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Football and Finance

By Gavin Mapstone

The other week I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by Swindon Town Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Nick Watkins entitled “football & finance versus passion & professionalism”. Not a footballing man – Nick prefers the oval ball – he started his talk by warning the audience that he couldn’t talk for fifty-five minutes on football because he didn’t know a lot about it. What followed was an hour long journey through Watkins career focussing on the need for passion in the work place along with some insights into the management of the football club on the role of players.

A talented businessman, Watkins background is in the media and executive search, he was in Hollywood doing consultancy work when Swindon’s new owner Andrew Fitton called him to ask him to take on the role of CEO. Living in Swindon that’s not a switch I would have done but Fitton and Watkins had long been discussing running a sports club and the decision was an easy one for him.

Originally from Newcastle, Fitton has lived in Wiltshire for twenty years and prior to taking over the Town was Chairman of Hungerford Town. Swindon can hardly have been an attractive proposition, the ground is on land owned by the Council and when they took it over, the club was in complete disarray. The club had no real idea of what its contractual obligations over players were. The accounts hadn’t been done for several years and the club was in a Creditors Voluntary Agreement over £900k that was owed, whilst there were £5 million of other debts. In Watkins own words he doubted whether a football club could ever be cash positive so why did Fitton choose Swindon? Perhaps it was the fact that the club was not well financially run and therefore offered some easy pickings in boosting revenues that attracted him. This is the short-term goal and Watkins immediate focus is on driving up the clubs income in order to help Swindon Town to become sustainable in the Championship within three years. This seems ambitious given that historically Swindon’s gates average less than 10,000 and that there is still a strong link between attendance and league position.

He said that the gap between League One and the Championship is becoming comparable to that between the Premier League and the Championship and the fact that Swindon are having to compete with clubs the size of Leeds and Leicester is testament to that. Also that the smaller clubs such as Colchester, Scunthorpe & Southend have struggled to compete following promotion.

Gate receipts remain very important to Swindon and whilst season ticket sales were up to 5,200 (the target had been for 6,000 – double the season before) that still left 60% of the County Ground potentially vacant each game. The previous match Swindon had attracted 14,000 fans for the visit of Leeds of which 5,000 were ‘wavering’ Swindon fans. Clearly a big opportunity to give those fans a positive experience of visiting the County Ground and to make them leave feeling passionate about the club. Unfortunately no one had told the players and Swindon lost three-one in an uninspiring display, heads visibly dropping after the second goal.

This led to Watkins questioning whether the players understood the impact of their performance on the fans and whether if they did they would have tried harder. Do players feel passionate about the club they play for or are they more concerned with their appearance fee and goal bonus? Is it even justifiable to expect them to feel passionate about the club? To them it is a job and not always a stable one.

Looking at City, I think that you can probably guarantee that local players such as Carey & Skuse give their all, whilst others with a long association with City such as Murray & Tinnion have/had more than just a financial interest in the club. But for others, such as Lita, City was only a vehicle for their own career and there have been many insipid displays by loan players over the years.

One idea that Watkins proposed to help motivate the players was to talk to them about their role within the clubs business plan, and for the players to try and see themselves as part of the bigger picture at Swindon Town in order to motivate them that way. Within football clubs many of the non-playing staff are in retail roles and their targets will be helped or hindered by what happens on the pitch. One hopes that taking time to make players understand how they impact on business targets and selling the view of the whole club as being the team can only bring positive benefits. The alternate view that players are self-interested and see themselves as somehow remote from the non-playing side is a bleak one.

The other aspect of the talk that interested me was Watkins run through of the clubs income. He aims to increase non-football income by £750k to £1m over the next twelve months and Swindon have invested in upgrading their conferencing facilities. They are also investing in a Customer Relationship Management system in order to communicate better with season ticket holders and will introduce a club lottery which based on similar performance to that at Huddersfield or Burnley could make the club an extra £300k per year. He was also quite open that Swindon was a ‘selling club’ and see the youth squad as something to make extra income. Recently Jutkiewicz was transferred to Everton and Ben Tozer to Newcastle. The latter for a reported £1.3 million but the reality being that £1 million of that depends on performance such as first team appearances. Both players going before fans could really see them in action.

Match-day revenue continues to be vital and Swindon Town have a vast array of performance indicators to measure this. Match day spend per head, retail revenues, kiosk revenues, programme sales to name but a few. This led me to consider whether in the board room we are not described as fans but as revenue generating units? The one slight blemish on Bristol City’s recent performance is that sometimes the impression is given that the club places commercial concerns above those of fans, is that a surprise given the importance of finances to clubs these days and that fans are equally as important as customers as they are cheering the team on.

Going back to club employees and the fact that they are likely to be judged on their success in hitting revenue targets is there any incentive within their roles to think in terms other than those that effect their bottom-line. Ultimately CEO’s such as Colin Sexstone & Nick Watkins will be judged on the financial growth of the businesses they run and should they go for job interviews elsewhere it’s much more advantageous for them to be able to boast of revenues increasing by x% rather than that they cut ticket prices and gave a free match-day programme to each fan.

In conclusion perhaps the best that we can hope for is that we part with our cash willingly rather than feeling that the club are trading on our loyalty to them. If pitched correctly then most of us are happy to contribute towards the wellbeing of the club and its only when we feel that the club are taking advantage of us that feelings of resentment and anger creep in.
 
I think that if clubs want to progress then there is little option to them other than to investigate ways of maximising their income and inevitably that means them investigating every opportunity to make us, the fans, spend as much as we humanly can on footballing products. Inevitably there will be losers in this and it seems unlikely that football will ever go back to the days where tickets were affordable to all and dads carried there son’s over the turnstiles.

The views expressed in this 'Soapbox' section are those of the author of each article and do not necessarily reflect those of the Bristol City Supporters Trust

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