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After Coventry City had their 3rd home game postponed this season, who is to blame?
In this longer read special, Tom Browne looks behind the scenes at the ongoing saga.
At Counter Cut we have often spoken about what the legacy of the Commonwealth Games will be for the West Midlands in years to come. For Coventry City fans they are already feeling the effects the games have had.
The Coventry Building Society Arena, formerly Ricoh Arena, was completed in 2005 after initial plans were drawn up as far back as 1997. Bryan Richardson, the then Coventry City chairman, had wanted to move from the historic Highfield Road to a more modern stadium with increased capacity and better transport links, to improve the match day experience.
The plans for a 45,000 seater stadium were approved in 1999. The stadium would boast one of the world's first retractable roofs on a purpose built football stadium, a retractable pitch that could be replaced by a hard floor to accommodate concerts and a conference centre.
Football for 9 months of the year, concerts over the summer and conferences year round made the potential new ‘Jaguar Arena’, as it was then known, a real money spinner.
As historic as Highfield Road was, any fan would tell you that a move was necessary if the club wanted to compete in the newly formed Premier League. Richardson himself stated that ‘We averaged 19,000 and gate receipts of £5m a year… our breakeven attendance at that time would have been 83,000’.
Highfield Road was one of the classic English football grounds. Up there with Villa Park, Hillsborough, Goodison Park and Nottingham Forest’s City Ground. Unlike its counterparts who have outlasted it, Highfield’s location in the Hillfields area of Coventry, meant any redevelopment or expansion would prove tricky.
Like most football grounds built in the 1890’s, Highfield was built on land at the heart of the community, football was the people's game. Unlike the other stadia, Highfield was held back by its location though. Penned in by tight terraced streets, it would be impossible to renovate or expand without displacing members of the local community.
The club had tried to modernise without moving away from Highfield Road. They had filled the corners of the stadium to increase capacity and had even implemented an all-seater policy in the early 80’s well before the Taylor Report made it compulsory in 1989, short lived as it may have been.
With changes in the modern game and new requirements for old stadiums, many clubs decided to move into new grounds in the 90’s, Middlesbrough and Sunderland leaving Ayresome Park and Roker Park respectively, as it allowed clubs more freedom in the redevelopment.
The club's plans were enhanced by England's bid to host the 2006 World Cup. If the bid was successful, it would mean that the FA would have money made available to improve stadiums and infrastructure via FIFA. If Coventry were successful as a host city, they could potentially offset a lot of the costs with that funding.
Following England’s failed bid for the 2006 World Cup it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Coventry City. They were still a Premier League club and had investment in place, as well as a sponsorship deal with Jaguar for the naming rights of the stadium.
Then disaster struck.
In the 2000-2001 season Coventry City were relegated from the Premier League. Their first relegation in 44 years was confirmed after a 3-2 loss at Villa Park, a game in which they were winning 2-0 at half time. It may have seemed the end of the world to the Sky Blues, relegation confirmed against local rivals, but it was only going to get worse.
After relegation was confirmed, Coventry City faced an uphill battle as investment in the new stadium had begun to dry up. Investors were less interested in a Championship team (Division one at the time) when all the big money was in the Premier League, regardless of the corporate and social potential the new stadium could offer. Coventry had also failed in their bid to be the new home of the England National teams home stadium, after it was decided it should remain at Wembley.
By the start of the 2002-03 season, the plans for the new stadium had been reduced to a more modest 32,500 capacity, without the retractable roof and retractable pitch. Further issues arose when Jaguar pulled their sponsorship of the stadium after the company had hit financial troubles and had to close its Brown’s Lane assembly plant in Coventry (Sponsoring the local football ground when you have had to make the people of the city redundant isn’t the best look).
After 8 years in the pipeline from the initial talks of a new stadium, with numerous setbacks, the new Coventry Arena was ready to host its first football game. It had also managed to find a new 10 year long term sponsor in the form of Japanese electronic firm Ricoh.
They may not have been able to get back into the Premier League at the first, second, third or fourth try, having fought against relegation to the third tier of English football twice in those four years, but the new stadium would surely bring new revenue to invest in a team that dreamt of reaching the top table again.
Due to the club being in financial turmoil and investment being pulled from the project, it meant Coventry City Football Club did not actually own the ground they would call home. The stadium had been financed by Coventry City Council and the Higgs Charity under the name Arena Coventry Limited (ACL), meaning Coventry City FC were tenants in the stadium they had intended to build.
Things got worse off the pitch as Coventry found themselves on the brink of administration in 2007. Reports that £1.2m a year was being paid to ACL for rent on Ricoh Arena and that matchday revenue, which is often a clubs most consistent revenue stream, was going wholly to ACL didn’t sit right with the Sky Blue faithful.
