Suffolk Football Association helps clubs turn a profit

The team at the Suffolk FA HQ in Stowmarket.
L-R Laura Smith,Chief Executive, Phil Lawler.Chairman,

The team at the Suffolk FA HQ in Stowmarket. L-R Laura Smith,Chief Executive, Phil Lawler.Chairman, Nathan French,Footbal Deveopment Manager. - Credit: Archant

The team at the Suffolk Football Association are working to help clubs in the county improve their business acumen. Ross Bentley reports.

At the top, it is clear that football is big business. You only have to look at the deals completed by Premier League clubs during the recent transfer window, which together totalled more than £1billion, to know there is a lot of money sloshing around.

But at a grass roots level the situation couldn’t be more different with many small clubs struggling to make ends meet and to find money for basic equipment.

But if they need help and advice, these clubs can turn to the Suffolk Football Association (FA), the organisation which not only oversees the network of clubs across the county but also works to drive up standards in coaching, behaviour and, increasingly, business acumen.

All 1,500 or so football clubs in Suffolk – from youth clubs through to adult clubs, and including Ipswich Town - pay a membership fee to the Suffolk FA. This money makes up a sizeable chunk of the organisation’s £660,000 turnover with additional funds coming from the many courses it runs for coaches and referees and discipline income from the grass roots game. Around 40% of its income comes via a grant from the game’s ruling body, the Football Association.

But says, Suffolk FA chief executive Laura Smith, the organisation is not for profit and invests any surplus money back into the game in Suffolk.

“The aim of Suffolk FA is to support clubs and to ensure the money that members give us is used in the best possible way,” said Laura, who joined the body in 2012 after a successful playing career with AFC Wimbledon Ladies and Millwall Lionesses, and roles in sports development within local authorities.

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Proactive

In the four years since she arrived Laura has espoused a need for the team at Suffolk FA to get out more and visit clubs, and to be more proactive.

“Traditionally, County FAs have been about rules and regulations and discipline,” she continued.

“But that is probably only a third of what we do now. A lot of our activities are about getting out there and making a positive difference.”

Based at headquarters on the outskirts of Stowmarket, Laura works alongside Nathan French,who is Suffolk FA’s football development manager. Nathan explains that the current priorities for development in the county are outlined in a four-year strategy with nine key strands including promoting better qualified coaches and referees, and expanding participation in disability football and walking football for older players.

He said: “Across the board – if you are a chairman, secretary, player or coach – we are trying to give people a positive experience and hopefully that will play a part in them staying in the game longer and getting other people involved.”

In order to reach out to people more effectively, the Suffolk FA has gone through a major rebranding exercise over the last 18 months, which has enabled the organisation to engage better with sponsors and to give it a more professional look and feel. Part of this overhaul has been around a better use of social media to engage with players and businesses alike.

“We now live in a visual world and people like to see things for themselves,” added Nathan

Community Clubs

Another key strand of the Suffolk FA development strategy is to bolster what are known as Community Clubs – larger clubs that offer football across all age levels, for boys and girls, and have excellent facilities that are available to the whole community. There are currently 14 such clubs in Suffolk, including AFC Sudbury, Felixstowe & Walton United, Haverhill Rovers and Woodbridge Town.

Nathan says support for these clubs includes advice on enabling them to become sustainable businesses in their own right.

“We work with them to develop a five-year plan that involves marketing, help with social media and encouraging participation,” he added.

Suffolk’s FA new chairman, Phil Lawler, who took up the role during the summer, has seen this support first-hand. Phil is also vice-chairman at, Brantham Athletic Football Club, another Community Club that has benefitted from the Suffolk FA’s intervention.

He said: “At Brantham, we rely heavily on the Suffolk FA with business planning and putting the right structures in place. They help us to ensure we have the right system to support the long-term management of our property and its facilities.”

Phil says the aim at Brantham is to make the club a “seven days- a-week operation”, not just a place that people go to watch football on Saturday afternoons and Tuesday evenings. The club is working to promote the ground as a venue for training courses, football academy training and pitch hire.

When not talking football, Phil is a solicitor at the Ipswich offices of law firm Prettys. He says he hopes by joining the Suffolk FA’s board he will be able to help the organisation with “the bigger picture” – and “to help the organisation look at what it is trying to achieve as a whole rather than focussing on separate projects or independent geographical areas”.

He added: “I head up a department at Prettys – so have experience in managing budgets, staffing and have general administration and business experience.”

Grants

In addition to business advice, the Suffolk FA helps clubs apply for grants from numerous sources including the Football Foundation – the largest sports charity in the UK. In the past year or so, an impressive nearly £3million has been granted to clubs in Suffolk to help them with investments in facilities and pitch improvements.

“We punch above our weight for a small, rural county FA,” said Nathan.

“One of the reasons we have been so successful with grants of late is because clubs in Suffolk have delivered on what they said they would do with previous investments.

“We’ve now got some really strong clubs around who are giving some great opportunities to people in the community - the FA has seen this and this has led to all this extra money coming in.”

When it comes to improving facilities, the Suffolk FA is hoping to lead by example. While the 14-strong team of employees at the Suffolk FA currently work from offices located at The Buntings to the east of Stowmarket, just off the A14, it has plans to invest a chunk of its reserves in developing a site at Millfields, in the centre of the town, and build new offices and training facilities including a state-of-the art 3G pitch.

‘On the footballing map’

The hope is the project can be delivered in next two years and that the site will become a resource for local clubs to use and a base where the Suffolk FA can run its courses and hold football festivals.

Laura believes a facility like Millfields would “really put Suffolk on the footballing map”.

She added: “It’s about giving people the opportunity to play on a really good facility, as well as enabling us to maximise our money. If we invest in a good facility and have a good football plan, we can generate funds that we can put back into football.”

So well looked upon is the Suffolk FA by the FA that it has been asked to run a number of national pilot programmes. They include a “silent weekend” designed to stop parents shouting at junior games, and different ways to promote respect and fair play, such as awarding points not just for winning a match but also for the good conduct of players and supporters.