Owners of English Football League clubs can look to Luton Town blueprint for inspiration
2019 has been a year in which the state of finances and the manner in which clubs are run in English football have once again come under scrutiny.
The financial mismanagement culminating in the administration of Bury Football Club and its subsequent expulsion from the English Football League [EFL] has become a well-documented saga. Meanwhile, there are ongoing concerns about safeguarding the future of Macclesfield Town Football Club, following successive months of failure to pay staff and players on time; a situation that is now being closely monitored by the Professional Footballers’ Association [PFA] and the EFL.
It is a scenario that has left football supporters nationwide demanding reform into how the EFL oversees the running of its member clubs, however, responsibility ultimately falls open the owners of the clubs themselves.
Little over a decade ago, another English football club found itself in similar times of turmoil. Luton Town Football Club was bought out of administration in July 2008 by a consortium of supporters known as Luton Town FC 2020 Ltd [LTFC 2020]. The consortium was named after the predicted year of Luton’s eventual rebirth, with the club dropping out of the Football League one year later. Ten years and three promotions later, a well-run Luton Town Football Club now sits proudly in the EFL Championship, the second tier of English football, following a complete financial, administrative, cultural and philosophical overhaul. Equally, its success is well ahead of its 2020 schedule.
For those clubs undergoing the testing times that the Bedfordshire side was forced to endure a decade ago, its model for change may be one for the owners of struggling clubs to aspire to in order to plot a course out of financial strife and back onto the road to success. In The Parliamentary Review, written at a time when Luton Town were well on their way to promotion from League Two, England’s fourth tier, the club’s CEO Gary Sweet discussed the club’s model and how it mapped the way forward.
One telling change which has helped the club prosper is how LTFC 2020 were able to “reinvent” how the club “interacts with and benefits the communities it represents”, as Sweet describes in more detail. Sweet said:
“We are reclaiming our place not just as a leading club on the field of play, but as leaders with regards to the way football engages with society. We have primarily been doing so through the establishment of a positive culture and by promoting shared interests alongside a sense of civic pride.
"Harnessing the potential of sport for social good, we are making sure that sport can have a meaningful and measurable impact on improving people’s lives, be they participants, spectators or connected communities.”
The club made it a mission to promote inclusivity and tackle discrimination to make itself a beacon of equality. Measures to reach into the diverse local community included the relaunching of the Luton Town Community Trust and its outreach programmes, the establishment of a Disabled Supporters Association, adult mental health programmes and after-school sports cohesion initiatives for local children.Another was a unique “Headscarves to Football Scarves” scheme which supported Muslim women and encouraged access to football for people of all religions and ethnicities. Luton Town has even endeavoured to address the nationwide skills gap on a local level through its Luton Street League sports skills and employment programme, which engages with 16-25-year-olds who are unemployed and not participating in training or education.
An integral part of being a well-run football club is having a core of dedicated staff. Luton Town recognises the importance of their staff and sought to repay their services by becoming the first English football club to become ‘a fully accredited real living wage employer as supported by the Living Wage Foundation’ in 2015. Yet, for how well the club has engaged with its community and its staff since the change in regime, a vital step in ensuring that Luton Town does not once more go astray was to give its supporters more awareness of how the club is managed and increased involvement in its future direction.
Luton Town’s way of handing more power to its supporters as the lifeblood of the club tied in with the government’s Sporting Future initiative. Highlighting this, Sweet wrote:
“We recognise that where fans are given the power to be involved in the management of clubs they love, there are even greater benefits derived from their engagement with the sport. We have awarded complimentary shares to our supporters’ trust, structured regular supporters’ board meetings and, in 2015, became the first club to legally gift protection rights to our supporters’ trust on all our image rights, including the club’s name, nickname, colours, club crest and mascot imagery.”
That is not the only way that the club has handed more power to the community. Both local people and the club’s supporters have been heavily involved in the development of the club’s new stadium facility, which will include a mixed-use office and retail scheme for the town’s benefit. As Sweet describes:
“It [the new stadium facility] combines football activities with community facilities including a gym, healthcare, education, nursery, crèche, soft-play, a hotel, a music venue and destination dining, and provides 600 much-needed new homes.”
The financing of the community hub is coming from a facilitating office, retail and leisure scheme, which will provide provide another link to the town via the M1. The scheme is estimated to generate 10,000 new jobs in the area and boost the local economy with an extra £250 million per year. The scale of engagement with the stadium development scheme within the community has also been of record-breaking proportions. Sweet wrote:
“Overwhelmingly supported by more than 11,000 letters and emails to Luton borough council – a record-breaking response to any UK planning development – the two schemes have the backing of not just the football club’s supporters, but also the people and communities of Luton and its satellite towns and villages.”
Furthermore, in order to safeguard the new facility, its ownership will not be tied to the club, but left in the hands of a select group, which will include supporters’ associations to ensure further control and reassurance for Luton Town fans.
The measures that the club has taken certainly lives up to Sweet’s assertion that Luton Town’s ‘sense of community’ remains an 'all-encompassing part’ of the club’s ethos. He added:
“We empower supporters and locals to have a major voice in the club, to improve well-being and enjoy greater social engagement, to have a say in the development of their town, to restore pride for all the people of Luton, to promote harmony and, above else, create new prosperity.
“We intend to continue to be a football club that is at the beating heart of its community and an inspiration for others.”
With success off the pitch having culminated in success on it, Sweet’s vision for Luton Town Football Club to become a beacon of inspiration for others may well become a reality. For other clubs still cut adrift in troubled waters, models for success such as this are needed to offer a guiding hand to future stability and sustainability.