Non League Daily

Chester FC: Credit Where It's Due

A couple of months ago during one of Chester’s away games, a skydiver came from nowhere and landed on the pitch in the middle of the match.

It was a bit of a shock –just like how the speed of the Welsh border club’s rise back up the football pyramid has shocked many who thought this side was confined to the history books just a few seasons ago.

What makes The Seals’ achievement so special is that the club is banned from having an overdraft facility and has had to make every penny it has spent during a rapid development which has already seen it win three league titles on the trot and end up in the Skrill Conference Premier.

Its rebirth is a case study for the cheerleaders of community-owned football and its method of funding the things it needs would not look out of place in the Roman era which built this city.

“We bartered a lot of what we needed to make this club come alive again. Local businesses and local people got us where we are today and that makes for perhaps the most solid foundation any Chester football club has had” says Dave Riche, Chester FC’s Business Development and Marketing Manager.

“We set up a contra deal with a car company to get free cars for coaching staff; our official ground maintenance supplier has a similar deal with us and our manager Neil Young is on a paid sabbatical from his employers, Merseyrail, who are our official travel partner.”

Support like this is worth its weight in gold to a club with no sugar daddy and five full time staff. And ironically, whilst the club cannot get an overdraft due to nervousness amongst banks to support the phoenix outfit from the off, one of its biggest backers is a credit card company.

“MBNA employ hundreds of people in Chester and they are a big part of this community, so for them to be a sponsor from our rebirth is not only a sign of their commitment to the city but also their belief in us as a community club to do the best we can both on and off the pitch” says Dave.

The board of Chester reads as a who’s-who of local business and everyone knows someone. It’s been that ability to pull in local support which has ensured the Chester project stays on track.

“We are still in tough economic times and when we started this, the UK was in a recession. People were watching their pennies. But having people out in the community talking about us and looking for opportunities helped me immensely with lead generation.

“Our fans and volunteers would do our lead generation for us. They may not know what the opportunity was – that was my job – but people would come up to me and say ‘my boss is interested in sponsoring something’ or ‘how can my company get involved’ – that’s priceless.”

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The club has 1200 season ticket holders and despite being a short trip away from many Premier League and Championship sides, Chester has gained a ‘second club’ supporter base which helps fill the extra seats or even helps in other ways.

“The achievement on for the men’s first team has been like a rocket and now the challenge is to match that in the way we administrate and grow the business overall.

“We now have to look at developing the girls and boys football and make a push towards full-time soccer here. We have achieved so much with an army of volunteers and five full-time staff but we need to push towards employing more people as the club expands. But we will only do that when we know the opportunities are coming in to fund that growth,” says Dave, who joined Chester recently from business development roles at Fleetwood Town and Woking.

Now the strategy is for Chester FC to return the favour to the community and look at ways it can support the needs of the city that helped it come back to life.

“We are now looking at this club as more of a seven day a week operation. What can we do here which supports the people around us or gives them another entertainment option.

“That means anything from investing in our event and conferencing facilities so businesses can look at us as a great conference destination. So instead of meeting in a bland room, how about having the meeting in our changing rooms, or using the pitch for team-building exercises?

“Then there are boot sales or markets on weekends. We already held a little folk festival here last summer and it was well received, so we could do that again – the entertainment options are endless.

“The number of parking spaces is being cut locally, so we say come and park here. We are looking to set up food facilities to offer an alternative to the local office workers and we are looking to work with our betting partner to offer on-site betting to local employees during weekdays.”

All these ideas sound like they are straight off a think-tank day – but they are workable, even with the limited pairs of hands that are available at Chester FC. But Dave believes that whilst some may see a club run by volunteers as a weakness, it actuality provides the strength and flexibility for them to apply some of their money-making schemes.

“A lot of clubs far higher up the pyramid than us would do well to learn from us. Football has made itself a top-heavy industry and it has often ignored its enthusiastic fan base that could do so much of the work that needs to be done. Everyone is united in working for the club here and everyone feels important and that’s how things get done.”

So whilst recent performances on the pitch in the Conference Premier have not been so great, things are flying high off the pitch for Chester – unlike the parachutist that popped in on their away game at Salisbury.

But when you consider Chester will look at any revenue-raising avenue, you can’t rule out Chester hiring the skydiver for a fundraiser soon!

This article was first published in fcbusiness magazine

Article by Marc Webber

Pictures by Action Imagaes

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