Translations of this article are also available in the following languages:Italiano
The Hastings Conquerors looked around at other American football clubs across the United Kingdom for direction before starting their own franchise in 2013. They just chose to go in a completely different way.
As one of the UK’s newest American football franchises, they’ve quickly instituted an efficient management structure and have begun to establish themselves as a mainstay in the Hastings community.
So how have they been able to do both in such rapid succession?
The Conquerors are the UK’s (and likely Europe’s as well) first cooperative, fan-owned American football club. This means that the team is owned by a large group of shareholders as opposed to an individual owner, and shares are openly available to be purchased by the public. Shares have been purchased by fans in the local community, players, team management, and even followers in countries like the United States and Norway who identify with the cooperative nature of the team. The appeal of the team is very high.
The club was first started in the way that many American football teams are created these days: through Facebook. “I followed the game when I was a kid, watching the Channel 4 highlights package in the early 90’s,” described Chris Chillingworth, Chairman and Founder of the Hastings Conquerors. “After that I had a fleeting interest with football, but it wasn’t until I got involved with the Maidstone Pumas in 2010 that my passion for the game really started to grow. I wasn’t necessarily interest in playing, but was more interested in coaching and helping the team in other ways.” Chillingworth enjoyed his time with the Pumas, however the team was located more than an hour away from his home in Hastings which made for a long commute. Eventually, he started a Facebook group in early 2013 to test the waters in Hastings to see if anyone else had an interest in putting a new team together.
Lo and behold, there was quite a response within just the first few months. “Almost immediately, everyone was asking me when the first training session was.” Chillingworth elected to hold an informal “throwaround” at a local park in March 2013, which would be the first time they’d be getting together as a group. He admits that he didn’t know what to expect before arriving. “I showed up wondering if I was going to be the only one there. But when I showed up 15 minutes early, there were already 20 guys there waiting to get started.” The “throwaround” was scheduled for an hour, but they spent four hours on the field that day. At the end of the session, they all talked about ways they could contribute. One was an accountant who offered to help with the team’s books. Another had a van and offered to drive players to practices and games. Some even were certified coaches in other sports. Impressively, 27 people turned up that day, and just like that, a new team was born.
“My biggest concern was that I didn’t know how to teach these guys how to play American football,” said Chillingworth. “Fortunately, there were several older guys who had played locally back in the 80’s and expressed an interest in coaching.” The group started getting together on a regular basis, and they began formulating responsibilities amongst each other.
“I always wanted to establish the team as a cooperative,” continued Chillingworth. “While doing some research on how to set up the club, I studied both American football and soccer clubs in the United Kingdom. I looked into (soccer) teams like Ebbsfleet United F.C. and F.C. United of Manchester to learn more about the ‘cooperative enterprise club’ concept. I was really motivated by what F.C. United had accomplished in such a short time.” Ebbsfleet United is a soccer club based Kent that once allowed its members to vote on things such as player transfers, ticket prices, and team budget, and even permitted members to select the players that would start each game, the playing formations and tactics the team would use, and more. The concept was a bit extreme and caused numerous issues, particularly because it left the on-the-field decisions to a large mob of people that was typically unqualified to make them. Alternatively, F.C United’s concept has been more balanced and therefore more successful, with the team winning promotion in three consecutive seasons following the team’s formation in 2005. F.C. United’s shareholders elect a committee that handles the main decisions for the club. The team was formed by disenfranchised supporters of Manchester United who were frustrated with the direction of the club. Most recently, the money from F.C. United’s shareholders has paid for their team’s own £2.5 million stadium. It was built by the community, for the community. Another team of note that has been run under a similar model is the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, who are owned by the city of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers are the only community-owned franchise among major American professional sports.
The Hastings Conquerors were set up as a legal entity in September 2013. As a non-profit organization, they managed to secure a £10,000 grant from Sport England which paid for the team’s equipment. They began renting football kits out to their players at £5 a month, which enabled a lot of people across Hastings to afford the associated costs of playing American football. All of this fit within the cooperative nature of the club, allowing opportunity for all and promoting a community feel amongst everyone involved. “We used the same people who founded F.C. United to help us set up the club in Hastings. They were advisors to us,” explained Chillingworth. “We also wanted people who invested in our club to have a vested interest in the club.”
Conquerors’ shareholders pay £30 for their first year, followed by a £10 renewal fee for each successive year. Shares do not pay dividends and are not utilized as a personal investment, but rather represent a direct investment in the club. Each shareholder can receive a maximum of one vote at shareholder meetings, regardless of the purchase of additional shares. The major votes are administered at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) every November, with shareholders voting on important issues such as board members, new jersey designs, share price, and more. They’ve also voted on issues such as new elements of the club, i.e. its youth program, the establishment of a women’s team, and so on. At the team’s first AGM, shareholders were privy to voting on several unique issues, such as the team name, logo, and colors. The board consists of 9 members who are elected by the shareholders of the club on an annual basis.
