Matters of Hearth & Home in the SPL

By on Oct 17, 2011 in Latest, Scottish Football | 0 comments

There exists evidence to the contrary that a man’s home is his castle. To begin, seeing as how there are so few men living in castles these days, owing to their relatively poor resale value and faulty electrical wiring incapable of  handling the wattage necessary to capture the beautiful game in breathtaking HD, castles just aren’t prime real estate these days. Stripping away the rather antiquated phrase and applying it to football, there is the simple matter that where a club plays its home matches no longer appears the refuge it might once have been. Instead, for those clubs operated more so with an eye to being a business organisation keen on extending their brand or reinvention as a 21st century enterprise, monuments of yesteryear might be seen simultaneously as albatrosses weighing down portfolios, prime real estate worth more to commercial interests than footballing ones, no longer fit for purpose of any kind, too small for modern spectator events, or leveraging instruments during club ownership negotiations. With London clubs such as Tottenham, Chelsea, West Ham United popping up in the news recently regarding where their next moats will be dug around, and with discussions about future castle construction on Merseyside ongoing, stadiums are a hot topic of late, and any or all of these perspectives on their current residences have been submitted.

As England is having a sneeze over stadium issues, Scotland has developed  something of a cold. Several Scottish Premier League clubs, desperate for additional revenue as they still try to recover from the unexpected shortfall created by the collapse of Setanta,–and their subsequent pittance of a television deal from Sky in absence of competition–declining gate receipts from stadiums not often packed due to overall tough economic times for their supporters or casual protests over ticket prices raised on those supporters to make up some financial gaps, or seeing the only way to grow is to leave their parks of over 100 years, are mulling over several options.

One of the more surprising ones considering moving is Heart of Midlothian, which is surprising only in the sense that Vladmir Romanov’s ownership of the club came about principally to deny Chris Robinson the move to chuck Hearts out of Tynecastle back in in 2004. Six years on, though, Romanov has encountered varied municipal difficulties regarding planned expansion and renovation of the 125 yr old stadium, and current estimates suggest the cost of building a new stadium for the club elsewhere to be less expensive than the £51 million initially established for the Tynecastle scheme. Romanov mentioned just this May he might have to put Tynecastle up for sale and move the club from its Gorgie home if he and the Jam Tarts are to fully realise their goal of being more than just one of the more successful Scottish clubs outside the Old Firm.

New drawbridges are just cheaper to build these days instead of mending the old ones with the squeaky chain links it seems.

The twist this time around though, is that rather than supporters rallying to a Save our Hearts campaign as they did when Robinson sought to sell Tynecastle to a commercial interest, the current mood appears to be that leaving Tynecastle is an eventuality. If Romanov is game enough to fund the club’s move to a new, larger stadium to a site agreeable with the local Edinburgh councils after years of the club having their proposals to redevelop the area and expand their grounds shot down, why not have their Lithuanian benefactor get on with it? After all, Romanov is proposing to fund a new purpose-built stadium just for the club rather than turfing them out to pay rent to another, as was Robinson’s plan to sell Tynecastle and lease Murrayfield, and Romanov has demonstrated during his time in charge he acts in what he believes to be the club’s best interests, rather than his own. The club plays in a stadium with less seated capacity than Easter Road, Rugby Park, and Pittodrie, and is dwarfed by the likes of Celtic Park and Ibrox. If an English club such as Tottenham find it tough to compete with their Premiership rivals on half the possible gate receipts, Romanov and Hearts must find it considerably harder against the likes of Rangers and Celtic with around 2/3 less revenue-generating potential on matchdays.

Oh, and the other twist–Hearts might have to sell Tynecastle for less than they would have gotten back in 2004 owing to the poor economic climate.

In Aberdeen, it’s no longer merely an academic discussion whether the Dons could leave Pittodrie, as the park has just been put up for sale. With the local council finally approving plans on a move that looks to have been in the works for over five years, the Reds have been given permission to develop a new stadium on a plot of land south of the city proper in an area perhaps considered to be the suburbs of Aberdeen. Here, there could be an argument made that the club are perhaps abandoning roots deeply planted after over a century of play at Pittodrie, or that this is an attempt to re-package the Aberdeen FC brand after subsequent regimes have been unable to continue the dominance set out during the days of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Instead, the club’s decision appears to be an overdue adjustment to population shifts in the region over the decades and an attempt to reconnect to where their supporters might be living. Population studies demonstrated patterns of increased movement of peoples into Aberdeen neighborhoods south and southwest of the city centre, to areas such as Mannofield, Braeside, Cults, and Cove. Particularly, those neighborhoods more southerly to Pittodrie appear to be gaining in younger populations, and the club could be positioning itself much better to connect with those potential future fans of the Dons as average attendances at Pittodrie have receded below 12,000 over the past few seasons. Then again, Aberdeen FC is the only SPL game in town, so perhaps fewer fans are turning out for reasons other than location. In the end, though, Pittodrie’s presence in the northern part of the city is set to become a sign among residential housing while the club look to play around Loirston Loch by 2013, another fortress of solitude lost to the modern business of football.

