Football clubs should be run like businesses – it's good for communities and the sport

Tom Westgarth
The outpouring of grief from the Leicester community following the death Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was a reminder that football clubs are social institutions

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The outpouring of grief from the Leicester community following the death Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was a reminder that football clubs are social institutions, meant not only to produce entertainment and profit but to create cohesion in our communities.

Still, many fans criticise foreign ownership for removing football clubs’ “hearts”. Modern owners often face a backlash for running teams in the interests of business rather than the supporters.Yet Mr Srivaddhanaprabha’s approach to football clearly demonstrated that private enterprise can bring unparalleled benefits to local communities. For all its criticism, marketisation has transformed the English football.

From the fifth division Conference to the top-tier Premier League, standards have dramatically increased. This redistribution of talent to lower leagues is only possible because of large private investment in the training of young players. Indeed, competition is rife among teams and the ensuing entertainment world class. So much so that the Championship, England’s second division, has the third-highest attendance of all European football leagues. Without the presence of foreign ownership, local industries would not have reaped the rewards of this footballing boom.

Far from rentier capitalism, foreign ownership can do demonstrable good and have a positive impact far beyond the pitch. Indeed, Srivaddhanaprabha generously donated £2 million of his personal finances to a local hospital and £1m to the Leicester University medical department.

Business in football has helped tackle burning injustices in the sport, such as homophobia and racism. Large football teams are now global brands and so being seen to do good has become a basic requirement. The benefits can be far-reaching. Sociologist John Williams believes that the club’s recent success has helped to tackle local racism. Despite this, private ownership isn’t without its faults.

Ticket prices – for what has traditionally been a working-class sport – have rocketed in price while fans can often feel like an afterthought. My team, Newcastle United, have been walking on thin ice following owner Mike Ashley’s refusal to invest adequately. Global capital has benefitted football in many ways, but ultimately, the fans deserve to see the dividends of this success. The interests of supporters can be prioritised even when embracing a business first model. Governments should incentivise owners to work with fans.

Tax cuts for those who issue shares to supporters would enable sensible decision-making for a club’s long-term financial prospects, while also respecting the interests of those who live locally. The same benefit could be applied to clubs who appoint fan representatives to club executive boards, thereby giving them a direct influence on the direction of the club.

A study by Sheffield Hallam University found that clubs traded on the stock market are much less likely to develop financial troubles, so it is clear that an entrepreneurial mentality has allowed for clubs to prosper. Nevertheless, the success of a club is not just defined by the balance sheet.

A 2010 report on the ‘‘Social and Community Value of Football’’ made it clear that fans overwhelmingly value social relations from their club above all else. The jobs created and voluntary organisations supported by combining private enterprise and supporter advice was demonstrated at Leicester.

Living in Thailand, Mr Srivaddhanaprabha’s distant ownership enabled executive staff who understood the club’s nature to work without interference.

At the same time, the Thai Billionaire commanded the city’s respect, making various donations to the area, including to local hospitals and to the King Richard III appeal, a project which gave the medieval king a proper burial after his remains were found in a Leicester car park.

This focus on community is far from socialist. In fact, democratising football draws on the One-Nation Conservatism revived by David Cameron’s government. Theresa May would benefit if she encouraged other club owners to develop Leicester’s philosophy.

Running football like a business and aiding communities are not mutually exclusive concepts, and enterprise can provide the freedom for fans to live out their dream every Saturday afternoon.

Tom Westgarth is a Young Voices contributor who studies at Warwick University

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