Speak to some, and they'll tell you Bristol Sport is a mega organisation seeking to consume all within its path. To others it is a beneficial body that has given the city a great stadium, restored its rugby club to the top flight of the English game and seeks to do the same with its football team. But which is true? XtraTime sought an answer through interviews with owner Steve Lansdown and chief executive Andrew Billingham
Bristol Sport brings together, into one umbrella organisation, not only Bristol City and Bristol Rugby but also women’s football and rugby, basketball, badminton and motor racing. It is a multi-sport ownership model loosely based on FC Barcelona which, in addition to its football team, comprises basketball, handball, futsal and roller hockey.
The company has also overseen a £45million revamp of Ashton Gate. The building work at the stadium, which has seen the old Wedlock, Williams and Dolman stands undergo a dramatic transformation, is due to be completed this summer with the opening of the spectacular new West Stand. As a result the all-seater capacity will rise to 27,000 in time for the start of the new Sky Bet Championship and Aviva Premiership seasons.
While FC Barcelona is a membership organisation, Bristol Sport comprises a set of private companies. It is a difference owner Steve Lansdown is clear about, although the capitalist approach is far from exploitative in this case.
“I look at Bristol Sport as a business, where our prime objective is to make a profit that can then be re-invested back into Bristol Sport,” said Lansdown, the co-founder of Bristol finance company Hargreaves Lansdown, who, according to the most recent Sunday Times Rich List has an estimated fortune of £1.4billion.
“When you look at the component parts you are looking at what you can generate in sponsorship, in membership, in TV rights. We are looking to make sure that the individual sports take advantage of that. But do I expect to make money out of Bristol City or Bristol Rugby? Then no. Do I expect to make money out of Bristol Sport and the stadium? Yes I do. That way, profits in one area are offset by losses in another.”
So is there a grand master plan for world, or at least Bristol, domination? The answer comes from the business perspective.
“There is not an end game; it is an evolving process,” said Lansdown. “But from my point of view no sport is excluded, even if it is a minority sport. As long as there is a commercial angle to it Bristol Sport will have a part to play. For us, you invest into a project and you get a return through putting business skills in place.”
But before long Lansdown begins to move towards the heart, if not exactly ruling the head, at least showing signs of battling with it.
“I was always keen on sport and played local league football,” he said. “The Bristol Sport idea was probably in my mind 15 years ago, but the opportunity to start making it happen was when Bristol Rugby got into financial difficulties. Chris Booy pulled at the heart strings to help them out and I got involved [in February 2009].”
The rugby club were about to be relegated from the Aviva Premiership at the time and Lansdown was referred to in official documents as “White Knight” until he was revealed as its new owner in 2012, having bankrolled it for three years.
“I could certainly see how it could all come together,” he added. “Bristol Rugby was playing in a stadium [the Memorial Stadium] that it was not getting benefit from any more, it was living on tradition. Bristol City was in a stadium that needed developing. If you had a crowd of over 10,000 you couldn’t even get served at the kiosk. So to pool the football and the rugby together gave the asset a chance of making a return. Individually, those sports will struggle but collectively we can compete, if they all pull together.
There are also other limits to Lansdown's strictly business approach.
“Take the Glazers [Manchester United’s American owners],” he added. “Their motivation is different from mine, without a doubt. Their model is up to them, but there is no way I would have bought Bristol City Football club with a lot of debt which I then put on the balance sheet.”
So, Lansdown often presents contradictions. Is he the tough financial wizard, who built a multi-billion pound empire with his investment firm partner Peter Hargreaves, or the man who in 2013 confessed "I'm embarrassed by how much I've spent" after pumping £50 million into Bristol City and saw precious little impact on the pitch?
The clue to this contradiction lies in his identification with Bristol. It clearly drives him to make decisions about what he sees as good for the City which in turn also means he makes loss making decisions.
Lansdown’s Bristol antecedents are strong. He grew in Tockington and when he first went to watch football it was to stand on the Tote End at Eastville, the home of Bristol Rovers before they moved out of the city for a decade to become tenants at Bath City's Twerton Park ground.
He said: “At that time, my son was six and wanted to go to football. One of my first clients was Des Williams, who was chairman of Bristol City. He gave me a couple of tickets and so I drifted into City.”
