For a couple of weeks or so, there was something approaching normality at The Ricoh Arena. After an absurd amount of time away, Coventry City Football Club was back home with a team that was performing reasonably well on the pitch, and all was as near as things have been at this basket-case of a club over the last two or three years or so. It didn’t take long, however, for a cat to be thrown amongst the pigeons yet again for the long-suffering supporters of the club. Or a Wasp, to be a little more precise.
Earlier on this evening, Coventry City Council unanimously accept an offer to sell The Ricoh Arena to the London Wasps Rugby Football Club, in a deal worth £20m for a 250 year-long lease on the stadium. In some respects, perhaps there should be no great surprise at this deal being agreed. After all, Wasps have played at The Ricoh Arena before. In 2007, the club began its defence of the Heineken Cup there against Munster. Moreover, this was a successful venture for Wasps, with more than 21,500 people turning out for the match.
Similarly, it could be argued that Coventry City Council have stated all along that any reasonable bids for the The Ricoh Arena would be listened to, and that they have a broader responsibility to the taxpayers of Coventry to do what is most fiscally prudent for the city as a whole. Coventry City Football Club’s owners could have made an offer on similar terms to those that Wasps have offered at any point through out this entire, dismal dispute, but they didn’t do so. Indeed, the judge in the Judicial Review of the loan deal required to keep the stadium owners ACL afloat in January 2013 stated that the owners of the club had followed a somewhat different tack, to “distress” ACL and buy a half share of it “at a knockdown price.”
Tempting though these arguments may be, however, there remains something unsettling about the quietness with which this deal was pushed through, and also with its unanimity. The football club only has a short-term lease back at The Ricoh Arena and there are no guarantees that Wasps will allow them to carry on playing there indefinitely. In addition to this, if the income streams that come from owning such a property – and, perhaps more importantly, land surrounding it that is ideal for redevelopment – then the club could, even in the event of staying at The Ricoh Arena, the club could well find itself permanently hobbled by being tenants, rather than owners.
The truth of the matter is that, at the time of writing, no-one knows exactly what so much as the medium-to-long term future of the football club is, yet again. The spectre of a new stadium to be built “somewhere in the Coventry area” starts to lurk on the horizon again. Considering that its owners have already taken it in self-imposed exile to Northampton once, where might the club end up playing in perpetuity? At the time of writing, no-one knows the answer to questions such as this. Whether Sisu would actually have the stomach to go ahead and build a stadium elsewhere is as unknown as anything else at present, even though the bullish as ever Tim Fisher stated this eveing that, “we still plan to build a new stadium. Even as late as last week we were in highways consultation for the new ground.” They have issued an open letter on the subject, but any protests from those running the club over the sale of the stadium would feel pretty toothless, this evening.
Also, we should take into consideration the small matter of the franchising of Wasps RFC from London to the West Midlands, as well. It’s true to say that fans of rugby union are used to a little more tumult in terms of name changes, stadium changes and the like than fans of the round ball game might be. The introduction of professionalism in 1995 brought about huge upheavals in the sport. Wasps themselves, for example, originated from Sudbury in Middlesex before playing at Queens Park Rangers’ Loftus Road and settling at Wycombe Wanderers’ Adams Park in 2002.
None of this, however, is probably much of a consolation to Wasps supporters, who will now most likely seem displaced eight miles north of London to play at The Ricoh Arena. A petition has already been set up to protest at any such move which has already gathered – at the time of writing – over 2,000 signatures. There has been no consultation on the part of those running Wasps RFC with its own supporters, and there can be other description of the way in which those fans have been treated by their club than disgraceful. In a superbly eloquent and thought-provoking post on a fans’ forum earlier today, the clubs supporters may well “Expect to see the Ricoh up for sale again in a couple of years’ time at a price three or four times its current value – when development plans are sufficiently advanced to put hard numbers on the project, before adding, poignantly, “Where that will leave Coventry Wasps … time, as they say, will tell. I doubt many of us will care by then.”
The club’s statement on the matter has stated that, “This decision has not been taken lightly, it has been a very thorough and detailed process and we truly believe this is the best option to secure a successful long-term future for the Club. It’s important to us to make clear that we see the Ricoh as the home of Coventry City Football Club and are committed to it staying that way, and that we are already working with Coventry Rugby Club to ensure both clubs thrive and grow.” No tmention of the best interests of the supporters of the club there, then. If we agree that the franchising of Wimbledon to Milton Keynes or the exile of Coventry City in Northampton was a disgrace, then we can only extend our sympathies to the supporters of Wasps RFC.
Then there is the small matter of Coventry RFC, which has been representing the city at rugby union now for one hundred and forty years. It may only have had one season – the first of the sport’s national league system, for the 1987/88 season – in the top flight and currently plays in National League One, the third tier of rugby union in this country, but it’s impossible to see how the parachuting into the area of a Premiership giant could be anything other than hopelessly suffocating for Coventry RFC, regardless of the pacifying noises concerning its future that have come from both Wasps and Coventry City Council over the club’s future.
If there are crumbs of comfort to be found for the supporters of Coventry City FC this evening, they are probably limited to the knowledge that the club’s current short-term lease should at least be unaffected by today’s vote, and that at least for them things aren’t as bad as they are now for the supporters of Wasps RFC. This evening, though, this is a deal that looks like bad news for Coventry City FC, and the supporters of both the Sky Blues and Wasps. We can probably take it as read that it is good news for the owners of Wasps RFC. The councillors who agreed the sale of The Ricoh Arena today, however, may well find out how popular their decision was come the next round of local council elections in the city.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.