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Sports clubs are inherently place-based, usually being eponymous in relation to their location, even for the fringe cases when a club can move around. As we find ourselves in a position, both in the developed and developing world, where social disadvantage is often spatially determined, place-based actors are valuable. Sports clubs can play a significant role in improving the social outcomes for their area. In addition, sports clubs have an appeal to certain demographics which transcends that of other actors. Actors in society, including government, responsible businesses, and civil society organisations, should consider whether it is using these politically neutral civic institutions to their full potential.

It was an increasing realisation of this potential that caused the Government Outcomes Lab at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, to convene a roundtable on the social value of sports clubs last month. As a research lab, we focus on innovative cross-sectoral ways to improve social outcomes for people. We work with an extensive network of prominent players in research, government, business and the third sector, who work towards improved social outcomes. Over the last few years, we have been building a network of those involved in using sports to achieve those social aims.

Around the world, much work has focused on measuring the social impact of sports related initiatives. However, awareness of advancement and utilisation of sport as a means of achieving wider social aims could be much better. In the world of social outcomes contracts, or social impact bonds, only a very small number utilise sports in their intervention and even fewer still refer explicitly to sports. The Chances project is a notable exception, referred to in a recent government strategy, which proves why sport should be considered more widely across complementary policy themes.

The cross-cutting relevance of sports to other themes, such as crime reduction, education and mental health, is recognised by some governments around the world. Prominent examples to learn from include Iceland, Norway and Denmark. The health benefits of sports participation are only the most obvious way that clubs can improve social outcomes in a place. As well as being inherently place-based, sports clubs have unique characteristics when it comes to appealing to a cross-section of a population and the things they can achieve. The story of Lewes FC is an instructive one for the positive force clubs can be in society. Karen Dobres, an Ambassador and former director of Lewes FC, has experienced how a club can achieve impact and she takes up the story:

Sports clubs can use their convening power to spread optimism in a community and build relationships between stakeholders

Lewes FC – Purpose & Profit, United.

Football is big. Really big. FIFA estimates there are some 3.5 billion football fans around the world. And football matters to those fans, often more than almost any other part of their identity. So, football is POWERFUL. How players and clubs act contributes to what is seen as ‘normal’ or acceptable in society.

This begs the question; what responsibilities does football have? Indeed, what is the POINT of football? What is it for? Go back to the birth of the organised game in England, in the late 1800s, and teams were created predominantly by factories and cricket clubs. Their founding purpose was as a focal point for a community to come together and as a form of recreation and entertainment. But over the last few decades, clubs have become increasingly disconnected from their communities and from their founding purpose.

So, in 2010, as a response to a near-death winding-up order, Lewes Football Club embarked on an experiment. To see what would happen when a club put community and social purpose back at the heart of everything. The club was bought for £1 by a group of six local fans who then mutualised the club. In year one, Lifetime Shares were offered for £1,000 in order to raise working capital. Thereafter, single ownership shares were made universally available for an annual subscription of £30. It was felt that the mutual ownership model was the best one to create a foundation of social purpose for the whole club, one that went beyond simply having a community arm, as per the standard club approach.

The local community and the belief community (the ‘Movement’) supports the club, and the club supports its communities, not just with words but with actions.

From 2010, Lewes FC deliberately embedded a symbiotic relationship between the club and its ‘communities’, be that geographical (the town of Lewes) or its community of principles and beliefs that could be shared by anyone, anywhere in the world (e.g. campaigning for gender equality, eschewing betting advertising). In a nutshell, this relationship is built on mutual support – the local community and the belief community (the ‘Movement’) supports the club, and the club supports its communities, not just with words but with actions. This means that, as the club enjoys increasing success on the pitch and generates increasing revenues, it shares the benefits of its growth with its communities, be that via shared infrastructure, co-funding social impact projects or sharing its audience/platform.

And Lewes FC is most definitely not a ‘non-profit’ company. Far from it. You need money to build on-pitch success and you need money to provide resources for your communities. The key is where does that money come from, and how is it used. Lewes FC is guided by the approach of ‘Purpose and Profit, United’. Not only are these not mutually exclusive, but in fact one drives the other, in both directions. The club’s football success drives investment in social impact, and the effects of that investment, in turn, drive fan, media and sponsor interest, and round and round it goes. And it’s working...


There is much scope for thinking how different parts of society can work with sport and sports clubs to solve wicked problems. The inspirational leaders who contributed their time to the roundtable discussion in September included those from government, leaders of sports clubs, civil society actors, academics, and representatives from national sports governing bodies. From speaking with each other, it was clear that the diverse participants in the group could work together.

The roundtable found much consensus, as well as some surprising insights. There are clearly challenges that were identified, but also many opportunities to deliver for communities. These included surfacing and communicating impact examples, including impact measures across multiple dimensions (e.g. health, crime, education), as well as broadening participation and engagement in clubs as more than a sports activity. The GO Lab hopes the productive conversation will continue beyond the roundtable. As a research lab that is active in engagement, the GO Lab intends to be involved in helping to connect partners, who have the will and the resources to enact positive change.