Ray Ranson, former professional footballer and insurance broker, along with SISU Capital, were able to save the club at the 11th hour. In the process they were able to strike a deal with ACL which would enable Coventry City to continue playing their home games at the Ricoh Arena. Coventry City had managed to avoid complete financial ruin but as had been the case for almost ten years, trouble was never too far away.
With the club struggling even more so financially, they had to become a selling club, or sometimes worse, simply releasing players at the end of their contracts to try and balance the books. It is an unsustainable business model and one that would run them into the ground.
If you are not reinvesting in the squad, you are only going to go backwards. You need money to reinvest though to start with and when everything you earn is going to your landlord, you cannot reinvest. If you cannot compete you will finish lower down the table meaning reduced prize money and you will potentially have to sell players to balance the books. If you are not reinvesting in the squad…
In late 2012, after their relegation to League One, ACL threatened legal action due to unpaid by SISU Capital for use of Ricoh Arena. The December 27th deadline for rent to be paid was outlined by ACL and when no payment was forthcoming they looked to put the club into administration yet again.
The Club itself went into administration incurring a 10 point penalty by the Football League which the club accepted. A further 10 point penalty was again given to the club after ACL refused to accept the company voluntary arrangement offered by the administrators. This led to more hostility with the club and ACL.
Rumours began to circulate that Coventry City would look to find a temporary home whilst plans for a new stadium were being looked into. Many ground share proposals were looked at including Walsall’s Bescott Stadium. When news broke that Northampton’s Sixfields Stadium was top of the list, fans protested at Coventry City being forced out of Coventry.
Coventry Telegraph started a petition and asked for the other 71 football league clubs to back them to ensure Coventry City Football Club would play their home games in Coventry. Unfortunately, the petition fell on deaf ears and the club were forced to play the 2013-14 season at Sixfield Stadium.
The 70 mile round trip for supporters to attend a ‘home’ game caused outrage amongst football fans across the country. Apart from MK Dons and American franchise model based sports, temporary relocation is unheard of in England, but more on that later.
The high profile of the case led to national interest and gave SISU Capital a little more leverage in negotiations. After just over a year away from the Ricoh Arena Coventry City returned on a two year lease for the 2014-15 season, although 3 ‘home’ games were played at the start of the season at Sixfields.
Still it wasn’t plain sailing as in October 2014 professional rugby team Wasps purchased 50% of the stadium holding company ACL. This cast doubt as to whether the agreement with Coventry and ACL would be upheld but it was confirmed a ground share would be implemented for the duration of the lease.
Ground shares are nothing new within English sports. As far back as 1862 when Yorkshire County Cricket Club ground shared Bramall Lane with Sheffield F.C before going on to share with Sheffield Wednesday and then Sheffield United until 1975.
The ground sharing of football clubs and rugby clubs is far more common. Wasps themselves had already ground shared with Queens Park Rangers in London as well as calling Adams Park, Wycombe Wanderers ground, home before they purchased the Ricoh. Wigan Athletic, Leeds United, Hull City, Reading, Fulham and Preston have all allowed rugby teams to ground share in the past. It is very rare for the professional football club to be a tenant in a professional rugby team's ground however.
After the initial deal was set to expire in 2018, the club were able to negotiate a year's extension with ACL, now owned completely by Wasps, to ensure that Coventry City would stay based in Coventry. In 2019 an agreement was unable to be reached with ACL and once again Coventry City found themselves homeless. For the second time the possibility of playing their home games away from home looked like a real possibility.
Whilst they did have to spend the 2019-20 season away from Coventry, this time it was a far more palatable 40 mile round trip out west to St. Andrews, home of Birmingham City. Fans voted with their feet on this occasion, staying away as a protest to being forced out of Coventry.
Ironically, it was Coventry’s most successful season since leaving Highfield Road and their first league title since 1966-67 when they won the second division. It was also a season that pitted them against Birmingham City at ‘home’ in the FA Cup. Coventry managed to take the tie to a lucrative second leg away from home at St. Andrews, which they subsequently lost on penalties.
After the COVID pandemic hit in early 2020 and the football season was suspended, it really didn’t matter where their games were being played as when football resumed, it was behind closed doors. This continued into the 2020-21 season with Coventry City even finishing above landlords Birmingham City in the league.
Before the season was finished it was announced that after two years Coventry would be returning to the renamed Coventry Building Society Arena (CBS Arena). A 10 year agreement had been made with ACL and Wasps with inclusion of a break in contract if Coventry City were able to build their own stadium. The terms in general were also said to have been more favourable than before, making a move back to CBS Arena a no brainer.
