Bluebirds Chief Executive Levi Gill provides his latest update for the Club's supporters.
Hello everyone. It makes a pleasant change to be able to write this update on the back of three points and while basking in a sense of renewed optimism. There are certainly a few more smiles around the Club today and I’m sure that’s been the case for many of you at home and at work over the weekend. Below is the usual monthly update, with a little bit of added focus on the future as we look to lay the foundations for the summer and the 2021/22 season.
Opening of the Fan Zone
It seems like the Fan Zone has been ‘almost finished’ for nearly a year. In fairness, COVID-19 has allowed us to drop it down the priority list and re-focus on more urgent concerns over the last few months, but now is the time that we need to start getting everything in place for a grand opening.
The good news is that we intend to open the Fan Zone throughout the summer. At the moment, we have no hospitality staff at the Club and it’s important that we take the time to properly plan and resource this going forward. Therefore, the Bluebirds Trust has very kindly offered to staff the Fan Zone short term through the summer. This is greatly appreciated and very helpful for the Club because it lets us defer the slightly bigger conversation about hospitality and bar staffing longer term until our league fate is known. In the interim, I’m working with the Trust to coordinate the outstanding physical work needed to complete the Fan Zone and then Trust volunteers will staff the bar short-term when we open it.
There’s been a lot of debate over whether the Fan Zone can be utilised in April to show our final league games once the COVID-19 regulations ease. The honest answer is that we’re still not sure. Home games will, sadly, not be possible. The Fan Zone area is an access route for media and others in attendance at games and it wouldn’t be possible to reroute all of this traffic. Away games, while technically possible to stream from the Fan Zone, bring their own challenges. Installing the capability needed to stream EFL matches would come at a significant cost and the likelihood is that we’ll never need or be allowed to use it again after this season. We’re currently working to understand how many people could safely attend events in April and early May and this will be balanced with the cost implications and the likelihood that the Fan Zone can be finished in time. Be assured that we will be open as soon as possible, but we have to weigh financial concerns, as well as keeping the absolute priority on public health. We won’t compromise on anybody’s safety and we will be guided by that consideration in every decision we make.
It’s hard not to be drawn in by the allure of a summer spent in the Barrow sunshine, drinking and socialising with friends we haven’t seen in months. I sometimes have to remind myself that there’s going to be a lot of work to do in the off-season too. In some ways it’s our busiest time.
Formal approval has now been given for a full resurfacing of the pitch. This work is probably a year overdue, but with the first lockdown and subsequent suspension of football it was impossible for us to plan with any confidence last summer. This year we hope to be on the front foot and our current intention is to have a contractor on site in May – possibly even before our final game away at Exeter – ripping up the pitch and maximising the recovery time that the ground team will have available to them. The pitch has had its challenges this season and we want to do our best to mitigate these in the coming year. While the pitch is up, we will also be completing the drainage system which we began installing last year. This continues a four-year plan to modernise and future-proof the playing surface which the Board have been fully supportive of.
There are a number of other physical infrastructure projects that need to be delivered prior to next season. The EFL require larger changing rooms, which will mean that we have to relocate the playing staff under the main stand. This is a significant and complex project which must be delivered to a tight timescale and is likely to be the major focus of the summer for our staff in the same way that the new Holker End roof was last year.
Other improvements will also be made, and these are currently being identified. The maintenance volunteers are returning to work soon after a well-earned rest during lockdown and I’m aware that they have some exciting ideas for the summer which we will knit together with other changes that the Club is required to implement. The overall package will bring further improvements to the ground for fans on a matchday as well as making the facility easier to work in.
One area we’ve been keen to develop over the past few months is our range of Club merchandise. We managed to get ahead of Christmas and offer a few extra, unique items like pin badges and chocolate bars, but that was only ever an interim step toward something bigger. I want Barrow AFC to provide a creative, vibrant and varied range of merchandise for supporters. It might have been a distant dream in our non-league days, but why can’t we now have beach towels and teddy bears with our crest on? Stationery and baby ranges are also lacking at the moment. As is the ability to personalise items by adding your name. All of this is in our minds and we hope to be able to announce an exciting partnership soon which will make these things a reality.
Anybody who attended or watched our recent Directors’ Q+A will know that the Club is beginning to think about increased commercial opportunities for next season. Having spent a few months interacting with other clubs at this level and looking at their online presence, as well as visiting their stadiums (I’ve only managed two visits which is disappointing but perhaps inevitable under the current circumstances), it’s clear that we need to be more ambitious in our approach to driving commercial revenues.
In Barrow we’re sometimes slow to recognise the value of what we have, or maybe we’re reluctant to properly advertise or ‘brag’ about it. The access route that this Football Club can offer sponsors to specific key demographics is huge, particularly with iFollow, and I think that we need to recognise this in our general approach and pricing strategy. We also need to exploit additional opportunities which are second nature to other clubs who may have been competing at this level – or higher – for decades. Nobody will ever pretend that this season hasn’t been a learning curve, but now is the time to apply the lessons. Our owners are ambitious and forward thinking and will do whatever they can to support this Football Club, but to secure our long-term future we must all work together to ensure that we can become self-sufficient and sustainable as soon as possible.
Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst
Use of ‘the R word’ is banned at the Club, but I wanted to finish this update by hopefully easing some of fans’ concerns about the potential impact of a worst-case scenario and what it will mean for the Club going forward.
First of all, we absolutely are planning for both eventualities. That might seem a little pessimistic, but I would argue it’s common sense. We effectively need to have two business plans on the shelf, ready to pull one down in May and start driving the Club toward whatever objective we have in sight. Ideally, that’s consolidation of our League Two place and an improvement on this year. Worst case, it’s a National League promotion push. But whatever fate awaits us, this Club will not shy away from it. We still need to drive commercial revenues up. We still want to offer an exciting Club hop. We still have to improve the pitch and continue to develop our football ground into a real asset. Our ambition and our strategy doesn’t change no matter what happens in the next eight weeks, and the financial planning that Paul and the rest of us undertake is robust enough to adapt to either outcome.
So, let’s all allow ourselves to become excited again. Barrow are not a team to take the easy road and this stress is nothing we aren’t used to. At least this way we have fifteen cup finals to enjoy! We have a Fan Zone nearing completion and almost ready to welcome everybody back through the doors. We have the Club Shop soon to reopen and a bold new vision for what it offers, as well as a sale on existing stock to be announced in due course to celebrate everybody’s return. Other major ideas are in work and will be expanded on in future updates. It may be easier said than done, but let’s try to approach these final weeks of our first season back in the EFL with a cautious optimism. The players are facing the toughest weeks of their season – for many, the toughest weeks of their careers – and will need all of our support, but at the end of it we’re optimistic that we’ll be where we need to be. We believe that this is only the start of a journey, and we’re all excited to see where it takes us next.