Who runs football clubs? At the top of the professional game the majority are owned and controlled by very wealthy individuals. Amongst the super-rich, from billionaire oligarchs to property magnates, football club ownership can be the ultimate status symbol. At Bath City, supporters are trying to ensure that their club goes down a different route: by buying it themselves.
If successful, the Big Bath City Bid will see the club converted into a community benefit society and run under the one member one vote principle of the co-operative movement. By selling community shares they are aiming to raise a minimum of £750,000 needed to buy the club from its current owners. It will then cease to be a private limited company and will be completely owned by the local community.
As a community benefit society Bath City would legally be required to operate in the interests of the wider community as well as that of the football club. Steve Bradley, a spokesperson for the bid, explained how they want to make the stadium available as a community hub for education, health projects and community training, ‘we don’t want to just be about 11 people chasing a football once a fortnight’.
A tale of two cities?
Bath City Football Club has a long history stretching back some 125 years. In recent memory they have spent their existence very much in the shadows of the city’s successful rugby side. The rugby teams city centre ground is on the banks of the Avon and overlooked by some of Bath’s finest Georgian splendour as well as the iconic Pulteney Bridge.
Meanwhile, Bath City ply their trade away from the traditional tourist trails of the centre, on the edge of the city in Twerton. One of the less affluent areas of Bath, Twerton is a vibrant and diverse community but there is no getting away from the big contrast between the two settings. The national football ground guide website rightly describes Twerton Park as “an old classic looking ground that just oozes character’’, but the surrounding 60’s housing estates seem a world away from the Roman baths and crescents that most people associate with the city.
Part of the impetus for the bid is fans frustrations with their current place in the football pyramid as well as continual annual accounts that show losses on top of losses. Thanks to a good cup run last season the club made its smallest loss for 13 years. Steve Bradley admitted, ‘‘I don’t think anyone knows the last time the club made a profit.’’
The bid has been running throughout the summer and has generated a lot of enthusiasm in Bath and beyond. A host of celebrity endorsements have flown in including from actor Ricky Tomlinson, film director Ken Loach, and football megastar, Eric Cantona. Those running the bid say a lot of talented individuals and business have got behind the idea who have had little or no previous involvement with the club. The reason for this is clear says Steve Bradley, “they only want to help it because it’s about improving the community, otherwise why would they help a private business that plays low level football?’’
On the pitch the team have made a strong start to the season, the organisers of the bid hope that community ownership will create a broader base of support and provide a good platform from which to achieve football league status.
Supporters trusts: a growing trend
The attempt to achieve full ownership is ambitious, just 7 clubs in the top 5 divisions are run in this way. The bid can also be seen as part of a growing trend across the country of supporters coming together and achieving considerable influence outside of outright ownership.
Many clubs from the premiership down now have supporter trusts, these are constituted as community benefit societies and started appearing across the country after the crash of ITV digital in 2002 which saw many clubs flirt with bankruptcy. In times of crisis fans have stepped in to the vacuum left by investors and provided a financial lifeline through fundraising. Jacqui Forster, who works for supporters direct, the organisation who assist groups of fans looking to set up supporters trusts, explains that they are a vehicle ‘‘for the fans of a club to seek influence and a structured relationship with the club they support’’.
Supporters trusts are also providing a vital grounding for clubs, they can act as safeguards against the team becoming the plaything of one individual or falling in to the hands of an asset stripper. Bristol City’s Supporters Trust has been successful in registering Ashton Gate as an asset of community value, meaning should a future owner ever wish to sell the stadium, they would be obliged to notify the trust, giving it an opportunity to try and buy it.
For a long time football clubs have been perceived as institutions where decisions have been taken behind closed doors, in smoke filled boardrooms, out of sight and earshot of the thousands of supporters who fill the stadium and provide most of the income. Bristol City supporters trust chairman Stu Rogers cites this as one of the first concerns of the trust when it formed 10 years ago.
It wasn’t clear what the hierarchy was at the club, which made it difficult to get involved in the decision making process.
At some clubs, supporters trusts have full-time decision making members at board level. This has usually been achieved by the fans buying up shares collectively under the name of the trust. Some however have not had the resources or opportunity to buy up the amount needed to demand a place at board meetings. For the Bristol City trust, it is an objective to become a voting member of the board. In the meantime they hope to be there on merit, by demonstrating their value to the current management structure. Stu Rogers pointed out that they do not criticise for the sake of it, always trying to offer and be part of solutions when they highlight problems to the owners.
In some respects, supporter involvement in football clubs is not new; by paying for admissions supporters have always been the main source of revenue for clubs. Supporter clubs and organisations have long arranged coach travel for away games and put on fundraisers and social events. However, the recent emergence of supporters trusts has added a more political dimension. It is a recognition that in an era where clubs have been so badly run, being able to hold owners to account and increase transparency is welcome, and can be an effective way of addressing the disconnect that has arisen between certain clubs and their local communities.
If the Big Bath City Bid is successful, they will operate under a one member one vote system with someone who pays £250 for a share having an equal say as someone who has paid £10,000. The scale of the sum they need to raise meant that they didn’t feel they could set the minimum needed to buy a share any lower than £250. In addition, a crowd funding scheme has been set up to accommodate smaller contributions to the cause.
If the amount of £750,000 is not raised by the initial deadline (September 4th), those behind the bid are positive that this will not be the end of the road. ‘‘The genie is out of the bottle now in terms of community ownership for Bath City’’ says Steve Bradley. They are confident that the momentum, goodwill and investment that has been generated can be harnessed, ‘’the process will not stop until we get to supporter ownership, one way or the other.’’
Back up the M4 in Bristol, it is not just City fans who will look on with interest. Rovers, who were tenants at Twerton Park in the 80’s and 90’s had an abortive effort to set up a trust in the early 2000’s. In recent weeks however, their fan forums have been awash about the merits of having another go. Depending on developments on and off the pitch, Bath City Football Club could become a trailblazer in the west for a new way of owning and playing the beautiful game.
To buy shares, contribute to the crowd-funding campaign, or find out more about the Big Bath City Bid visit : www.BigBathCityBid.org.uk
Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed quotes to Steve Cromer. They were in fact quotes by Steve Bradley. This has been corrected.
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