The Community Value of Football: Oxford United's Stadium Battle
Today, we highlight an issue which supporters of every football club will do well to take note of. The separation of ownership between stadium and club has wreaked havoc on the financial landscape of the sport in recent years and many are still struggling with the consequences. Steps can be taken to avoid the worst of these however and here, Oxford United Matthew Derbyshire takes up the story. Matt can be followed on twitter at @emptyderbyshire.
Localism is the buzzword of British politics at the moment, but does it have any significance for football clubs?
Many supporters of Premier League teams are fans for reasons of local or family connection, of course, but, let’s face it, you’re more likely to support a non-top flight club for those kinds of reasons. After all, it’s probably not for your club’s consistent success, flair, or frequent television coverage…
The advent of a globally-financed and broadcast top flight, populated with teams of players for whom a local connection is now the exception rather than the rule, and charging for attendance sums previously unheard of for tickets, has prompted many Premiership supporters to switch or supplement their allegiance with one to their local Football League or non-league side. This is often in the hope of finding a more authentic, connected, grounded relationship with a club, in contrast to a sense that they are the customer of a multinational PLC with more of an eye to television markets in Asia and the Middle East than fans in Witton or Trafford.
So what do supporters find at those non-Premier League clubs? Do they find a club embedded in their local community, existing in symbiotic partnership?
Maybe. For many clubs their connections with the local community are central to how they promote themselves, draw in paying customers, scout for future players, and provide a sense of ‘club’ to what is a PLC as much as any Premiership side.
However, at others this is not the experience at all. Stories of owners who have put clubs into serious financial difficulties in the UK are not hard to find. These may come about as the result of good intentions (over-reaching to try and deliver success) but selfish intentions (over-reaching as an owner tries to reach the promised land of Premier League riches) and bad intentions (asset stripping) abound too, as clubs are run for individual, not community, benefit.
When we hear these stories of financial problems at clubs, more often than not they involve the ground, as if a club gets into serious financial difficulty, it’s usually the one thing they have that’s worth any significant amount of money. Whether it’s a case of conspiracy or cock-up, the ground gets sold, and things rarely go well from there.
What supporters can do to guard against this kind of situation is changing with the work of Supporters Direct around recent Localism legislation. Supporters Direct have championed the use of a new status introduced by this legislation, ‘Assets of Community Value’ (ACV), encouraging supporters to apply for their football grounds to be given this status. Community groups (of which supporters’ trusts are a good example) may apply to have particular buildings or land recognised by local councils as ACVs, a status which also provides the community group with a ‘Right to Bid’ on that asset. An ACV is defined as a building or land which furthers the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community; or that has done so in the recent past.
At Oxford United, our ground, The Kassam Stadium, became the first football ground to be listed as an ACV in May this year following an application from OxVox, the Club’s independent supporters’ trust. It means that should the Stadium be put up for sale, we have to be notified, and can put a six week moratorium on any sale, during which time we assess whether we wish to put a bid to purchase the Stadium. If we do, the moratorium is then extended to six months in total to allow us to put together a community bid.
Since the listing of The Kassam Stadium, the list of football grounds with ACV status has grown, and now includes Old Trafford, Anfield, Portman Road and Ewood Park.
The story of how Oxford United came to play at our ground, and the implications of the arrangements for ownership of the stadium on its listing as an ACV, is probably a bit more convoluted than that of many football clubs. We ended up playing at The Kassam Stadium mainly because of the Taylor Report. Of course, by the time we were finally able to move there in 2001 from our original home, the Manor Ground, memories of the top flight were a little… indistinct… as we set about confirming our relegation to the basement division of the Football League with indecent haste. Nonetheless, after the Taylor Report it soon became clear we wouldn’t be playing at our beloved Manor Ground in the future.
