Sports associations and council grounds…a better way for non-league clubs?

Swansea City live in a council house…works well for them

Why should non-league football be “on the rates”? (or council tax etc) when only a small percentage of people in any given town are especially interested in the local club?

Some clubs have clearly benefitted from local authority assistance – Stevenage, for example, play in a council-owned stadium and in the club’s nascent years following rebirth, they were helped to a large degree by the fact their Chairman was a local counciller. It worked, because Stevenage are now an established Football League outfit watched by 3,000 people.

Supporting the locals

While this is great for the club concerned, if the local authority represents more than one club, such as in North Herts, who have Hitchin Town, Royston Town, Baldock Town and Letchworth Garden City Eagles on their patch, there is no way a council can provide significant support.

North Herts has a population of 127,000 people. Given the combined average gate of the four clubs is likely to be around 600, that represents 0.47% of the local population. That doesn’t warrant using public money to support what amounts to a minority activity.

Traditionally, most football grounds were just that, they gave very little back to the community and because turf was treated like it’s the equivalent of the holy grail, clubs have been reluctant to allow their grounds to be used for a broad range of activities – unless, of course, they have an artificial surface, which changes the dynamic completely, and delivers the potential for a much more robust and viable business model.

In continental Europe, many clubs do not own their grounds. They are frequently local authority-operated and therefore, often used by a number of sports clubs and associations. For example, one of Europe’s most famous stadiums, Milan’s San Siro, is owned by the Milan Municipality.

Concentration issues

One of the big differences between continental grounds and their British equivalent has been the incorporation of athletic tracks into the design. It’s not something people appreciate in Britain as it dilutes the buzz of the crowd, creates distance between the fans and the pitch and makes for a sterile atmosphere. Non-league supporters have far from fond memories of grounds like Harlow, Croydon and Walton & Hersham, for example.

Although athletics, despite the post-Olympics boom that the sport always enjoys, is not a happy bedfellow for football, there are plenty of other sports that could co-exist with non-league football in order to build a sustainable and pragmatic structure for the game at this level. On an artificial pitch, rugby could easily live side-by-side with football. And so could hockey.

Using continental Europe again as the benchmark, many towns, be it by design or by coincidence, concentrate their sporting activities in one area. A good example in the home counties where this approach exists is Ampthill in Bedfordshire. The rugby, football and cricket clubs are all within very short distance of each other, and very nice they look, too! And while a lot of clubs who find their traditional homes are constrained by planning restrictions, neighbours and access, this appears to offer scope for expansion and room to breath.

The message here is that adopting a municipal model, and therefore appealing to a broader percentage of the community, may make it easier for a local authority relationship. A one-track stadium is never going to win much support, especially when non-league football almost stands alone among “pastime” sports as a “semi-pro” activity. In other words, if you need to seek urgent help from the community, stop paying your players!

Critical mass

Municipal, multi-purpose sites could act as the catalyst for bringing the sporting fraternity together in small town Britain. Admittedly, the various sports in a town have different demographics – football is condescendingly looked upon as the game of the “lower orders” by rugby and cricket folk, but in almost any location, you can guarantee that the football ground is in, or close to, the grimiest part of town. As individual units, though, the sports clubs in a small town may have very little clout, but a unified body, perhaps a local sports association, would have far greater bargaining power in terms of fund-raising, procurement and sponsorship. It’s a radical idea for Britain, and will grate with traditionalists, but it may also deliver huge benefits in terms of expertise, experience and appealing to the broader community. Just consider, by bringing together so many strands of the sporting community, you create critical mass – which in turn will make it easier for a local authority to provide support that is acceptable to taxpayers.

I hear people complaining that “the local council have done nothing for us”, from a number of football clubs, but why should they? If the club attracts just a miniscule percentage of the community, it is not a body of systemic importance in the great scheme of things. You need at least 1% to be considered really relevant. A club is formed out of choice – and there are far too many clubs purporting to be “professional” these days, playing in front of 150 people.

Nobody forces a club to pay money to players it can scarcely afford, so as a commercial enterprise, it should not expect hand-outs of any kind. If it is a [genuine] community operation, that completely changes the perception of that club or association. If you are serving the population, providing sports facilities and youth development schemes (as opposed to setting-up structures which qualify for grants but pay lip service to the provision of facilities and services) then you are truly making a contribution. Done properly, a local authority might – even in these difficult times – be more simpatico to applications for public support if the club is fulfilling a need.

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