No upper limit to what a community owned club can be

Community owned clubs can be successful and sustainable at the same time, heard delegates at the Co-op Congress.

Community owned clubs can be successful and sustainable at the same time, heard delegates at Congress. 

Speaking at a special session on community ownership in sport, Alex Bird, Chiar of Co-operatives and Mutuals Wales, said there is no upper limit to what a community owned club can be. 

He explained that co-op owned clubs do not face as much pressure because their core aim is not making profit, but achieving sustainability. He gave the example of Swalec Stadium, the venue of the Congress, a co-op itself.

With TV revenue worth more than the revenue from tickets, club owners are less concerned whether fans come to the stadium, said Ged Devlin from Co-operatives UK and a consultant for Supporters Direct.

“Fans put money in, but they don’t receive anything back,” he said. Mr Devlin explained that SD is working to encourage supporter ownership and that community shares are used to help to facilitate fan ownership.

He said community shares investment is not aimed at making profit and interest payment is only sufficient to attract investment. An inspiring story is FC United of Manchester, a club where ten per cent of the members are regularly volunteering, said Mr Devlin.

“The investment provident society model enables people to invest and feel secure,” added Mr Bird.

Owen Smith MP: ‘Sport has the capacity to inspire and empower people’

At the event, Owen Smith, MP Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary for Wales, said football clubs tend to turn from being undermined by corporate interests when they reach a moment of crisis.

The Labour politician said the concentration on elite sport has led to an erosion of basic grassroots of the game.

A keen rugby fan, Mr Smith said more kids are playing football than rugby, a big reversion for Wales. He added that rugby is facing a dramatic crisis due to the diminution of the importance of the game within local communities.

He explained that most people are not aware of the great advantages community ownership can offer and said the work of SD is crucial because it can give examples of real, successful alternatives.

The Labour MP said the co-operative ownership model could be transposed not only in football, but also in rugby. He argued that legislation is key to solving this issue. Although it would be difficult to achieve a situation like in Germany, Sweden and Turkey, where most football clubs are owned by their fans through regulation and legislation change could be achieved, said the Shadow Chancellor for Wales. He also revealed that the Labour Party would establish a rugby task force to try to address the crisis.

Said Mr Owen: “We need to try a deepen understanding in all parts of society about the possibility of mutual ownership and co-operative ownership structures and I think sport potentially has the ability to be at the leading edge of that reimagining of how key community services could be delivered.”

The case of Merthyr Town

Another successful example is Merthyr Town FC, a club with a long history that had been is a severe crisis until it was taken over by its fans.

Speaking at the event, John Strand, Board Secretary of the club, said the taking over process was a gradual one. Although the Supporters Trust had been set up in 2004, it had difficulty in engaging with supporters, who did not realise the severe crisis in which the club found itself.

For one season, the club went into administration to protect it from the owner. Once the club had been liquidated, supporters loaned the new club money, reformed it and registered it as a community mutual. Owned by its fans, Merthyr receives a great support from its supporters, with 50 per cent of members involved in running the club. This saves the club £100,000 a year.

“The positive energy is really important,” said John Strand, adding that the club hopes to achieve progress through stability. The club has recently received a grant for an artificial pitch. It has also refurbished the social club and established girls and disabled football teams. With support from local authorities, it has also run mini tournaments to engage the local community.

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