The 2017 Supporters Direct / Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) supporters summit took place at St. George’s Park, near Burton upon Trent last weekend (July 1st/2nd).
Fan-owned clubs and supporters trusts from across England, Wales, Scotland and further afield gathered at the home of English football for a day of discussion, followed by the respective AGMs of Supporters Direct and FSF.
The Opening Plenary featured representatives from three different supporters trusts in a session entitled ‘Clubs in Crisis’. Mat Roper and Adam Michaelson shared the story behind Leyton Orient’s demise and how the supporters have battled to save the club’s future. They then outlined how they believe regulations need to be improved in order to protect football clubs more robustly as “community assets”. The trust has been in touch with the club’s new owner and are looking to establish and develop a productive relationship in the coming months and years, including a Supporter Director on the board.
Roger Ellis of Sky Blues Trust then outlined the difficulties being faced by Coventry City in recent years insisting “football clubs should be akin to listed building, and treated as such”, before Andy Higgins of the Blackpool Supporters Trust outlined how his organisation has been pushing for improved accountability at its club. The session was moderated by Supporters Direct CEO Ashley Brown.
Alongside sessions on Preventing Child Abuse in Football, Regulatory Reform and Video Assisted Refereeing, a key morning workshop covered the topic of Structured Dialogue.
English Football League (EFL) clubs have committed to meeting with supporters at least twice a year under their ‘Structured Dialogue’ rule. As part of their involvement with the Government Expert Working Group on Supporter Ownership and Engagement, Supporters Direct and FSF presented their findings on how well the Structured Dialogue process is working.
A mid-season survey ‘wish list’ included 63% of supporters hoping to see a Supporter Director representing their trust on their club’s board. 69% of respondents would also like to see a legal agreement that would afford the trust protective rights / commitments to consultation with the club (i.e. shareholders agreement).
However, while some 37% of supporters surveyed said they felt their clubs had exceeded expectations, in some cases there were no meetings with fans at all and there is still plenty to improve on to avoid the process being a box ticking exercise, according to SD’s Nicola Hudson. The session also heard from the Fulham Supporters Trust whose relationship with the club has growth to such a degree that meetings now take place every month and are valued at the highest level within the club. An end-of-season survey is also now underway.
The sessions continued after lunch with a number of options available: Away Ticket Prices, Football Finance, a follow-up session on Structured Dialogue, Watching Football is Not a Crime and Supporter Takeovers.
In the latter, attendees heard that 2016 was the best year ever in England & Wales in terms of clubs becoming community owned, according to James Mathie of Supporters Direct.
SD board member and Bath City’s Oliver Holtaway outlined how the Bath City FC Society has helped to transform their club into a community-owned entity. Four reasons were behind this decision as the cooperative model provides for better governance, more financial stability, a better connection between club and fans and a better connection between the club and its community.
On becoming a community-owned club, Bath City first completed a survey of supporters to ensure their views where taken into consideration in daily operations and strategy matters. When asked their priorities for five years’ time, supporters said (ranked 1 – 3), they wanted the club to be professionally run, to spend within its means and have an ambition to climb the league.
The second speaker of the session was Louise Strutt, a board member at the Foundation of Hearts. The organisation has played a key part in the revitalisation of Hearts of Midlothian, and alongside the willingness and support of current owner Ann Budge are contributing to the redevelopment of Tynecastle before taking the club into community ownership in the coming years. Over 8,000 Foundation of Hearts pledgers currently support the club to the tune of £125,000 each month.
The Closing Session of the day heard from Guardian journalist David Conn. David spoke about the continuing impact of the Hillsborough tragedy before reminding the summit that football clubs are member organisations and should be treated as such. David’s thoughts on the need for improved regulation were echoed in the final address of the day – made by outgoing Supporters Direct chairman Brian Burgess, who steps down after five years at helm of the UK organisation.