ground for commercial opportunities or to grow the youth system. You have got to plan properly. It’s about more than just the first team winning each week. It takes an ideological shift in itself.’

Rye accepts that the bigger clubs are good at corporate social responsibility. But he adds: ‘That’s not the same as fan ownership – where it all slots together in terms of the treatment of the fans and the work in the community.’

He is quick to stress that club owners aren’t exactly beating a path to his door. Fan ownership is seen by many as a barrier to success because it requires living within your means rather than on debt finance. That can create tensions – already this season Exeter’s manager has bemoaned his lack of resources. But it’s worth noting that Swansea was part fan-owned before it won promotion to the Premier League and AFC Wimbledon managed to climb from the bottom of the pyramid to League Two.

So what if the majority of clubs were fan owned? In Germany’s Bundesliga most clubs are owned by their members – including giants of European football Bayern Munich. Rye says the German model isn’t easy to replicate in England but says the precedent they set – along with high profile fan-owned clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid – is important.

‘Germany has given everyone a picture of what you can do,’ says Rye. ‘We have won the argument. What we have is a better model in general where everything is woven in. Everything they do must relate to a very simple set of rules, promoting the same values, the same community aims at the front.

‘What is this club really anyway but a community institution? Why don’t we just instil that and make it permanent? The clubs we work with can see that. It’s not CSR.’


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