Bath City’s supporters are trying to raise between £ 750,000 and £ 1,250,000 in order to buy the club and transform it into a community-led organisation.
If it is successful, it will be another example of the type of club ownership that should point non-league football in a new, more democratic and ethically-run direction. Bath are not the first club to go down this road, but they are one of the biggest names from non-league to have a stab at fan ownership.
It deserves to go ahead, for Bath are also trying to give supporters something tangible for their patronage. A crowd-funding scheme, has so far raised £6,000 of a proposed £55,000. But the real selling point is the community share issue which has raised £ 125,000 of a targeted £ 750,000. If the bid raised the £ 1.25m it will clear the club’s debts.
The Big Bath City Bid team is a group of fans and local people. The initial impetus came from the Bath City Supporters Society. The football club’s board has endorsed the bid and will be aiming to make a binding offer to the club’s current shareholders.
The bid’s website says: “We want the supporters and Bath community to own the football club, and offer a positive alternative to the broken model of British football. We think that’s possible by getting more people, businesses and organisations invested and involved in Bath City FC. With diverse support and a sustainable business plan, Bath City FC can push on towards the Football League, engage the whole community and deliver real social benefits to the people of Bath.”
There is high profile support for the campaign. Film producer Ken Loach, a Bath City fan and local resident, has enlisted the help of former Manchester United striker Eric Cantona.
The organisers are very grounded, however, and are also trying to engage local businesses – fan support alone will not create a competitive club. Bath have sent three years at Step 2 of the non-league pyramid after a two-year stint in the Conference National. Bath averaged just under 500 people per home game in 2014-15, this is low by the club’s historic standards.
Part of the problem with Bath is that it is, essentially, a rugby city. The prospectus of the share offer claims the club has become disconnected from the city itself – is that the case or has the rugby club pushed it into the shadows? The organisers admit that Bath has been kept alive by the “generous donations and loans of a handful of dedicated individuals” and that without these individuals, the club would never have reached its 125th anniversary year. Sounds familiar.
If the Bath bid does not succeed, the future of a once mighty non-league club is in doubt. While the club is fortunate in owning its Twerton Park ground, it has consistently made trading losses of between £50,000 and £ 100,000 over the past few years. Once more, there is startling realism about the campaign, admitting that the existing board cannot keep propping up those losses. Like many non-league clubs, Bath is also vulnerable to financial predators and those wolves in sheep’s clothing, property developers. “Without community ownership, the future of the club will be in question.”
In many ways, if the bid fails, it does sound like it might be a last roll of the dice for senior football in Bath. One club, the university-backed Team Bath – much derided by many fans for its lack of non-league authenticity, despite sharing Twerton Park – bit the dust a few years ago.