How football clubs can maintain their values as they grow

Here’s everything you need to know about striking the balance between investment and club values.

How football clubs can maintain their values as they grow

Women’s football has flourished over the past few years – countless records have been broken on and off the pitch, match day attendance and viewer numbers have soared, and club revenues have more than doubled. This is even more impressive when you consider the lack of investment in women’s teams so far.

External funding can take the pressure off budget-strapped clubs – especially grassroots teams that have to fundraise for every penny they spend. But investment is more than a financial challenge. It’s also about aligning values and taking care of supporters.

Striking the balance between investment and club values is tough, but it’s the only route to achieving sustainable growth. With the help of Lewes FC CEO Maggie Murphy, this guide explores how football clubs can maintain their values as they grow.

Strong values: obstacles or opportunities?

Football clubs with strong values can have a profound impact on the world around them. Embedding the principle of gender equality into everything they do, the team at Lewes FC have changed community perspectives and called out behaviour that doesn’t align with these values. In one instance, a Lewes FC player from the men’s team called for the referee to stop the game because of homophobic chanting from opposition fans.

In some cases, defined values and principles can be an obstacle for investors who want more control over how the club operates. For others, a strong sense of identity is a huge selling point. Not all investors are looking for a hard and fast return. And not all clubs benefit from an injection of cash without other kinds of support, guidance and expertise to go with it.

Many modern investors are looking to make a positive impact on the world around them, aligning themselves with Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) values. Having firm club values can help focus your funding efforts and attract investors who share those values.

As tempting as new money might be, making sure it comes from the right place is something you should carefully consider. If clubs and investors hold conflicting values, decision-making becomes complex. The original club identity can get lost or diluted if clubs and investors aren’t in agreement. This has a knock-on effect on fans, who may feel disillusioned when their club behaves in a way that doesn’t align with their values.

Working with aligned investors is far more straightforward. If you’re generally in agreement about the direction of the club, it’s likely that investment will be constructive.

Showcasing your impact

There are countless ways to demonstrate your values and show how you impact society.

For small teams with a tight budget, social media makes global reach possible. Many platforms are free to join and post on – and organic growth can help you reach new investors and supporters around the world.

Working on community projects and supporting charities and initiatives that reflect your values is another way to build your platform. You’ll meet new people, attract new audiences, and potentially draw PR and media attention too.

Joining forces with groups and campaigns on social issues can reconnect teams with their values and identity, and draw attention from investors who share these values. Clubs’ activism can have a lasting impact on communities, as Lewes FC’s work on gender equality shows. Demonstrating your commitment to specific social issues paints a picture for investors who want to be changemakers too.

Creating a values-based investment approach

Women’s teams are fundamentally different to their male counterparts.

Deloitte’s 2024 Football Money League analysis sees some teams generating most of their revenue on match day, whereas others earn most through sponsorship. Variation doesn’t only exist between men’s and women’s teams, but inside the women’s sector itself. Meaning, there’s no set formula for a successful women’s side.

As things stand, many women’s teams depend on the men’s side for funding. But Maggie challenges the sustainability of this approach. Smaller clubs find it hard to keep up with other clubs that can simply allocate resources to the women’s side, without thinking about how those allocations can be used to grow the ecosystem sustainably.

Whereas women’s clubs without the men's allocation have to be much more innovative and generative in their approach to making money. The longer women’s football depends on men’s teams, the longer it will take to become financially sustainable in its own right.

“It’s very difficult for an investor to enter into a relationship with a major premier league club that has a women’s team, because of the complexity of those business structures,” Maggie explains.

“We talk a lot about needing fresh money in women’s football. The best possible way to do that is through brand new investors who want to invest in teams – but the main teams they can invest into are small independent ones.”

Paying players, maintaining facilities, training and equipment all require funding. But investment doesn’t just need to be financial – fresh perspectives, new voices and expertise are also important.

This expertise can come in many forms: football, physical performance and sports science, commercial, and community building. To evolve the women’s football ecosystem – and not just grow it – clubs need access to expertise that can help them sustain the talent pipeline, develop women’s football culture, and provide a platform for voices and individuals who have been missing from the conversation.

Getting to know potential investors well will help you establish exactly what they can bring to your club. Taking a values-based investment approach will look different depending on the principles you, your team and your fans hold. But here are a few things to consider:

  1. Bring fans along: There’s a third party in the investment relationship – alongside investors and clubs, fans should be included in funding conversations. There are many ways you can do this – hosting public forums online or in person, answering questions, and keeping an open mind when it comes to changing or amending propositions.
  2. Discuss in public: For Lewes FC, maintaining transparency during investment conversations helped the club come to an informed decision. When conversations about investment are ongoing, loop in your supporters, staff and wider stakeholders to understand the full impact of this decision.
  3. Consider club unity: If an investor wants to fund one of your teams, but you’re home to a men’s and a women’s side, question and explore the practicalities of this investment. How will you split revenue? Is it possible to fund club roles fairly if they’re spread across teams? Will the investment challenge the unity of your club?

It takes a community to make the right call

In 2023, Lewes FC had their own multi-million-pound opportunity to explore. A group dedicated to investing in women’s teams was excited by the club’s unique ownership model and strong values.

True to form, Lewes FC included fans in conversations and decision-making throughout a thorough consultation process. Ultimately it was decided that while both parties shared certain principles, the disruption to Lewes FC’s values would be too great.

Investment still remains a priority for Lewes FC – but finding a partner that aligns with the club’s fan ownership model and values is essential. Maggie and the team recognise the unique connection fans have with Lewes FC, and are determined to honour that in future investment partnerships.

“A football club is often the most important thing for every stakeholder. If you’re a fan or a player, it’s the thing you look forward to at the weekend. If you’re the parent of a player, you desperately want your child to be happy there. If you’re a member of staff, it’s your career. For everyone, the club is the most important thing.”

To learn more about how to build a sustainable football club, visit the Xero resource hub for football clubs.

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