Is A Battle For Stamford Bridge About To Begin?
It hasn’t always been about the Champions League and domestic doubles for Chelsea Football Club. The club’s saga over its ownership of Stamford Bridge was – at a time during which it had nothing like the status that it has today – one of the ongoing crisis stories of the 1980s, but the club was (after the collapse of Marler Estates in 1992) reunited with the freehold to the ground and subsequently set up the Chelsea Pitch Owners, a non-profit organisation which took ownership of this freehold and the name of the club, and granted it a 199-year lease on Stamford Bridge, which secured the club’s future even though the ground stands on one of the more sought-after areas of London – a city that has seen a fair few football grounds disappear in the name of property development in recent years.
Chelsea Football Club is, however, a long way from where it was in 1993, when CPO was formed. Manchester United and Arsenal have already expanded their grounds in order to reap the benefits of increased match-day revenue, and Tottenham Hotspur are edging towards the same position with their slow (and, it should probably be added, often reluctant looking) movement towards the Northumberland Park Development. As such, in terms of match-day revenue, Chelsea may have room for improvement – a decade and a half ago, say, the 41,800 capacity of Stamford Bridge was enough to satisfy the ambitions of the club, but football in 2011 is a broadly different beast, especially with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations looming. The problem that the club has with redeveloping the current site of the ground is that it is difficult – if not impossible – to do. Chelsea FC, therefore, feels that it needs to leave Stamford Bridge.
How, though, does the club do this? The terms of the lease given by the CPO to the football club have some interesting clauses contained therein, including that Stamford Bridge cannot be used for non-footballing purposes and that the name of Chelsea Football Club cannot be used away from Stamford Bridge without their blessing, although even this was, for a while, a bone of contention. Over 12,000 Chelsea supporters have purchased CPO shares since its inception – at £100 per share – but concerns began to be raised at the start of last year about the actions of the PLC’s Chairman, Richard King. King has previously made the claim that CPO has ‘served its purpose’, and was the subject of a number of critical articles on some independent Chelsea websites at the start of 2010, but he survived what was described at the time as an attempt at a “coup d’etat” and is still in his position today. Less than two years from this flurry of activity, however, the subject of Chelsea FC leaving Stamford Bridge again is rearing its head.
It has come in the form of an open letter from the club to the members of CPO, which was sent on the twenty-second of September. In the letter (which is signed by Chelsea Football Club Chairman Bruce Buck, but also features the name of King, along with the other two directors of CPO, Robert Sewell and Richard Glanvill), the club states that “planning, health and safety and construction requirements, combined with the physical constraints of the site, will prevent further development at Stamford Bridge from being a financially viable option”, and that, “the CPO structure could now actually hinder rather than enhance the future of the Club as restrictions in the Lease inhibit relocation to a larger stadium”, before making an offer to the CPO membership, to ” acquire the ownership of the freehold interest of the Stadium Site so that it can take advantage if an appropriate opportunity arises to relocate to a new site”.
The club has sweeteners for members of CPO. For those concerned at what this may mean for the future of the club, any move from Stamford Bridge prior to 2020 (there seems no clear reason as to why this particular year was selected) must be to a site “3-mile radius of Stamford Bridge”, must be a stadium with “at least 55,000 seats” and that “at least 10% of the seating capacity of the new stadium is made available exclusively to families and supporters under 21 years of age”, whilst, for those that may be concerned with what they can get for themselves from the voting for the club to move, “all CPO shareholders who vote in favour of the Transaction be named in a “roll of honour” or “walk of honour” at any new stadium to which the Club moves” and, “all CPO shareholders listed on the Register of Members as at 3 October 2011 who vote in favour of the Transaction will be given a non-assignable priority right to purchase, subject to normal terms and conditions, one season ticket for each share held (subject to such right being exercised in respect of a maximum of 2 tickets per shareholder) in any new stadium to which the Club moves, for the first season that such new stadium is used as the home ground of Chelsea Football Club, and such right will rank generally above existing season ticket holders of the Club.”
That the club should be keen to move from Stamford Bridge should be no great surprise. That the directors of CPO have their names on the letter, however, would not seem terribly consistent with their own letter (which is available on the same link above), which states that “The Board does not believe it is appropriate to make a recommendation to the shareholders of CPO as regards voting on the proposed resolutions.” Equally curious is the statement that “Richard King and Rick Glanvill believe that they should point out that each of them undertakes paid part-time work from time to time on behalf of the Club. Having given the matter full consideration, neither of them believes that there is any conflict of interest between such work and their positions as directors of CPO.” That, some CPO shareholders may decide, is very much a matter for conjecture.
Objectors will have their opportunity to raise their concerns on the 27th of October, when the CPO holds an Extraordinary General Meeting to discuss the matter. It is impossible to gauge at this juncture what the outcome of such a meeting will be, or where support lays amongst the club’s wider support. What has been noticeable this evening, however, has been support for the #SaveTheBridge hashtag on Twitter this evening. Chelsea Football Club was, in 1905, a football club formed to fill an existing stadium, and they have a long and rich history there. As one Chelsea supporter noted on the social media site this evening; “It’s not just a stadium. It’s home” – a point worth repeating to those that may see nothing but a pot of gold at the end of any rainbow that the club’s offer may promise. It is also worth pointing out that the club hardly suffers in terms of its current match-day income. Despite the limited capacity of Stamford Bridge, the club still made £67.2m in match-day revenue in the year to 2010, which was the fifth highest in Europe for that year, and sat in sixth place overall (behind Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Arsenal) in the 2011 Deloitte Money League.
At this stage, it feels as if there are too many questions to be answered for CPO to merely wave their approval for the buy-back through. The supporters of Chelsea Football Club are lucky to have a safety net like CPO in place, and it feels perverse that there are attempts, just a few years after this agreement was put in place with the intention of securing the club’s future at Stamford Bridge for life, that the club should be seeking to uproot it from its home. It is, however, ultimately for the voters of the CPO to make their decision over where they see the future of the club, but they have a powerful bargaining chip in their hands and to give it away too cheaply may be a decision that they could come to resent at leisure. For now, there are many questions that must be asked, and many questions that the club should answer. If Chelsea Football Club wishes to over-ride the security that the CPO offers the supporters of the club – and this is regardless of their motives for doing so, whether good or bad – it should be made to work for it.
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