“The sky’s the limit” for Caledonian Braves

The Caledonian Braves are a club like no other.

Previously plying their trade in the South of Scotland and Lowland leagues as Edusport Academy, Scotland’s youngest senior club were formed in 2019, as part of the innovative fan led Our Football Club campaign, which gave supporters from across the world the opportunity to buy in and play a part in building their own football club from scratch.

The whole process was captured in the ‘Brave Calling’ documentary, which aired nationally on the STV Player. The club’s innovative approach and lofty ambitions caught attention, with owner Chris Ewing’s aim of SPFL football by 2025 making headlines.

We caught up with Chris to see how the Braves have progressed in their challenging first year.

“It’s been a challenge aye, and we feel like when we get a bit of momentum, something comes and whips the rug from under our feet a wee bit and we have to start all over again.

We just need to adapt and get on with it. There’s always clubs, or businesses or people worse off than yourself, so you have to bear that in mind.”

The global pandemic isn’t the only challenge that The Braves have had to overcome in the early days of their existence. While they have in no way underestimated their opposition, Ewing feels that the amount of quality across the board in the Lowland League has presented a tougher challenge than he first thought.

“The standard of the league has increased dramatically, even in the last couple of seasons… it’s probably one of the best, most competitive leagues in the country, so it’s been a challenge to compete at the top end because of that. As a new club, we’re almost starting fresh.

The results have maybe not what we would have hoped they might have been, for a number of reasons, but that highlights the quality of the league, the precarious nature of lower league football… no matter how much money you put in, you’re no guaranteed success.”

Throwing money at the club is not an option, and even if it was, Ewing insists this is not what the way he would go about things. The Braves want to do things the right way, building a tight knit squad who echo the values of the club.

“People talk about building a football culture, and that’s certainly what we’re trying to do… but how do we create the footballing culture that allows us to work within our resources, to be ambitious but to be intelligent with that ambition

The short term goal is to consolidate within the lowland league, and try and come up with a strategic plan that allows us to recruit wisely, create that footballing culture and go on to compete at the top of the table after a few years.”

When launching the project, Ewing made headlines by claiming that the Lowland League side would make the Premiership by 2025. The comment certainly raised eyebrows at the time, but the Braves owner insists that this was more a comment on the ability to reach these heights through the pyramid system.

“When I said that it was tongue in cheek… you have to try and excite people. When I said that, it was two or three year ago, before, like Kelty came in to the league… East Kilbride, East Stirling, BSC… What I was trying to do, which is very true, was to highlight that there is a pathway to go up the leagues. There was that possibility, and to excite them, and to show that if we do get enough people involved in the project, if we can get the financial backing, get the sponsorship, there’s nothing stopping our club, or any other club, from going up through the pyramid system.

It’s been proven. Like in Germany with RB Leipzig, I know it’s Red Bull and they’ve put millions and millions of Euros in, but they’ve gone from the 6th, 7th division in Germany literally to the Champions League!

We’re obviously trying to do that with a different business model.“

And that business model is certainly unique. A Lowland League side trying to build a global fan base before solidifying a presence locally may seem strange, but by doing so, the club have potentially limited their reliance on getting fans through the turnstile, something that could have proved vital in the current situation.

“We don’t have a traditional fan base, we don’t have traditional supporters, we haven’t had to rely on fans coming through the gate to generate gate receipts…

I don’t know… Time will have to tell.”

But for Ewing, the business model he has created represents so much more.

“It’s about me as a football club owner being honest, and being true to my values as a human being and actually being able to say I have this football club, I created this football club, I think I’m the only guy, maybe in the UK, certainly in Scotland, who owns a senior football club that he has created.

If you look at the ownership of all the clubs in Scotland within the senior pyramid system, every single owner has either bought it or is a shareholder…

I recognise that as an owner, I’m very limited with what I can do as an owner of this football club… but I saw the opportunity to get other people in the club and to share what I had created. It’s trying to create a community that can help finance the club in the medium to short term but also, if I’m being honest, there’s a human element, where it excites me to share this with like-minded individuals. If you take it on beyond just a business model and look at football… football fans are last to count. What we are trying to do with the Caledonian Braves, lets give fans a voice, give them an active role, let them make decisions and have an impact, and let’s build a community of like minded individuals who want to have an impact, want to have a voice and lets give them that opportunity.“

The world has changed since Ewing launched the Our Football Club project, and like all football clubs, the Braves have had to make some changes to respond to the changing landscape.

