Friday, 25 May 2012

The Thorny Issue of Potential

As part of their recent 'Geographies of Football' series, the excellent Two Unfortunates website cast its eye over the economic potential of Oxford to progress to a higher level. Their conclusion, that Oxford have “League One potential but unlikely to rise higher” contradicted the generally received wisdom among Oxford fans that the area could support a Championship side at least. The opinion was dismissed out of hand as “pub banter thinly disguised as intellectual analysis” when word of the article reached the Yellows Forum, but were we right to dismiss it so quickly? Have we been guilty of excessive optimism over the medium term prospects of our club? There seems little doubt that we could – even should – be able to compete at League One level, but could we ever go higher?

The most obvious and frequently expressed argument suggesting that we could go on to bigger things lies approximately 25 miles away in Reading. If they can do it, why can't we? Throughout much of our lifetimes, Reading were not so dissimilar from ourselves (and were probably a slightly smaller club), bouncing around the Football League in front of a few thousand fans at the crumbling and unloved Elm Park. Even at the height of our own late-nineties crisis, we gave Reading a battering and sent them on their way to relegation. So what changed? In the simplest of terms, they got John Madejski and we got Firoz Kassam. Madejski is in some ways the perfect owner for a club like Reading; building the club 'brick by brick' with a steady flow of investment (Reading's debt to Madejski is currently approximately £25 million), securing a new stadium, improving infrastructure and, of course, providing significant investment in the playing squad at the right time. Madejski's arrival at Reading also occurred at exactly the right time, as the multiple reforms of English football in the 1990s made football attractive to the affluent middle class. While traditionally, with just one major working class industrial employer in the town, Reading's relatively small working class population held the club back in footballing terms, now Berkshire's commuter belt affluence has propelled them to a new level.

Our own position in the mid-90s was not so different and South Oxfordshire is demographically similar to Berkshire. With a benevolent dictator like Madejski to guide the ship, we could have found ourselves in the upper echelons of English football, never having to suffer the horrors of the Conference. There is not, however, a long list of potential suitors with the money, vision or inclination to do that with a football club – there wasn't then and there isn't now. Reading are the exception, not the rule, and in any case our own circumstances have changed dramatically since then. Those at the top have long since pulled up the ladder and it is now harder than ever for a club in our position to reel in those who have become established fixtures in the Championship. Given some of the other factors still holding the club back, it would require a decade of the current steady progress to reach the level Reading are at as a club.

It would perhaps be more useful to instead compare ourselves to some of our other local rivals. Swindon and Wycombe are the two most obvious candidates for such a comparison, and both of those clubs have yo-yoed between Leagues One and Two in recent seasons. Furthermore, they've both accumulated substantial debt in doing so: Swindon's currently stands at around £10.7 million, while Wycombe's totals £8.3 million. That it costs so much to fund even this moderate performance perhaps gives an indication of the task we face. Clubs have been spending big money to get out of League Two (Swindon and Crawley this season, Fleetwood and Rotherham next), but a quick look across the Gloucestershire border to Cheltenham shows how successful League Two teams can be built on a small budget.

Picture from We Are Oxford United
However, for all these comparisons to other clubs, Oxford is a unique city and there are a unique set of factors shaping the future of the football club. The biggest millstone around the club's neck is that it doesn't own the Kassam Stadium and therefore misses out on a lot of potential commercial revenue, as well as being financially damaged by the excessive rental and maintenance charges. In most cases where clubs have risen from bottom to top, they are supported by generous stadium deals – Swansea, Doncaster and Hull are obvious examples. One of the comments on the article that inspired this piece also raises an interesting point: the club has become marginalised in the city by its out-of-town location and the matchday experience at the soulless wind tunnel hardly encourages people to make the trip out to the Leys, especially when compared to the vast range of other leisure options in Oxford.

Returning to the issue of demographics discussed in the Two Unfortunates article, Oxford again face a unique set of challenges. Statistics show that Oxford is divided between the very rich and the very poor. While the former still display little interest in their local football club, the latter can scarce afford to support the club. Our task is to capture the interest of the notoriously fickle wealthy population, while at the same time remaining affordable to all. A further issue is that more than a quarter of the city's population are students and therefore transitory; those who are interested in football will bring their pre-existing club loyalties with them. Cheap student deals may be a way to appeal to the occasional student spectator, but we have to accept that this huge demographic will be mostly unconvertable.

That said, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Crowds have been consistently healthy for the club's current level, while the 33,000 who travelled to Wembley two years ago are proof of the level of interest and potential support. If the club can continue to progress (and I'm looking at this season as a mere bump in the road, rather than a total roadblock) crowds should continue to increase as they have done for the last few years, providing a much firmer base on which to fulfil our potential. There are significant issues hindering potential growth, but none are insurmountable. This article was not intended to be overly negative, but more a realistic (rather than idealistic) assessment of the club's potential and some of the issues holding us back. One thing the last few months have demonstrated is that some sections of our support expect us to progress at a much quicker rate than we are currently. Perhaps if we stop to look at some of the factors holding us back, we can keep expectations at a reasonable level.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let us know by posting a comment below.

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Another thought provoking article. I don't think it's deluded to assume we couldn't become a Championship main-stay. Success breeds success and success brings in crowds. You only have to look to our wembley attendance to count the number of fans who consider themselves followers of the club. With success more of these will be converted to frequntly attending supporters. Local economics are a factor, but not to the degree in the two unfortunates article

I think you're probably right, if we could get to the Championship we might not do so bad (that is if we ever finish the stadium), it's just getting there that's the problem!

If we can beat off next season's big spenders we're likely to be competing against some pretty big clubs. Swindon and Wycombe have both typically spent more than we do and have found themselves struggling in the lower reaches of the league. If we reach the Championship and can stick around for a couple of seasons we'll have massively overachieved, but if we can do it we might just be able to put ourselves in a position to build the infrastructure to make us a permanent fixture there.

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