Rochdale AFC's crest on a blue and black vertical striped background

The cost-of-living crisis is something affecting everyone, from young families that live paycheque-to-paycheque, to businesses whose outgoings have significantly increased whilst their profit margins have declined. Though many find their escape in football, football can’t escape the current financial climate. Although the top Premier League clubs appear unfazed by the situation, it is a different story for lower league sides such as Rochdale AFC.

Before Christmas, Chairman Simon Gauge released a statement which touched upon the struggles the club has faced this year, including an attempted hostile takeover as well as their struggles on the pitch (they sit 22nd in League 2 at the time of writing). Gauge also addresses their own financial predicament. “Like everyone else in society at present, we are dealing with the financial challenges currently caused by the prevailing current economic circumstances, which are unprecedented. Our proud heritage of running a football club in a financially sustainable way has always been a known challenge which we have embraced,” he says.

However, the past few years have really taken their toll on Rochdale in particular. He points to the takeover and the Covid-19 pandemic as contributing factors to their precarious finances. “The club are now operating in a very difficult cost-of-living crisis that has seen three main themes.” He compartmentalises the aspects in which the club has suffered within his honest and open statement. “We have seen a weakening of corporate demand for sponsorship and hospitality at the club. There have been increases in our cost base of more than 15% as our supply chain also attempts to manage their own rising costs of labour and materials. Finally, there is the trebling of our energy costs.”

Making a loss is something that Rochdale are getting used to. “The club made an audited loss of £1.2m in the year ending 31 May 2021, followed by a reduced loss of £0.5m in the thirteen-month period ending 30 June 2022.” Without player sales and cup runs, Gauge and the board of directors are predicting a further loss this financial year. He summarises, “This means that in the 37 months since 1 June 2020, the club will have cumulatively lost approximately £3m, or £18,750 per week, operating as an EFL member club at its current level.”

It’s not a club without a plan, though, as Gauge details the different income streams they are exploring, including releasing more shares to try and raise capital and exploring ways of improving the output from the club shop. “It is essential for the club that we maximise as much income as we can, whilst ensuring football remains affordable. This will allow us to benefit the supporters, the first team and the community.” I notice throughout his statement, there is a big emphasis on the community and football remaining affordable.

The struggles Rochdale face are not unique to a club in their position with many lower league sides having struggled in recent years. The plight of Bury a few years ago raised questions about how money is distributed throughout the football league pyramid, and whether Premier League clubs could do more to help those lower down the EFL. Gauge concludes his statement on the club’s financial affairs by reiterating that point. “We call, alongside many other clubs, upon the EFL, Premier League and UK Government to come together quickly, diligently and urgently and implement the recommendations of the Fan-Led Review. This must address the imbalance in the distribution of finances to enable community-based football clubs in the bottom two professional divisions to achieve a sustainable future.”

Despite the uncertain times ahead for the club, they have thrown everything they’ve got into helping those less fortunate in their community. On the surface, for their fans, they have frozen season card prices for this season, maintaining their stance that football should be affordable. Going deeper than that, their community trust has excelled in recent months as more and more people call upon its support. Rochdale AFC Community Trust is the charitable arm of the club. Their activities support their community through sports, health, inclusion, education and employability, to name a few.

Charlotte Griffiths, Head of Grant Funded Projects for Rochdale AFC Community Trust, has noticed a shift in the community that they serve. “A lot of what we do is free to the end user anyway. So in terms of engagement, we possibly haven’t seen as much of a drop in engagement as something that was commercial might have done. Where we have seen more of a change is in what our support offers. Things like the Dale Food Pantry is probably tenfold what it was this time last year. Those people that don’t have any means to increase their income are accessing it a lot more than they were before. Our education programs as well, students are maybe a little more reliant on the bursaries than they were before because parents don’t have the luxury of being able to afford transport costs and things.”

Ryan Bradley, Community Director for Rochdale AFC Community Trust, adds to that. “The big thing I’ve noticed is the crossover from our regular programs that we’ve always delivered. So things like, our sports college program, our disability program, those people are now starting to access things like welfare support and the food pantry. We’ve always delivered a food pantry, and it’s usually been for those who have, you know, been really struggling, but now there’s more people who have never traditionally used a food bank or food pantry going. For example, the walking footballers have never used it before, it’s been there 12-18 months for them but now they might be starting to feel the penny pinch and they’re thinking, I might have to use that now. So, there’s more crossover.”

All football clubs in the EFL have to have a charitable arm that delivers a community programme. It’s clear to see that in these tough times, Rochdale is delivering more than most for their community. Bradley reiterates how important it is that football acts as this portal for communities to connect with the help and support they need, however that looks. “Football is a business, and like every business it has a corporate social responsibility to serve the town. Football as a brand can harbour trust very quickly. Using that power of the football badge to engage people is pretty special.”

As the club struggles to fill its event space and thinks of new ways to encourage commercial activities, it continues to do what it can to support its community trust activities, opening up this unused space for sessions and events that Bradley, Griffiths and their team have organised. “I think that the biggest thing football can do is realise the position that the country is in and be understanding to it. I think that’s come through clear from the club, they understand why businesses don’t have that money to sponsor things, they understand that there is a need to flex what the community operation provides. Luckily, for us, we’ve got a board of local people who are supporting us with that, so they’ve made available extra space for us to deliver our food bank provision, they make available things like mascot spaces for certain games free of charge, to people who need it. They’ve given us areas of the ground that they can’t let out commercially, they’re giving that back to the community for us to use for additional things.”

Although the funding battle rages on for the clubs themselves, money is beginning to drip down from the Premier League and the Football League to assist the community programs that clubs like Rochdale run. Griffiths concludes by encouraging those struggling – with loneliness, mental health, financial issues or who just want to seek new opportunities – to pick up the phone and get in contact with the Community Trust if they haven’t already engaged with them, insisting there is something for everyone. “We start from three years old, that sort of structured football coaching, right up to our oldest participant who is 98 on our military veterans social session on a Friday. As I said earlier, a lot of what we do is free for the end user, there’s always a little bit of wiggle room so if there was an 11 year old girl who really wanted to play for a football team and couldn’t afford it, we wouldn’t turn her away on the basis that she couldn’t afford it, we would find a way around it.”

Rochdale’s Community Trust is seeing more and more people come through the doors and the difference they are making within their community is astronomical. “We’re the ones walking around with smiles on our faces because regardless of what happens out on the pitch, our work in the community never falters,” Bradley says proudly.

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Featured image: Rochdale AFC

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  • Zoe Hodges

    Zoe has been a journalist for over eight years specialising primarily in music and sports. She has had the pleasure of interviewing some of the biggest artists in the country music genre and covering major sporting events such as the Women's Euros and the Commonwealth Games. In her spare time she enjoys writing and composing her own music.

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