Having attended the Supporters Summit 2013 at the English Football Associations new centre of excellence at St Georges Park, which was hosted by Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation. This event was attended by supporters from across all Europe. These supporters came from a wide range of clubs in a variety of situations. Some are simply trying to keep their club alive despite the best efforts of business minded people, others have lost that battle and have started their own phoenix club based on democratic community ownership principles. The Trusts from many of EPL clubs are working to keep their club grounded in their community with a local sense of identity and history.
The very next weekend we met up with an equally diverse group of Scottish football supporters at the Supporters Direct Scotland Club Ownership Summit at Stirling Albion. Here we met supporters who already own their football club or in a very good position to take control of the destiny of their club or believe that community ownership is the only sustainable future for their club.
So what have learned from meeting all these football supporters?
The position of our football club and the deteriorating relationship between He that “runs it” and its supporters is almost the default position for football clubs today. The single person ownership model is more prevalent than at any other time. A lot of football clubs are run with a cavalier disregard for the fundamentals of economics, business planning, marketing, social responsibility and sound financial planning. Sadly this includes our own club. Most of the clubs that make use of these basic business tools are clubs where fans have a strong voice or they are the outright owners.
Clubs that become community owned know that their most important asset is the supporters because without them there is nothing. A good relationship must be built and maintained with them to ensure sustainability off the pitch which ultimately helps to bring success on the pitch. At the Supporters Summit 2013 Tim Connelly the Vice President of Sales for the Green Bay Packers, the only community owned club in the NFL, said “if our customers are angry with us we have missed the point”. He also observed that Green Bay are in the subscription business “we want people to keep coming back and signing up for longer, to do that we have to give them something they want, they have to have a sense of community with the club”.
Back in Kilmarnock however, our Chairman seems unwilling to engage with the local community. Our attendances are dwindling, a 16% reduction in home attendances last season alone1. The average age of Killie supporters is rising so we are facing a demographic time bomb. We are a club that is in danger of literally dying out in the next 50 years unless we start trying to reverse this trend now. There is no vision or plan to reverse this trend coming from the boardroom. The local community is the biggest and most likely source of new supporters for us. As a football club our very existence depends on developing a long term and comprehensive strategy to bring in new supporters. This means Killie have to be at the very heart of the community.
The Trust has developed a number of projects that promote education, health and well-being in our community that also raise awareness of Kilmarnock Football Club. These projects have all been designed to be sustainable over a long period of time which is vital if the club is to start growing its support again. We realised from the start that we had to use the minimum amount of club resources as these are in very short supply. The K-Steps programme is just one of these projects. We have several others at an advanced stage of readiness, but they have been sitting on the shelf for over 18 months. The key element to going forward with these projects is the engagement of the club. The Trust has made several attempts to engage with Mr Johnston on the subjects of community development, the use of volunteers and community ownership. These were generally rebuffed and those that did move forward took so long to do so that the opportunity was lost or the conditions for club involvement were such that the board of the Killie Trust would have been at risk of breaking its own operating rules.
So where do we go from here? People say that community ownership cannot work at big clubs but the Champion’s League final this year laid that myth to rest once and for all. We, as a community, need to take the destiny of our football club into our own hands. There are great examples of community ownership across the UK.
There is no quick, easy answer to the difficulties our club faces, but the current chairman has no plan to take our club forwards and is unwilling to accept any support other than cash. Our Football Club should be doing great things in our community right now. Things that would start to reverse the inevitable decline we are in right now. However, short-termism is the order of the day for the Chairman and one man board of Kilmarnock Football Club.
There is no white knight waiting in the wings and anyone that claims to be a white knight needs to answer some very serious questions about their plans. People keep on asking “where is the alternative”. WE, the supporters of Kilmarnock Football Club, founded in 1869, are the alternative. Fans are always the bank of last resort. When everything has been run into the ground and every line of credit fails and the gates are about to be locked forever, the fans pull together. They find a way to put aside their differences and take that step into the unknown and take control of the football club they love.
It is happening right now at Dunfermline. Pars UNITED have been named the preferred bidder. The only other bidder decided to remain anonymous and this lack of transparency appears to have affected their chances.
It is happening right now at Hearts. The Foundation of Hearts has put in a very strong bid for the club and we will know soon if it has succeeded.
Are Hearts or Dunfermline fans any smarter than Killie fans? No. The only reason we will fail is because we fail ourselves.
What can we do?
1. Kilmarnock Standard 12.07.2013, page 103, John Livingston.