What Barcelona can teach about social impact

3 09 2013

Today, more than most days, I’ve been pondering the vexed issue of return on investment and it’s little regarded associate, social return on investment.

Return on investment in purely financial terms is easy to see today, as this is football transfer deadline day. For those of you who do not follow football, transfers of players between clubs can only happen between the beginning of July and the end of August (2nd September this time as 31st August fell at the weekend this year) and during the month of January. For those of you who live on another planet, Gareth Bale, a 22-year-old Welshman, has signed a contract to play football for Spanish football team Real Madrid for about £85m. Since his previous employer, Tottenham Hotspur, paid just £5m to secure his services from Southampton, his move to Madrid represents a massive return on their investment.

But what of the investments that all the fans of Tottenham Hotspur have made in their team? Not just all of those expensive replica tops with the name Bale emblazoned on the backs that are now worthless, but the emotional investment?

Football wasn’t always like it is today. Of the Celtic team that won the European Cup in 1967, the gloriously named Lisbon Lions, all but one of the 15 man squad was born within 10 miles of Celtic Park. Liverpool legend and member of the England team that won the World Cup in 1966 “Sir” Roger Hunt, used to travel to home games on the bus.

Huge amounts of money now pour into football, particularly into the English Premier League, and footballers ride in Bentley’s rather than on buses. Football is big business. But it doesn’t have to be the preserve of billionaire oligarchs.

Barcelona provide an example of how it should be. They are, self-confessedly, “mes que un club” – more than a club and offer a compelling insight into membership, control and impact on a club, community, national and global level. Barcelona Football Club is owned by its members, some 175,000 of them spread not only throughout Catalonia but across the world. Community ownership, fan ownership, is rare in the UK and has been seen as a route of last resort for failed teams but Barcelona show that you can have competitive excellence within a co-operative structure.

In the UK there are more clubs being saved from extinction by their supporters but even fans of larger clubs would like to see things done differently. I count myself amongst the 72% of Liverpool Fans who, when questioned, stated a preference for co-operative ownership rather than control being in the hands of US investors who, while being better than the last lot, will undoubtedly cash in on their investment at some point leaving the club at the mercy of potentially less helpful investors. Success through co-operative ownership, as at Barcelona, challenges the assumption that success can only be found by having a billionaire owner. If every Liverpool Fan paid £500, a proposition mooted when the last owners were looking to cash in their investment, there would be more than enough money to buy the club.

Being a football fan is a social activity not a corporate one. While clubs, like any other enterprise, need to prosper financially this should not be the only focus. It shouldn’t even be the primary motivation. Football clubs should not just be an advertising vehicle for pay-day loan companies, a stock market investment opportunity, a toy for a Russian oligarch or a property development business. The important point is that fan ownership would allow football clubs to be what they should be, what they once were and what Barcelona have created; an institution run by those who are most affected by the outcomes of decisions made in respect of the club, the fans and the local community, rather than being managed solely for financial gain of a few individuals. Football clubs should be managed for social impact in their communities, both local and the network of fans.

And what is true for football clubs is true for many other organisations. Community pubs are thriving in areas where they were set to close. The village pub is not just a business opportunity for a multi-national food and beverage chain, it is a community asset. In many cases where big business couldn’t make enough money from a village inn and closed, or were set to close, it communities have taken over. In running the pub for social impact they have also managed to make significant financial returns too, surpassing what was achieved by the brewery chain.

And lest you think that Barcelona are a single, unique success story you should know that the majority of clubs in the Bundesliga are organised along co-operative lines. There is a good chance that this has played a very important role in ensuring the stability in clubs like Bayern Munich, a team that won every domestic trophy last season and went on to win the European Cup and, more recently, the Super Cup; beating billionaire owned Chelsea in the process.

karen is managing editor at http://www.the3rdimagazine.co.uk
looking at business issues from a more diverse perspective