Last season’s successes on the pitch have provided a great platform for Bradford City’s further advance. The outgoing Chair of the Supporters Trust, Alan Carling, reflects on the possibilities for future development.
Football clubs in Britain have been owned and run traditionally by local businessmen out of a sense of service or a desire for prestige. Ownership was not aimed primarily at making money, and yet the organisation of the clubs was socially exclusive and hierarchical, reflected in the segregated spectator areas within the ground, from Kop to Box.
Under these arrangements, both players and fans were expected to know their place. The maximum wage confined players to their lowly social status, and the idea that supporters might be involved directly in the governance of clubs would seem as strange as the idea that colonial peoples were capable of self-government. At its best, this model of organisation embodied an ideal of trusteeship across the generations; at its worst, the neglect of supporters’ essential interests led to the tragedies of which we are too familiar.
This traditional, paternalistic, model of club governance has by no means died out, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. Some of the older habits of deference have declined, and the social distance between directors and players can hardly be maintained when a player like Wayne Rooney could buy a club like Bradford City with three months wages. The traditional model has also come under intense pressure more recently from two alternative models for the organisation of clubs – the Offshore Model and the Community Model.
The Offshore Model is now common within the Premier League. It treats football clubs either as vanity projects for individuals of fabulous – and frequently dubious – wealth or simply as vehicles for leveraged profit-making. The local club handed down by history is re-conceptualised according to this model as a branded franchise, without any necessary local roots, and the fans are seen not as members of the club, but as consumers of a commercial entertainment product.
The core fans of the historic club are vulnerable in this respect, because following a club ‘win or lose’ is a form of addiction, albeit not as damaging to personal health as crack cocaine. Since the club is the monopoly supplier of a product to which its customers are addicted, a perfect recipe exists for ruthless commercial exploitation by an aggressive business. And as the business succeeds, so its horizons expand.
If the club is not tied to a locality, it can seek its location and its fan-base anywhere it likes. Say that a gap in the market is identified in mid-Kent. Let’s move there – the Tunbridge Bantams, anyone? And why confine ourselves to England and Wales, or to Scotland? Why not promote ourselves as a global brand, and reach our audiences mainly through TV? As the Premier League’s Richard Scudamore said recently: “It’s not my fault [this] country is only 60 million”. To go beyond the confines of a small country like Britain, it is only necessary to keep enough supporters coming through the gates to add some local colour to the TV footage.
And why tie down ownership to the local business scene when the club – or corporation, as it now is – aspires to revenues from so much further afield? There is believed to be a club in West Yorkshire whose ownership was wrapped in so many layers of mystery that its poor fans did not even know who the ultimate owners were. And offshore registration does not make life any easier for HM Treasury to collect its dues. Apart from taxes, another unwanted headache for any branded club is the possibility of relegation, which blows a hole in the business model. If the League cannot be closed off to new entrants, it is still possible to ease the headache by making parachute payments so large that it becomes almost impossible for outsiders to join the elite.
Football’s Offshore Nirvana
Carry these trends forward, and the ideal development of Offshore football – the commercial nirvana to which it aspires – begins to look like Formula One. The term ‘Premier League’ is fair enough as far as it goes, but it hardly conveys the requisite level of absolute superiority. And for this purpose ‘Super’ is not quite super enough. So let’s inaugurate a successor league – call it the International Supreme League (ISL) – containing an entirely self-governing and self-perpetuating group of twenty clubs or so, registered as a body in the British Virgin Islands, say, and responsible only to their corporate shareholders (if it can ever be known whom they are).
The ISL will induce desperate countries around the world to pay its teams to perform in each country’s national stadium – or to build new ‘football tracks’ especially for them – so that the ISL can tap additional layers of consumer demand. Why depend on local traditions when you can aim for global reach? And why pay taxes when you can attract subsidies instead?
Richard Scudamore surveyed this new horizon in words following those quoted above: “There are 212 countries playing this game. We are blessed to have 20 of the world’s largest 50 clubs. Within that 20, between three and five of the biggest 10. There are only 10 football clubs vying for [the] top talent”. And to bring all this home, so that everyone understands the new realities of the global marketplace, why not organise a World Cup in the middle of a desert somewhere at the height of summer, hundreds of miles away from any known centre of football interest. “Let’s go to Qatar in 2022”; “Where’s Qatar?”, “Exactly”.
In stark contrast to the commercial realism of this Offshore Model is the utopianism of the Community Model, which has been adopted by some of the lesser clubs in Europe, such as Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Barcelona. In this model, the club is owned and run on behalf of supporters, and for the benefit of the local community.
Ticket prices are kept deliberately low, facilities for spectators are first-rate, public transport is laid on for matches; the grounds are full, the atmosphere is superb, and there is safe standing for those who wish. The obvious superiority of the Premier League over this debased model of fan-pandering football is further indicated by the success of the England national team, compared with the struggles of Germany and Spain to make their mark in international competition. (Author extracts tongue from cheek).
A Fans’ Club Through and Through?
Nearly every club in the English and Scottish Leagues, and all their supporters, face the choices implied by the co-existence of these three ways to organise a football club: shall we soldier on with some version of the old paternalistic model; shall we sell out to offshore interests, or shall we go down the community route?
