Bristol Sport Heralds New Dawn for Sport in the West Country

Image

Stephen Lansdown is recognised throughout Bristol as a man who makes money – and plenty of it. He co-founded Hargreaves Lansdown in 1981, trading from a spare bedroom during the company’s early days. The company recently enjoyed record revenues, which pushed Lansdown into 974th place in Forbes Magazine’s list of richest people in the world. Having been Chairman of Bristol City for nine years, he stepped down in 2011 but still remains the club’s majority shareholder.

Shortly after leaving his post as Chairman of Bristol City, Lansdown promptly brought Bristol Rugby Club in early 2012. Six months later he formed Bristol Sport Limited to oversee the financial and business management of both clubs. Lansdown says that ‘I said at the time of the acquisition there was a great synergy between the two clubs and that I intended them to work closely together.’

It was recently revealed that Lansdown has actually been bankrolling Bristol Rugby since 2008, when the club was in real danger of going out of business. It’s clear to see that Lansdown is passionate about sport, but Bristol as a city has been underachieving in this area for years. The city’s two football clubs have spent just five years in the top two divisions in the last twenty years, whilst Bristol Rugby have been yo-yoing between the top flight and the second division for the best part of a decade.

As well as a lack of results, building new facilities for the region’s top teams has also proved a problem. Bristol Rovers have been attempting to build a new stadium since 2005, whilst Bristol City has only just been granted approval to renovate their stadium. They’ve been attempting to do this since 2007. This is where Bristol Sport come into the equation. Stu Rogers, Chairman of Bristol City Supporters Club, says that ‘their [Bristol Sports] value is in the stadium consultations, planning permissions and eventual build. They bring resource and expertise that isn’t available within the club.’ This value was made clear when Martin Griffiths, Chairman of Bristol Sport, spoke at the Council meeting which decided to grant Bristol City the right to expand and renovate their new stadium after several failed attempts. Key to the approval was Griffith’s highlighting of the economic reasons for the build, as well as the fact 450 extra jobs are to be created.

Not just Bristol City has benefited from the council’s decision. Bristol Rugby are moving into Ashton Gate as of September. The stadium will include several new features, such as rail seating, which allows fans the choice of standing or sitting, more public transport links and improved disabled facilities. As well as this, the total capacity will increase to 27,000. Surprisingly, there have been few grumblings from the fans about Bristol Rugby’s relocation, as the benefits are there for all to see.

Chris Booy, Chairman of Bristol Rugby and a director at Bristol Sport, believes moving into Ashton Gate will help improve the club’s chances of getting back into the Premiership, and in turn, attract better players to the club. He also highlighted the fact that Bristol Rugby will be partners rather than tenants in the new stadium. ‘With both clubs having a common majority shareholder in Steve (Lansdown) there are obvious economic benefits of playing in the same stadium.’

Bristol City fans are also for the move, and Rogers believes the club is ‘sweating an asset.’ However he does raise some fears: ‘the ownership of the stadium is still up for debate and a cause for concern.’ These concerns have now been addressed, with Bristol Sport Ltd confirmed as the owners, and Bristol City and Bristol Rugby confirmed as tenants. This could have been an issue – plenty of problems have emerged at clubs where ownership of the club and stadium is split, with different owners wanting different things. Lansdown owns both Bristol City and Bristol Rugby, making a scenario like this unlikely.

Some people have reservations about Lansdown, specifically about his dealings at Bristol City. For one of the richest men in the world, many are concerned about the fact that the majority of his ‘investment’ in the club is actually made up of loans. These loans are actually secured by the club’s assets – including Ashton Gate. Add the fact that Lansdown charges interest on these loans, with the interest again secured against the clubs assets, and City fans have a reason to worry. It is not that long ago that the club slid from the first to the fourth division in just four years, bankrupting itself in the process.

Rogers knows Lansdown personally, and had this to say on the matter: ‘He has the football club at heart and will be the first to admit that he has been poorly advised in the past.’ For the first five years of Lansdown’s term as Bristol City Chairman the club was financially stable with no debts in need of repayment. It was with promotion to the Championship that finances began to deteriorate, and advice became less sound. Net debt spiralled to £40 million over the course of five seasons and come relegation at the end of last season, it was clear something needed to be done.