However, that involvement has not always been smooth. Losing the Championship play-off final to Hull in 2008, followed by relegation down to League 1 in 2013, were both hard to bear, as was the failure to gain planning permission for a new stadium at Ashton Vale
“I was involved when it was hand-to-mouth stuff and probably spent a bit more than I should have done,” said Lansdown, who was the club's chairman from 2002-2011. “The last time we were in the Championship we were hanging on by our fingernails, spending money in ways that didn’t work and on certain players that didn’t benefit us. We did not have young players coming up adding value to our squad and from whom we could make transfer income. The players we had, had no resale value. There was no long-term policy to it.
“Now the players that have come from our academy have a value, but this has not gone as far as I would like. As for many football clubs, the theory is good but the practice has not been that clever. It’s finding the right people to make that happen. Often academies don’t work because of the manager. They might say one thing publicly but they want tried and tested players in the squad because that’s what they depend on for their job.
“Not getting Ashton Vale was a bitter experience, going through some of the arguments and getting some of the criticism we got. But that’s history now and I am very proud of the new stadium. Next season we will have Newcastle and Rafa Benitez who not so long ago managed Real Madrid. Now he will be on the touchline at Ashton Gate. It’s great that we are rubbing shoulders in that market place.”
Partnerships and collaboration
A key element of the Bristol Sport model is what can one sport learn from or gain from another. It also ties into Lansdown’s theme of recruiting the right people, particularly individuals who are open to that approach.
Chief executive Andrew Billingham, who arrived from Stoke City in 2014, explained: “Collaboration is a key objective of ours to ensure we share best practice between the sports. For example, last year [Bristol Rugby back] Gavin Henson had a horrific leg injury. The estimated recovery time was six months yet he came back in three. So he was 50 per cent quicker. We have to look at that and take the learning out of it. Some of it will be the individual but it might also be how we applied ourselves and what his programme was.
“Another example comes from [Bristol City head coach] Lee Johnson. He wants to embrace new technology. He was one of the first coaches to use a drone to film training. He uses that not only with the players but also for monitoring his own output in terms of the training sessions he puts on, so that he can develop and learn.
“On the other side, Bristol Rugby use an app for players to review their training sessions, such as clips of their performance. That will now be used in football. So, absolutely, there is cross-learning between both businesses and one of my roles is to establish a culture of sharing between the sports.”
And the potential for collaboration even extends into the blue and white half of the city, with Lansdown commenting: “Of course I want Rovers to be successful, but just not as successful as us!
“Are there things we can do between Bristol Sport and Rovers? Yes there are, but they would need to be discussed and both parties would have to look at how they can get the best commercial angle out of it. There is no point setting up another business or company just to lose more money.”
Success and succession
As both Lansdown and Billingham acknowledge, the Bristol Sport model is evolving and there is still a long way to go.
Deep down, you get the impression that, for Lansdown and Billingham, true success will be measured by the performance of Bristol City. Both are football men at heart, one through playing in the local leagues, the other with a business management background at Birmingham and Stoke, although Bristol Rugby's recent promotion back to the Premiership saw the owner fully immersed in scenes of joy to a sold-out Ashton Gate.
“Stephen said to me after the rugby won their promotion he had never been hugged by so many men in his life,” joked Billingham.
Lansdown added: “We are miles away from Manchester United or City but you look at Bournemouth and Burnley, you look at West Brom, who used to go up and down between the Championship and the Premiership.
“Making that step up gives a financial boost and if you use it wisely you can benefit from that and stay in the Premier League. With Bristol City, let’s build. But even with my money we can’t go out and spend vast fortunes on some of these players. Even if we did it clearly would not guarantee success. We will invest to try and get to the Premier League but we will do that in the right way, to make the club sustainable in the long run.
“I have been involved in Bristol sport for the last 20 years or so, and I have not always been in the situation where I have been able to fund it as I have done over the last ten years. But what we are doing now is involving everybody we possibly can from six, seven and eight year olds through into the academies and into the first team as well as our supporter base. So hopefully we are spending the money wisely.
“Peter Hargreaves and I always used to say to each other if you are not enjoying the time you spend working, then what is the point? There is a lot of frustration with sport and certainly with football, not just in results but also in the people.
“Yet I have no regrets with any of it and I still want to push it on. My focus in the future has to be about succession, so that the sports can sustain themselves. It’s a hell of a challenge and I am sure we will trip up on the way but I am confident we have the right focus.”