A part of Aberdeen’s planned move to Loirston Loch includes selling the naming rights on the new stadium, a concept still slightly taboo for football traditionalists but a way for the current wave of club management to squeeze more revenue out of their facilities, both new and old. Currently, the issue of selling sponsorship on the Ibrox name is only at the simmering stage in Glasgow, with operations director Ali Russell having stated “I don’t think it’s something we would consider at this stage.” That stage, however, was before HMRC appeared intent on turning up the heat with regard to Rangers unpaid taxes now overdue, and as Russell might soon be tasked with maximising greater revenues out of any and all Rangers assets not tied down should those tax cases favour HMRC, the topic of naming rights might surely become a roiling boil soon enough. Particularly, Russell seemed to have spoken out of both sides of his mouth in rejecting the idea of selling the Ibrox name, for at the same time he said it was not a consideration he referenced the concept of sweating as much equity out of the real estate as possible.

Most would recoil at the suggestion of calling the home of their Rangers something other than Ibrox, much like the majority of Newcastle United fans reacted in 2009 when St. James’ Park was to be renamed something along the lines of sportingdirect.com @St. James’ Park. Funnily enough, though, this website monstrosity of a name still appears to be the official name of the Geordies’ home grounds, yet the historic name still remains the dominant reference. Club owner Mike Ashley has still been able to lump his company’s name in with the stadium name yet Toon have not lost their St. James’ moniker. Whether an outside sponsor would not mind its company’s name being similarly marginalised for the sake of tradition should Rangers embark upon the idea of selling the naming rights to Ibrox, it would seem to be hard money to turn down should Russell and Craig Whyte see the right offer come along. Ibrox would remain Ibrox to the majority, whichever corporate sponsor opted plunk down its pounds for the rights in much the same way that Westfalenstadion remains so to supporters of Borussia Dortmund, despite the Bundesliga champions playing officially at Signal Iduna Park. Slapping a new name on a park known by one name for such a long period of time as Ibrox has been would likely not result in a further loss of identity for a club seemingly desperate for new avenues of income in its quest to continue dominance in the SPL.

It would just be a further erosion of any sense of romanticism surrounding where the Scottish champions raise that flag on the opening home match of a campaign.

Now, while Celtic are neither planning to leave Parkhead nor sell the naming rights to Celtic Park anytime soon, they have begun active consideration of whether they can make their castle one of refuge for those seeking to stand during matches. On the agenda for the approaching October AGM will be a proposal to develop a safe standing section at the grounds, something in current contravention of Scottish Premier League rules. The opportunity to stand at SPL venues has become an issue of greater interest this particular season for supporters seeking relief for their wallets–as tickets to a standing section tend to be cheaper than seated ones–and from observation of the Safe Standing movement taking shape south of the border through Supporters Direct. By and large the English Premiership have rejected such initiatives to bring back standing in their stadiums, and until there is a more significant dip in attendance figures, or an unprecedented easement of the regulations on all-seater stadia for the upper divisions, terraces will remain a thing of the past in England for now.

Celtic, though, have not been immune to the widely negative trend in attendances experienced by other SPL clubs. While the Glasgow giant remains one of the biggest, best supported, and successful clubs in Scotland, average attendance at Celtic Park over the past decade has dropped by the thousands, reducing even their ability to bank more after a matchday. As smaller clubs such as Dunfermline explore options to increase weekend revenue by eliminating expenses such as policing, this is not an option for a club like Celtic. The opportunity to see more fans move through their turnstiles and on to their standing area could be, however, and should a club of their importance endorse a safe standing initiative in Scotland it could produce a greater degree of support among the other league members also seeking ways to bring more bodies to their grounds. While the Old Firm often seem to be operating at cross purposes to their SPL colleagues, a safe standing movement, sponsored by Celtic, might receive a bandwagon of support, paving the way for those clubs unable to finance moves to more attractive grounds or get any more money out of their empty seated stands to demand a change to the all-seater regulation.

So, the fates of some of Scotland’s castles to football should be something to observe over the next twelve months, whether they are set to be altered with significance, relabeled, or vacated entirely and consigned to the list of those we have lost. Let us hope that whatever happens, none meet an ignominious end such as when Lanrick Castle was pulled down with little warning, leaving the Children of the Mist to wander further out into the world without one of their ancestral homes.

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Follow Jason on Twitter here.

 

 

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