Among the pomp and circumstance of the Premier League and its plethora of billionaire businessmen attempting to outdo one another, it’s important to remember that football is nothing without the fans. Indeed, in the upper echelons of English football, it’s a truth easily forgotten amidst the wealth and greed. But to clubs at the foot of the ladder, it’s as important and relevant as ever – not least to the people of Bath.
On the 1st of September, Bath City Supporters Society launched their prospectus for the Big Bath City Bid; a movement with the ultimate goal of community ownership for Bath City Football Club.
As noble a goal as any in football, community ownership is something that around 35 clubs from all over the country know a thing or two about. Portsmouth, for instance, became the largest fan-owned club in England in 2013 when the Pompey Supporters Trust took the reins. Another famous example is AFC Wimbledon who, fully owned by the Dons Trust, formed as a breakaway club in 2002 and have launched an impressive assault up the Football League ladder since then.
And Bath City look set to be the latest club to embrace community ownership with their Bid. In their second attempt to gain ownership of the club, the Bath City Supporters Society have set the target of raising £300,000 by the 28th of September in order to become the majority shareholders.
Secretary of the Bath City Supporters Society Oliver Holtaway helped put their latest community ownership bid into context.
“Bath City FC is a familiar story: a persistently loss-making lower league club that has relied on directors’ loans to survive. Our debts are almost £1.5m and the board knows that we can’t continue indefinitely down this path.”
As aforementioned, this is not the first time the Society has strived for community ownership. But while the last attempt failed, Holtaway suggested that it laid much of the groundwork for what is happening this time.
“Our first share offer ran from June to September 2015, and raised over £300,000 towards its £750,000 target. We were disappointed to fall short, but there’s no doubt that raising £300,000 was an amazing achievement. The people who pledged urged us to fight on and we took it as a strong signal that there was genuine local interest in what we were doing.”
“After almost a year of negotiation, the Society has now been able to relaunch with a revised target of £300,000. This is in part because we have been able to attract more backers since the first bid closed – people who care about our city and see the potential that a community owned club can deliver.”
It is heartening to see persistence rewarded in such a way and it appears that the club may well reach its goal this time – as of the 4th of September, they are roughly a quarter of the way to the £300,000 target.
Moreover, the hard work and sheer determination from those involved in the Bid received international recognition, with pledged donations for the first campaign arriving from Brazil and the USA.
“It was brilliant to receive those investments,” Holtaway said. “It just goes to show that more and more people around the world are waking up to the benefits of supporter and community ownership.”
However, the worldwide recognition of community ownership is not a new phenomenon. When pressed on whether such ownership could be extrapolated for the biggest clubs in England, Holtaway was keen to point out the fact that the community ownership model is already in effect for Europe’s biggest clubs.
“All German clubs must be 50%+1 supporter owned, which is essentially what we are going for in our new share offer. Barcelona and Real Madrid are also both supporter-owned.”
Paid membership fees for these clubs make for more accountability for those in charge, who are all elected by the supporters. The socios and socis of Real and Barcelona respectively are responsible for choosing club presidents, and this democratic approach is the foundation for community-owned clubs. There’s little wonder why it is one of the fundamentals which the Big Bath City Bid preaches so thoroughly in the 2016 prospectus.
The Bid will also incorporate the redevelopment of the Bath City ground, Twerton Park. Such a redevelopment, according to Holtaway, should work for all parties involved in order to perpetuate the community values upon which the Bid is based.
“We hope that we can clear most of the debts through a partial redevelopment of our ground, most likely by rebuilding the main grandstand and building on the car park area to create residential or retail units, as well as upgrading clubhouse facilities. We own our ground outright which gives us some flexibility. The challenge will be to ensure that the redevelopment lives up to the community-focused ideals and that supporters and local people are properly consulted. We think this is more likely to happen under community ownership.”
So it seems that along with becoming the majority shareholders of their city’s football club, there could be the major redevelopment of the stadium yet to come. With that in mind, this movement is potentially one of, if not the, most important moment in the club’s history – how must it feel to be part of such a monumental shift in the club’s fortunes? Tiring, according to Holtaway – and given the journey he and his fellow supporters have been on, who can blame him?
“I mainly feel knackered if I’m being honest. It’s been a gruelling process and I’d advise other supporters trusts to get plans for community ownership drawn up well before your club reaches crisis point. On the plus side, I’ve met so many people over the past two years because of this. I feel much more connected to the Bath City FC community and Bath in general, which I guess is part of the point of community ownership!”
The affinity that Holtaway now feels to Bath City due to the involvement in the Bid is a reminder of what football can do. It can unite – and through that unity, the supporters of Bath City have been inspired to take their club into their own hands.
And on the aforementioned notion that football is nothing without fans, Holtaway echoed the same point which becomes quieter and quieter the further up the Football League you go; “Football is more than a business. Supporters are more than customers. We need to recognise football clubs as community assets, and changing to a community ownership model is a way of entrenching that approach.”
And should the Big Bath City Bid reach its target by the 28th, that sentiment should be just that little bit louder in the years to come.