So we left the Manor Ground and it was sold primarily to meet the demands of governmental legislation, not to service debts or line someone’s pockets (although, in time, it would do the latter when it was revealed Firoz Kassam had decided United should sell the Manor Ground to him, after which he managed to secure the necessary planning permission in order to sell the Ground on again for a reported price of £12 million). And, rather than a mouldering leaky old collection of nine lean-tos around a football pitch (albeit a deeply-loved mouldering leaky old collection of nine lean-tos around a football pitch…), we now had a shiny stadium adjoined to a modern conference facility.
Part of the rationale of the move had been that United, in order to avoid finding itself in such financially perilous situations as the one that Firoz Kassam had just pulled us from, should benefit from ‘non-football’ revenue streams. The point being, if we had a shit season, hopefully there’d be revenue coming in from other places to see us through.
Well, man alive we had some shit seasons. But, unfortunately, the club didn’t seem to see the revenue streams from the new conference facility. With United teetering on the brink of relegation out of the League altogether and the tempers of Oxford supporters finally boiling over at the end of the 2005-6 season, Firoz Kassam decided to sell the Club. Kassam had previously said he would always sell the Club and Stadium together, but in the event, the Club was sold without the Stadium.
The whys and wherefores of the separation of ownership of the Club and Stadium, and the finger-pointing that follow that discussion, are a bit too tangential to go into here. Suffice it to say that United have been living with the consequences ever since, as, despite retaining some of the highest attendances in our current division, we immediately lose a big chunk of the revenue that generates in rent.
We also got relegated to the Conference that season too, which probably didn’t help…
On top of the financial impact of being a tenant in The Kassam Stadium, the arrival in 2012 of London Welsh Rugby Football Club at the Kassam Stadium to ground share, and a later-withdrawn statement of intent to buy the ground, brought home to Oxford supporters exactly how precarious a situation we were in in relation to ‘The Home of Oxford United’. It was at this point that OxVox applied to have The Kassam Stadium listed as an ACV to help counter any future potential move of this kind.
It’s certainly been an experience. As well as being the first football ground to be put forward for ACV status, it was the first application for ACV status that Oxford City Council had dealt with. Since the Council’s approval, Firoka (Firoz Kassam’s group of companies) appealed the decision: one of only three appeals from ground owners (including the Glazers, who subsequently retracted their appeal of the decision over Old Trafford before it was heard). Following the appeal, the Council announced in October that they stood by their original decision (although Firoka now have the right to take the decision to Independent Tribunal: we await news of whether they will decide to exercise this).
I attended the appeal hearing for OxVox, a session which considered a number of arguments about the legislation and listing. One of the key arguments, and the one we most frequently hear in criticism of what OxVox did, was around whether the Localism legislation was intended to apply to football grounds. I think that one of the things we feel proud about is that Oxford United helped pave the way for football grounds to be considered as ACVs (and indeed, the government website http://mycommunityrights.org.uk/community-right-to-bid/ has now been amended to include football grounds as examples of Community Assets), and as well as seeing a number of the UK’s biggest football clubs follow suit, the move has been welcomed by politicians across the political spectrum.
We shouldn’t over-egg this. The legislation hasn’t transformed the position for supporters faced with their football ground about to be sold off for housing. Firstly, the rights secured by ACV listing give no immediate say over an asset. The asset has to be put up for sale by the owner. Secondly, at the end of the moratorium, there’s no stipulation that a community bid has to be chosen, whether or not it is competitive. Maybe ‘localism’ is just another political buzzword to be bandied round in the build-up to the UK election in 2015.
However, in the context where local communities normally have few, if any, rights in the future of their football club, my view is you take what you can get. Oxford’s situation is an unusual one, and The Kassam Stadium is going to have a significant impact on the future of the Club. You never know if ACV status may prove to be crucial, and I would much rather have gone through the work of obtaining this status and finding it was in the end of no use, than to be kicking ourselves in the future that we didn’t do it.
And, moreover, if this legislation is another step towards more formal recognition of the basis of a football club in the community that formed it (strengthening the formal links of supporters’ trusts within football clubs would be a good next step…), then personally I’m not bothered if ‘localism’ proves to have any political meaning or not. In my view it will be moving the governance of football in this country in the right direction, and this is something that football supporters should welcome with open arms.