Whatever football now represents, it is certainly a lot more important than just being a sport. It is a growing commercial sector, with revenues expected to jump massively through digital television. This places new pressures on the relationships of clubs with their local authorities, which have to balance their support for an important community resource with the recognition that clubs that convert into PLCs are potentially major profit-earning ventures.
Dr Sean Perkins is research associate at the Centre for Football Research at Leicester University and is investigating the relationship between clubs and councils. He says that most councils recognise the need to support their local clubs because the identity of communities is wrapped up with the success of the team. "The football team may be the only thing an area is known for," explains Dr Perkins.
One of the problems for local authorities and, ultimately, for the clubs, Dr Perkins argues, is that many clubs lose touch with their communities once they become PLCs. "The larger clubs that have become PLCs have tended to move away from their communities," he says. "It is dangerous for them to turn themselves into commuter clubs. They need to remember that once a week or once a fortnight they cause disruption to their local communities."
Loosening the connection between club and town may lead to a club losing the support of its local authority, suggests Dr Perkins. "In the past, a lot of football clubs were all about local businessmen having stakes. Now city institutions are running the clubs. We've not yet accepted the franchise idea of the States, where a team might be located anywhere, but with Wimbledon talking of moving, we might be edging that way."
Dr Perkins says that enormous benefits can flow from a positive relationship between club and council. Not the least is the lifting of community spirit achieved by sporting success. More practically, clubs such as Northampton and Huddersfield have the best facilities for disabled supporters precisely because of the relationships they have with their local authorities.
Huddersfield had been on the verge of bankruptcy when Kirklees council stepped in, offering a commercial partnership. A joint venture was formed in which the council and the club each held a 40 per cent shareholding and Huddersfield's rugby league club 20 per cent. The ground, owned by the council, was developed into a state-of-the art stadium for the two sports, with new leisure facilities and a conference suite. Finance came from some of the council's capital receipts, plus grants from the Football Trust and Sports Council, commercial sponsorship, sports charities and the lottery. Kirklees expects the enterprise to be profitable, and it has been copied elsewhere.
Sunderland developed its ground because of the co-operation of the Tyne & Wear Development Corporation. Owner- ship of the ground - once a coal mine - was given by the corporation to the football club, and the club met the full costs of developing the ground. The club says that it is coincidental that it also has the biggest community scheme in the country, pushing anti-drugs, anti-racist and positive educational messages.
Newcastle City Council praises Newcastle United football club, which became a PLC last year. "We have a very good relationship with them," says a spokeswoman. "Their community division does a lot for our schools. They have an after-school homework club which the schools are linked into, with PCs and curriculum support. It is tremendously popular." The council has, though, been criticised by some residents for giving permission for a new ground on green belt land in the city.
The Institute of Leisure and Amenities Managers is holding a conference later this year, examining the issues thrown up by the evolving relationship between councils and clubs. Vice-president Mike Fulford says that some of the biggest problems arise as small clubs work their way up the football pyramid. As they achieve promotion they are expected to improve their grounds, which are often owned by councils. There is then a potential conflict as to who should pay for the improvements.
But new issues arise as clubs become PLCs and recognise that they must work their assets harder. "If a ground is only used for football then it is only used for 1 per cent of the available hours," explains Mr Fulford. "Which is why more of them now have fitness and conference facilities attached. They already have the parking and transport links." Mr Fulford says that a club being a PLC should not affect a council's relationship with it. "On the regeneration side, councils are working with profit- making businesses all the time. What you do get is the situation with Newcastle needing a new ground, which is to some extent a planning issue, but the opposition to which shows up that community links are not as strong as they could be."