More than a football club

By Billy Holt, Housing Intern - on 07/09/2019

As we celebrate #CommunitiesWeek2019, we look at the impact football clubs have on their local communities.

On 27 August, Bury FC were expelled from the English Football League after a period of reported financial mismanagement. The club had been at the heart of the former industrial town since being founded in 1885. As the local economic fortunes fluctuated, the football club was a realiable presence in a town that was fiercely proud of The Shakers, as the club were known.

The expulsion was a tragedy borne out of a warped perspective about the value of football clubs that has turned them into mere assets in investment portfolios. Football clubs have a locally entrenched physical and social footprint – whether through their stadiums or community centres, training grounds or local pubs – whose social value is never acknowledged, much less represented, in accountant’s profit and loss accounts.

Out of Bury FC’s precipitous decline, the fallout in the community will be felt long after this season ends. Bury FC was a reliable and immovable part of the backdrop of life in the town, a constant around which identities were shaped. Friendship groups were built around the continuity of weekly football.

The Guardian journalist, David Conn, who has family links to Bury, has reported on the emotional toll of the club’s fallout. Supporters spoke of bursting into tears and losing sleep. Others held a banner stating, “Bury F.C. More than just a football club. It’s a Community!”. Such sorrowful expressions hint at the social cost on people when they lose an anchor organisation from their community, a loss that can lead to very real and tangible wellbeing effects on supporters in the town.

Looking back at Bury’s news archives over the last year, it’s clear the club was committed to community investment, including disability football projects and walking football for the elderly, as well as player outreach during Hate Crime Awareness Week. The archives indicate that the club was committed to giving back to its community, that there was a mutual relationship between club and community, through which both helped the other to thrive.

This bond has now been broken thanks to the club’s financial mismanagement, which appears to have been borne out of an ignorance of the complex ways the club had become immersed in the fabric of everyday life in the town.

How do we begin to change the conversation, and reframe the value of professional sports teams? From the social value of feeling a sense of belonging, to the shared conversations with neighbours and colleagues, the youth teams and jobs created, most football clubs have a massive social value footprint.

Charlton Athletic Community Trust used the UK Social Value Calculator to assess the impact of its work. They found that for every £1 they spent in the community, £6.89 of social value was created.

This is just the tip of a potentially huge social value iceberg. Mapping the myriad and far-reaching social benefits of clubs would reveal a social value that might change the way we approach, regulate and grow professional football into the future. Along with success on the pitch, trophies and staggering television contracts aside, measuring the social value of English football clubs would give countenance to a narrative most supporters intuitively know. These clubs can be cohesive anchor points around which communities are built.

Viewed through the lens of social value, the gulf separating the top of the Premier League from the relegation zone of League Two and the non-league teams across the country would appear less insurmountable. At all levels, professional sports teams should be more aware, and confident about communicating their social value.

From our work with housing associations, we understand the complex way social value is generated, and the importance of historic institutions as community anchors. Borne out of the same period of civic optimism that saw the creation of Bury FC in 1885, the latter half of the 19th century gave rise to historic housing associations which retain a physical and social presence in communities across the country.

We are constantly improving the quality of our insight into the social value they create, using methodologies that can be similarly applied to sporting bodies and clubs.

HACT has been working with numerous organisations in the sporting sector, and has been brokering relationships with, and researching the impact of, the interface between hosing associations and sporting organisations.

To hear more of David Conn’s reporting on Bury FC visit https://www.theguardian.com/football/bury

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Social Value