The club’s first official non-committee shareholder, Chrissy Bland, purchased her share on April 13th, 2014, the first day that shares were made available to the public. Her fiancée, Dean Blackburn, is a linebacker on the team and Chrissy had been a vocal supporter of the club since its early days. “She was behind me and the Conquerors from the first day I started training with my band of brothers,” said Blackburn. Her presence was felt heavily with the team. Tragically, Chrissy lost her fight with breast cancer in late May 2014, a devastating event for the team, her family, and above all, Blackburn. “She had a way of getting the best out of people,” he affirmed. The Conquerors rallied around their brother, and with Blackburn’s blessing they elected to name the team’s most sacred award after her. The players’ player award, a shield given to the player of the year voted upon by his own teammates, is now officially called the Chrissy Bland Award. Chrissy will now forever be a part of the Conquerors’ legacy.
One of the recent developments that came out of the last AGM was the creation of the “Shareholder Liaison” position, which was awarded to Clive Raines, a member of the original organizing committee. “Chris initially asked me to get involved with the committee because I had been involved with soccer management previously before the Conquerors,” explained Raines. “The Shareholder Liaison is the primary point of contact between shareholders and the team. The club has a player liaison officer, so the committee felt it would also be a good thing for shareholders to have so they know who to approach with any questions or concerns.” The position is voted upon by the shareholders, and Raines’ responsibility is to look out for their best interests within the committee. He also informs them of any decisions that are made by the committee and helps address any issues they’re currently facing. The Shareholder Liaison is also the main share sales representative for the Conquerors, reaching out into the community to develop interest. “Since Clive took over in November 2014, share sales have increased 20%,” noted Chillingworth. “He’s talked to local sponsors as well to get them involved. It’s forced us to ask questions like, ‘what are the benefits of being a shareholder?’ ‘How can we make owning a share more appealing?’ ‘Is there more that we can be doing?’ Communication is one important aspect of that. We want to make the benefits of being a shareholder crystal clear.”
Shareholders receive a Hastings Conquerors share certificate, a welcome letter, exclusive access to members only sections on the team’s website, the right to vote and stand for the Conquerors’ board, the right to vote on important shareholder issues, access to the club’s shareholder reports, and a 10% discount on team merchandise. Most importantly, you’re officially a minority owner of a sports team, a luxury typically enjoyed by only a select few.
The shareholder reports are one of the more exclusive aspects of owning a share of the Conquerors. Shareholders have access to quarterly treasury, coaching, commercial, marketing and chairman reports that are not made available to the public. The reports from the Chairman, written by Chillingworth himself, highlight what the team’s goals are and what progress they are making on them. The treasury reports are produced to maintain 100% transparency with the club’s finances. All financial expenditures are recorded and reported, so shareholders can see where the club’s money is going and where it’s being spent. The commercial report is completed by Financial Chairman Luke Boorer, who gives updates on what the Conquerors’ sponsors are saying as well as the team’s involvement with local businesses. “These reports are particularly important with our shareholders who are based outside of the UK in order to keep them informed and connected,” explained Chillingworth. “We want to give our shareholders a really good, transparent view of what’s going on with the club.”
The Conquerors are also putting together a “shareholders social meal” for the first time in 2015, which they plan to do annually. “We want shareholders to feel like there’s a community feel to everything so we can talk about football and other shared interests,” explained Chillingworth. “We want people to get involved and have an influence on the way decisions are made. In this manner, we look for people who fall in love with the way we do things. With this in mind, the club could look markedly different in 10 years than it does today. For a very small fee, you can help shape the future of an exciting sports club like this.”
This sense of community is not only exclusive to shareholders, it’s also enjoyed by the players. “Playing for the Conquerors, you can’t split those 45 guys. They hang out together, go out together, watch games together, train together…” Chillingworth noted. “Everyone gets along well. The amount of effort that you have to give to the sport results in a unique bond and it’s really gelled everyone into a family unit. The team and unity aspect of it has really been appealing to people – players, fans, and shareholders alike.”
The Conquerors were approved to join the BAFA National League in 2015 and will compete in Great Britain’s 3rd tier National Southeastern Conference. They will face the Kent Exiles, Sussex Thunder, Bournemouth Bobcats, and Portsmouth Dreadnoughts in what will surely be an exciting season.
“I’m excited to be part of this club,” asserted Raines. “It’s growing quickly, and we’re just starting out. Check back in a year to see where we are.”
What are your thoughts on the “cooperative enterprise” concept? Do you feel that more clubs in Europe should adopt this organizational model? Let us know in the comments section below.