It is worth remembering that it was only eighteen months ago that Bradford City was facing the real prospect of relegation from the Football League, and a dog-fight for mere survival. The team’s extraordinary success in 2012/13 has created a platform, for the first time in years, from which the club and its supporters can look outwards and upwards with some confidence. How should City use this platform? Which way should it go?
The Bantams now are finely-balanced between these different models of organisation, so that the future could develop in several different directions. I am certain nevertheless that the best future for City lies in continuing with current trends towards the Community model.
The club is owned – and run in many ways – as a conventional small business with a majority (two-thirds) shareholding by the Rhodes family, and a minority (one third) holding by Mark Lawn, each of the three shares being worth £1m. Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn also act as co-Chairmen of Bradford City, and both are genuine long-standing fans of the club.
In the period since the two administrations in 2002-2004, which were necessary to wind down the huge debts incurred by City’s excursion into the Premier League, the business has been run on a prudent commercial basis. The owners have not taken any dividend money out of the club for themselves over the last few years, and any windfall gains have been ploughed back into the club. The Rhodes family took huge losses to keep the club afloat in the early 2000s – many millions of pounds – and yet the club has been run subsequently as if it were a not-for-profit community enterprise.
This is not the only respect in which the private company that owns the club has conformed to the Community model. A pioneering scheme of low-cost season tickets has been introduced and maintained, with Flexi-card options designed to be inclusive for less-frequent supporters. And the club has introduced a Supporters Board, with the active help and backing of the Supporters Trust, to mediate its relationship with fans.
In its first year of operation, the Supporters Board has already performed important work in establishing new communication channels with supporters, developing fan-friendly commercial initiatives, and building community links. The Supporters Trust has applied to the Council to have the stadium at Valley Parade registered as a Community asset, which provides significant legal safeguards over the future uses of our historic home.
The general importance of the community side of the club has been underlined by the two Wembley appearances in 2012/13 – which took 32,000 and 24,000 fans to the national stadium – and by the attendant publicity for club and city, both national and international. City received additional revenue of about £2.5m. from the cup run, most of it from gate receipts at a time of economic recession.
Few other institutions in the Bradford District can show the same strength of popular support, or the same capacity to spread the good name of Bradford around the world. The basis has also been established for a more equal and more fruitful relationship with Bradford Council, which many people believe has traditionally favoured the Bradford Bulls Rugby League Club over Bradford City FC.
The elements are therefore all in place from which Bradford City could develop into a fully-fledged Community Club. City fans have been praised endlessly for their loyalty during the mediocre years in League Two, and for their response to last season’s developing success. The obvious next step is to go beyond this, and to build such a well-spring of support into the structure of the club.
It may be too radical to adopt the full continental model of the German Bundesliga, but other options are available, including a fans’ minority shareholding such as Swansea City’s, operated in collaboration with private, community-minded business interests. The example of Swansea City also demonstrates how a fans’ club through and through can create its own forms of competitive strength, and strive to challenge offshore rivals in the Premier League.
Towards a Community Future
A Community Club at Bradford City would cement the relationship between the club and its fans, provide new resources to strengthen City going forward, and create insurance against setbacks. It is also the model most likely to deal constructively with the demographic transition of the District’s population, on which the long-run commercial health of the club depends.
Football supporters are prone to exaggerate the dreadful significance of a bad loss, and to exaggerate the blissful potential of a good win. Something similar goes for seasons too. Coming out of City’s wonder year of 2012/13, it would be easy to become overconfident, and imagine a future of unbroken success, yielding a rapid ascent to the heights of the Premier League. The owners might therefore think that the best plan is to conduct business as usual, without any change to the ownership model – to simply carry on, and hope for the best.
But if this is the preferred scenario, it still means of course that the ownership of Bradford City can change at any time. The problem with this prospect from the fans’ perspective is the lack of control over the identity of any new owners, and their subsequent plans for the club. The point at which a club like Bradford City becomes attractive in the market is precisely the point at which offshore interests begin to circle.
If we step back a minute from the prevailing assumptions about club ownership, it is very strange that a major public institution – such as Bradford City is in the Bradford District – should be owned as an exclusively private entity. But given the reality of continuing private ownership, it is impossible for the fans to exert any effective control over the fate of the club once it is sold on, even though it is primarily the fans’ money – spent year-after-year – that is responsible for the value of the club as a commercial asset. One does not have to go to the ultimate horror stories of private ownership – the Portsmouths or the Coventrys – to appreciate the dangers of this possible outcome from the fans’ point of view.
It is very important, then, that City does not rest on its laurels of recent success, but considers adopting the more explicit aim of becoming a fully-fledged Community club, which can safeguard the fans’ interests for now and for the future. This could involve a variety of different developments.
There is, for example, nothing to prevent a group of fans investing in the club alongside the existing owners. This could be supplemented by additional corporate investment, strengthening the capital base of the club, and sharing the considerable responsibilities of ownership. The Supporters Board will certainly have an important role to play in a range of different areas, and I hope that its influence with the club will broaden, and its relationship with the fans will deepen.
And it is vital too that BCST retains its position as a strong independent voice for supporters, which can insist where necessary on its status as a representative fans’ organisation separate from Bradford City, and co-operates with the club as fully as possible to achieve our common aim – the strength and success of Bradford City.
I have been honoured to serve as Chair of the Supporters Trust over the last seven seasons, and I will look forward with great interest to developments over the years ahead, building on the extraordinary successes of 2012/13.