Supporters and business can work together
7 July ~ Supporters Direct, the umbrella organisation for supporters' trusts, recently held, with the Football Supporters' Federation, a Supporters Summit. Over 300 delegates attended representing over 100 clubs and other bodies. At the gathering a European Commission-funded project report was launched and the event was a great success. For the last decade and more the trust movement has been refreshing in the murky world of private ownership of football clubs and the financial misdeeds that have risked their existence.
When clubs have reached their lowest ebb often it's been supporters' trusts that have stepped in among the debris and led the recovery.
For everything trusts have achieved there still exist some significant challenges that have yet to be met. Some trust-run clubs have been unable to keep going and have eventually stepped aside to allow business people to invest the funds they have found difficult to raise. Trusts at larger clubs have little chance of having a stake or a significant voice. Many fans think that supporters' trusts are a good thing but only when a small club is on the brink and no one else cares. Clearly, when it comes to running football clubs, there is a divide between those who advocate trust principles and business people who don't. This needn't be the case.
No other organisation embraces a large number of people who, through their skills, have turned around the fortunes of football clubs all over the UK than Supporters Direct. They have learned how to gain the support of the fans in the first instance, then recruit managers, set budgets, attract new fans, increase sponsorship and generally do a good job. Their clubs have benefited.
Then their tenure has ended and they go back to normal life, with those abilities no longer needed. If Supporters Direct gathered them together and promoted these skills on its behalf, struggling privately owned clubs may seek their help, especially if the trust there suggested they did so. This would significantly lift the profile of Supporters Direct in particular and the trust movement in general. The first thing a trust-based initiative like this should do is push the business potential a successful trust can bring to a club – and I can sense the discomfort that comment will cause among trust traditionalists.
I know from experience that sponsors and commercial partners can be more comfortable when their local club has broad community ownership and involvement. A single owner may have the money (or not) but a potential investor isn't always confident an unaccountable individual will make the right choices or has the right motives. Club owners need to see the advantage of having a business-minded, hard-working trust involved in their club. A partnership of a supporters' trust and responsible members of the business community means money is spent wisely, and that's pretty attractive to fans and other businesses thinking about getting involved.
After spending five years as a trust-elected chairman of a Football League club and another five with Supporters Direct, I couldn't be more convinced that trusts are here to stay. But the tactic of seeking change by lobbying successive lip-service governments is pointless and a waste of time. Politicians didn't stop the Premier League in effect hijacking the Football Association, so it will be unlikely that they will legislate for fans to be club owners. Also, and sad to say, publishing sensible, well-written consultants' reports might state a case well but they won't win you any battles. Taking action, banging the drum, proving you know what it takes, and taking on business people at their own game will. Publicising the skills trusts can bring to their clubs and the openness and honesty they represent might just bring in business allies.
The trust movement is terrific and it has done a lot of good in the football industry. By harnessing skills for the benefit of clubs and proving that business and representation can assimilate well, then it might be that trust-run clubs have some longevity and supporters' trusts having a role at bigger clubs might not be as distant a prospect as it is now. Rob Bradley