Stuart Wallace: Fans continuing to back Foundation of Hearts
Hearts fans continue to back Foundation of Hearts with hard cash despite last season's disappointment. A few individuals have even donated four-figure sums recently to underline their commitment to the fan ownership vehicle.
Stuart Wallace, the Foundation chairman, revealed today that the number of people stopping their monthly pledges to the supporter group has been “marginal”. The total number of members currently sits just below 8000.
Results between December and May caused much frustration amongst Tynecastle regulars as only six wins were recorded in six months. Head coach Ian Cathro became the brunt of much public anger as the Edinburgh club slid from second spot in the Ladbrokes Premiership to a final placing of fifth.
Concerns that this would have a knock-on effect on the Foundation proved to be unfounded. FoH back the Hearts owner Ann Budge and contribute financially to the month-to-month running of the club. They expect to take control by 2020 when Budge passes on her majority shareholding and allows supporters to own Hearts.
Wallace explained that the number of FoH members remains at a healthy level as fans continue donating monthly cash amounts, knowing their money will be directly passed on to the club.
“We went through a period of two months towards the end of the season – March and April – when FoH collected more financially than we’ve done for 12 months,” said Wallace.
“The reason for that was a few things were happening. The ‘plus one’ initiative was launched [for pledgers to increase their monthly amount by £1]. We also made the one-off donation button on the FoH website more visible. It actually wasn’t that easy to find beforehand.
“That led to us getting a few pretty meaningful donations. More than one pledger donated four-figure amounts of money. One or two were around the £500 mark. We’ve been in touch with them to thank them, although they didn’t particularly want a song and dance made about it.
“We have a plan to contribute to the Tynecastle redevelopment project every month, so we focus on collecting that amount. In March and April, we went way above it. When you think about how challenging it’s been recently, yet we’re saying we’ve had two fantastic months financially. It was driven by the one-off stuff. That shows how much we’re hanging in there.
“On pledger numbers, the drop is pretty marginal. We’re still within touching distance of the 8000 mark. We are still, interestingly, getting people signing up to the Foundation for the first time. I get statistics showing me how many are joining and how many are leaving and there is a good healthy crop who are first-time pledgers.”
Budge paid out £2.5m to take Hearts out of administration three years ago this month. In conjunction with FoH, she laid out a five-year plan to rebuild the Gorgie club whilst the fan-led organisation repaid her.
“It’s just passed the three-year anniversary of the club exiting administration. That’s a fair amount of time but we’re still managing to find new pledgers who are making up for the drop-offs,” continued Wallace. “Overall, being candid about where we are, it’s just shy of the 8000 mark. We have a few things happening over the summer which will hopefully push those numbers up again.”
Repayments to Budge have stopped for now whilst the Foundation divert their finances towards rebuilding Tynecastle. They will provide a quarter of the £12m for the new main stand – paying £125,000 a month for two years – and then resume their repayment plan with the owner.
“The Foundation is an organisation put in place to raise money for an end game – to buy the club on behalf of the fans,” said Wallace. “We agreed to deviate from that arrangement to put our money into the new stand. Overall we’re putting in £3million and we’re already past the halfway mark, so we’ve put in more than £1.5m.
“Once we hit the £3m mark next year, we immediately revert back to the BIDCO deal [to buy Budge’s majority shareholding in Hearts]. At that point, we are head down towards repaying her the £2.5m so that the majority shareholding can transfer to the Foundation. We are bang on track with that just now.”
Key to maintaining interest is staying visible and in the public eye. Wallace and the Foundation directors have plans afoot to engage with more Hearts fans over the coming weeks and months.
“Our supporters are being asked for an awful lot of money and we’re aware of that. It’s season-ticket renewal time, plus there are a number of fundraisers underway for the new stand,” acknowledged Wallace.
“We’re pretty pleased with where we are but we do have the drive to do more. We’re talking about doing an open night, like a ‘Meet the Directors’ evening. We’ve even thought about telling members to bring somebody with them who doesn’t pledge and they can get the opportunity to ask questions first-hand.
“We just want to make it clear so that people understand we are still on a journey. People say fans need to stick with us while we do this, well I think they are. Season ticket sales for Tynecastle are over 10,500, which is just gob-smacking inside the first three weeks of sales. The premium seating hasn’t even been launched yet.
“Fans are digging deep for the club. We know the pledge is part of the overall game, but what we’re trying to make clear is that the pledge is the commitment we’ve made to fulfil the BIDCO deal. If we want to see this through to the end and see the club move into the ownership of the fans, then it’s important we stick with the plan right through until it happens in 2019 or 2020.
“In fairness, I think most people do understand this. I think they get it. The key messages have landed. We’ve spoken about how Hearts will be fan-owned, not fan-run because there will be an executive board in place. I think people have got that now. It’s great they’re sticking with us.”