Image

The club underwent a massive reshuffle at boardroom level, and the average age and size of the playing staff was reduced in an effort to reduce debts. Lansdown then agreed to remove £35 million worth of debt from the balance sheet. The remaining debt is interest-free, with no fixed repayment date. On Bristol City’s website, Chief Executive Doug Harman says that ‘after completing this transaction the football club has cut its total debts by nearly 65 percent and what remains is at no ongoing cost to the football club.’ Lansdown may well have made mistakes in the past, but has certainly done his best to clean up and correct them. Since relegation, Bristol City have been run more prudently, with the academy receiving heavy investment. It has now officially been upgraded to Category Two status – making it the South West’s premier academy, and putting it on a par with Premier League clubs Newcastle United and Crystal Palace.

Bristol Sport encompasses more than just Bristol City and Bristol Rugby, with the company funding several other teams and sporting personnel. Dino Zamparelli is a Bristolian racing driver in the GP3 series, and readily admits it would have been a struggle carrying on his career without the help of Bristol Sport. He told me about his financial hardship, his struggles to get the best equipment and the best team. Despite this, he was still winning races, and continuing to improve through sheer hard work. Zamparelli contacted Bristol Sport himself when attempting to find additional sponsorship in his quest to become a Formula 1 driver, and says that after just one meeting they were more than happy to help: ‘This year I will be racing with the most successful GP3 team ever; a massive opportunity and that is thanks to Bristol Sport.’

It’s not just racing that Bristol Sport has invested in, as Zamparelli tells me they have big plans for the city’s lesser known sports teams. ‘We will have a professional basketball team for the first time and the women’s super league team (Bristol Academy Women’s Football Club) aiming to win the WSL Final this time.’

The Bristol Flyers basketball team is a rare story of sporting success in the city, and they have established itself as one of the leading semi-professional teams in the country, having competed and won at the highest level in the English Basketball League. Bristol Sport has not only helped raise awareness of the club, but have invested heavily in it. So much so that the club are now professional and more importantly will be competing in the fully professional British Basketball League as of this year. Flyers coach Andreas Kapoulas tells the Flyers website the extra cash will help the club hugely: ‘We’re looking at a five year plan to build a successful BBL franchise. Bristol Sport can enhance our model and produce a franchise that spectators will want to come and watch.’

As well as investing in the Flyers, Bristol Sport now supplies the kit for Bristol Academy Women’s (with the team having a say in the strip design). They will play with the Bristol City Community Trust’s logo emblazoned upon the shirt. The Community Trust will be working closely with the women’s football team and Bristol Sport in an attempt to raise female participation in sport in the city.

It is not just professional sport Bristol Sport is looking to invest in, as the company takes a firm interest in education and community work in the Bristol area. Their goal is to raise the standard of physical education in primary schools, through working with various affiliates – often well-known members of local sporting teams – who are experts in delivering such programmes. As well as running initiatives in schools, the company has been working with Bristol City Council and British Cycling in order to bring a major cycling event to the city in the Autumn of 2014. Griffiths says that Bristol Sport is bringing the event to the city ‘to enable wide spread participation among the cyclists of Bristol, while also highlighting the health benefits.’

I mentioned previously Bristol Sport works closely with the Bristol City Community Trust, but their reach in the community extends far beyond that. The company works with three other affiliates – the Bristol Flyers Community, the Women’s Super League Community and the Bristol Rugby Community Foundation. All three enable Bristol Sport to work closely with the community in their attempt to promote good health and exercise. The company is still open to sponsoring local organisations, in so long as they offer the wider community a benefit.

Clearly, Bristol Sport Ltd are making great attempts to revitalize sport in Bristol – both professionally and at amateur level. The city has been starved of sporting success; however the amount of money invested by Lansdown and Bristol Sport is too large not to make a difference. Obviously, large investment won’t turn things around immediately on the pitch, but the company’s help in securing the Ashton Gate expansion and its work at grass roots level will lay a solid foundation for sport in the city.

With a man as popular and passionate about sport as Steve Lansdown at the helm, Bristol Sport looks to have a promising future. You just have to listen to what the people that know him think. Rogers tells me that his ‘tenacity will probably see Bristol Sport work out eventually,’ while Zamparelli describes him as ‘an amazing individual that loves sport. Without him, Bristol Sport certainly wouldn’t be where it is now.’ With hard work and sheer determination, Bristol Sport and the clubs it encompasses can finally change the perception of sport in the West Country.