Times are tough, and with people facing furlough and job uncertainty, the club have gone back to the drawing board to reassess the way fans can engage with the Caledonian Braves.

“That’s where the project has changed slightly in the last few months. Says Ewing. “When we first set up Our Football Club and even the app, it was a subscription model. So, if you wanted to have votes and be behind the scenes and be involved in the running of the club, you’d be charged a £25 members fee. We’re now in the process of taking away the pay wall and the app will be free. Quite simply, I thought ‘how can we say lets give football back to the fans if we’re then going to charge them for the privilege?’ It’s contradictory. We can’t say we are a club for the people, but only if you can afford it.

You negate any goodwill for the club if you say you can be a fan of the club, you can vote, you can have a say, but you’ve gotta pay 25 quid. Any kind of good will toward the club evaporates if you ask them for money. If we get a community that want to get involved in the club for free and start to support the club. It’s not the sexiest slogan in the world, but we’d love to be everybody’s second club.”

Whether it’s in the Premier League or the Lowland League, owning a football club is never easy. You can experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, be cast as the hero or the villain, and it can all hinge on the matter of 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon. While it’s an honour to own a football club, Ewing is open about the strains.

“At the end of the day, I own a football club. It cost me a bit of money, it’s a bit of stress, but it’s a privilege. It’s a real privilege to own a football club.

The main pressure is financial. I financed it. Our club is very, very unique because when I set up Edusport academy, I never planned for it to become a football club; it just morphed in to one.

The best thing and the worst thing, was winning the South of Scotland. We got promoted in to the Lowland League, which is great, it’s a little boost for the ego, but if you want to be ambitious and stay in the league… you need better players, better players cost more money… and the academy has ended up financing the football club. That’s alright for a couple of year, but if I have to go put 60, 70, 80, whatever it is grand, in to a football club…if we finish 3rd or 4th or 12th, that’s not money I’m getting back. That’s a stress, because it’s great fun to own a football club, but that money could be going in to my kids savings… that’s the harsh reality of it.

That’s something, as a business owner, I need to find a solution to that. I need to find a business model that allows the club to be sustainable outside of me putting money in to it.

We’ve brought on a board of non executive directors and we’re in the process of coming up with a strategic plan to try and generate some income and find some business models that can help the club not only be sustainable but to go on and thrive.

He feels the weight of expectation on his shoulders too.

“There’s a stress for the people who are involved in our club and who download the app. There’s a huge pressure on me to deliver this project for them too.

They’ve put a lot of trust in to me, they’ve bought in to the idea of the club but they’ve bought in to me as a person, there’s a lot of responsibility associated with that. You don’t want to let people down, you want to fulfil the potential of the club and bring people along with that success.

There’s a pressure on me to always be doing my best, and not to let people down, whether that’s the fans, the coaches, the players.”

It’s been far from plain sailing, and Ewing is the first to admit that the Braves have perhaps failed to deliver on some of the promises the club made. But it is clear throughout our conversation that despite the hurdles, and the unexpected challenges, the club have faced in the early days of their existence, he remains more committed than ever to the Caledonian Braves project.

“The overall vision hasn’t changed. Is it more difficult than I anticipated? Yep. Am I still motivated for it? Very much so… Covid has no helped.

When we launched the app, it was a year late. Literally. So we lost a bit of momentum with that… the bottom line is that the project has stagnated slightly, so we’re looking over the next three, four months to really re-launch the project, get the app free, market it so fans from all over the world can get involved, and really get everyone looking forward to next season.

The big thing is to create good content, behind the scenes access, so people can know what the club is all about… get people to fall in love with the club and get involved.

That’s what the club is all about. It’s creating a family, creating a community that loves football and are maybe a little disillusioned with how football is right now and want something a bit different.

If we can do that, and we can grow, then the sky’s the limit.”

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