SUPPORTER-OWNED Exeter City has been highlighted as a shining example for other football clubs to follow as new research reveals the growing financial pressures facing many of their rivals.
The report from Bristol-based accountancy firm BDO suggests football clubs in the South West are on track to comply with 'financial fair play' (FFP) regulations designed to ensure they live within their means.
But as pressure mounts on benefactors to plug funding gaps and keep clubs competitive on the pitch, many owners outside the Premier League are expected to head for the exit during the next two seasons.
Graham Randall, lead partner at BDO, said: "The divisions below the Premier League are crying out for a sustainable business model. Football clubs play a vital role in the South West and in local communities, so there is a clear need for greater financial stability and a higher proportion of clubs living within their means."
He added: "We now see around a third of existing owners seeking a full or partial exit. Buyers are increasingly likely to be supporters, for example Exeter City, which is majority owned by the Exeter City AFC Supporters' Society Limited, who recognise the important role that clubs play in their local communities and seem to be willing to go back to basics, with overly ambitious promises of silverware traded for closer ties and greater financial stability – a backlash, perhaps, against the profligacy of previous regimes."
The firm surveyed 66 finance directors from all English professional divisions. It found 85 per cent of clubs expect to comply with FFP rules in 2013/14 without any significant changes to their business models.
Among Exeter's peers in League Two, 53 per cent are dependent on their principal shareholders to finance operating losses.
Exeter City chief executive Julian Tagg said the report was welcome recognition for everyone involved in the club.
"It's credit to the trust, our staff and many volunteers, and particularly the manager, that we are seen as such a good model," he said. "I would like to think our youth system and Football in the Community work are exceptional for the size of our club.
"I think the fans here are very aware of that, but in the end we are all fans and it's the football that binds it all together. We mustn't lose sight of the fact that success on the field brings success all around – but not at all costs. That's always the difficult balance to maintain.
"We are far from perfect but we are certainly striving towards that goal."
Only 18 per cent of League Two clubs described their finances as very healthy, while six per cent had grave concerns.
The biggest worry for clubs in the division is falling attendances. As a result, 53 per cent plan to spend less on wages this year. Mr Tagg welcomed the principle of financial fair play, but said questions remained about how the rules would be enforced effectively.