Football still has vast social value despite financial crises. Can supporter-owned clubs restore its rightful place at the heart of communities?
With barely a breath caught since the World Cup, the Premier League season has sprinted forth to stadiums packed with expectant crowds, customarily feverish television coverage and a flurry of stories with one unifying theme: money.
Prospective bidders from overseas to buy debt-laden Liverpool Football Club; the manager of Aston Villa, Martin O'Neill, walking out apparently over lack of funds ; three Football League clubs staving off winding-up petitions in the high court.
Released earlier this summer with a touch less fanfare was a report that found that for all its crises and financial overkill, football remains a sport of immense social value, and its clubs – when not falling into ruin – are widely considered to be rallying points for civic pride.
Commissioned by Supporters Direct, the government-backed initiative to encourage democratic, mutual ownership of football clubs, the report documents the beneficial impact that clubs can have in theircommunities, and recommends a series of ways in which this can be improved.
Principally, it argues that football clubs should formally recognise their social role and adopt it as one of their core purposes, honestly examine how well they are meeting that aim, and strive continually to improve their relationships with supporters, local authorities, residents and businesses.
The report found that clubs labour under the financial pressure of putting a competitive team out, and often hive off their social role to semi-separate community departments.
Although they often do excellent work on social inclusion and other projects, the report calls for a more "holistic" approach, in which that social purpose is incorporated into clubs' constitutions.
"We have explored the regulatory framework that currently exists in English football," it says, "and the question of football's social role and value is almost completely submerged beneath [clubs'] status as private companies.
"Clubs should adopt company objects that make clear their commitment to local communities, and set out ways in which this will be reported on an annual basis."
"When we asked supporters what they valued about their clubs, it was not their success on the field, nor the value of the club's shares, or whether it was in profit or not, but their importance within their family, social and community life that was paramount," explains Adam Brown, the report's author and a director of research at the consultancy Substance.
Similar views were expressed almost uniformly by the clubs' chief executives, staff and local residents and businesses. "Everybody emphasised the social function of a football club," says Brown.
"So there is a clear need to integrate that mission into the core purpose of clubs and the game itself. In modern business, there is a move towards reporting annually on social and environmental impacts as well as financial accounts. Football clubs should do the same."
The campaign for supporter ownership is a rediscovery of clubs' founding ideals, and largely a reaction to what has been seen as mismanagement or financial exploitation of clubs by an individual owner.
The principle, that clubs should incorporate the democratic voice of fans, was recognised by the last Labour government, which established Supporters Direct in 2000.
The idea is seen to chime with the "big society" concepts of voluntarism and community engagement promoted by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. Its coalition agreement includes a commitment to "encourage the reform of football governance rules to support the co-operative ownership of football clubs by supporters".
Dave Boyle, chief executive of Supporters Direct, says: "The report shows that clubs that incorporate supporter involvement have a more expansive view of what they are for, and can have a more beneficial social impact. It links clearly to the wider movements to encourage mutual models of ownership, and the big society agenda."
Excerpt from the Guardian
You can read Supporters Direct's report, entitled The Social and Community Value of Football, in full by clicking here.