Coventry City had been in talks with University of Warwick about building a new stadium on land owned by UoW. So the possibility of finally having their own stadium whilst being able to play their home games in Coventry was the perfect scenario.
Mismanagement of finances in the 90’s and early 2000’s along with getting relegated and languishing in the lower tiers is par for the course for many of yesterdays ‘big’ clubs. Leeds and Forest, who were both relegated in the same era as Coventry, have returned to the Premier League recently, where clubs like Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry have struggled to make it back.
So where is the issue?
The issue lies in the fact that CBS, Ricoh, Coventry, Jaguar or whatever-you-want-to-call-it Arena only exists because Coventry City Football Club exists. Coventry City were the brains behind the project, they were the ones who pushed for investment and wanted to make it a truly modern, cutting edge stadium. They were after all the ‘money maker’; the professional football team.
The CBS Arena was built off the back of Coventry City’s proud history and now they were being held to ransom at their lowest point by their own council, who saw Coventry City as more of a cash cow than a football club (though many might suggest they aren’t mutually exclusive). Alienating their own community in a one club city.
£100k per month rent and 100% of match day revenue isn't sustainable for any football club, regardless of where they are in the football pyramid. In fact, the further you go down the pyramid, the more important match day revenue can be to the everyday running of the club. It seems mad that the council would try to price the only professional football club in the area, out of the area.
A club stagnating because of the restrictions their own council have put on them to use a stadium that wouldn't even have been built if it wasn’t for the clubs historic achievements. It’s quite the paradox.
But didn’t Wasps buy ACL taking control of the Ricoh Arena? Yes they did.
So now we have to talk about Wasps.
Wasps, formerly London Wasps, a rugby club, have been quite nomadic since turning professional back in 1996. After their first professional season they signed a deal with Loftus Road Holdings to play their games at Loftus Road, the home of Queen’s Park Rangers.
Between 2002 and 2004, Wasps moved out of London and played their home games at Adams Park in Wycombe to allow Fulham F.C to play at Loftus Road whilst renovations were done on Craven Cottage. After a successful spell in Wycombe the club decided to stay and make Adams Park their permanent home.
They did however play most of their European Heineken Cup home games away from Adams Park, playing at Reading’s Madjeski Stadium as well as Coventry’s Ricoh, due to the grounds increased capacity.
This is believed to have been what piqued the owners of Wasps interest in buying Ricoh Arena. It was a purpose built sports stadium and at that time it wasn’t being used as a sports stadium as Coventry City were playing in Northampton. Fans had complained that the journey from London to Coventry was ludicrous in the first instance, even just for the odd European game, but relocating the whole club for the sake of a stadium would be a step too far.
So what benefit does relocating, initially, out of London and then 83 miles north to Coventry?
First you need to look at the other 12 Premiership rugby clubs. Out of those 12, 6 of them play in purpose built rugby stadiums. Leicester Tigers, the most successful rugby union side, has the largest stadium in terms of capacity, out of those purpose built stadiums at 26,000. The remaining six play their home games in various ground share and multi purpose/community stadiums. The largest of those is Bristol Bears’ Ashton Gate, owned by Bristol City F.C, at 28,000.
So that places the CBS Arena capacity almost 5,000 larger than any other clubs in the league and the only stadium with the capability of hosting over 30,000 spectators. It would make sense for London Wasps to buy the Ricoh and relocate. They would be moving to a big, modern stadium with excellent transport links and the potential earnings on matchdays could be huge compared to other clubs in the league.
So the extra revenue earned from increased capacity will then be reinvested back into the team and, as the second most successful club in Premiership Rugby, they will be able to assert their dominance and rival Leicester Tigers?
Not quite. Premiership Rugby currently has a salary cap of £5m per year, there are restrictions on what they can spend on player wages. Like most leagues who operate a salary cap, they do have exclusions or designated players who don’t count towards the cap. In the case of Premiership Rugby it is 2 players, although they have to meet certain criteria.
In the 2018-19 season, Wasps averaged less than half the capacity of the 32,000 seater stadium. By the end of the 21-22 season average attendances had dropped further to under 10,000 per game and 30% capacity. It would be easy to think the gamble to move hasn’t paid off for Wasps.
It has recently come to light that Wasps have a £35m bill with HMRC and are struggling to find the money to pay it. Fellow Midlands Premiership Rugby club Worcester Warriors are facing a winding up order and are on the brink of administration themselves as the after effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are being felt. A £20m cash injection from Rugby Football Union (RFU), to be split between the 13 Premiership Rugby clubs, is unlikely to help.
So it stands to reason that Wasps allowed CBS Arena to be used for Commonwealth Games rugby 7’s games, as well as judo and wrestling at the games, because they would receive a financial windfall. A modern stadium within the West Midlands county was perfect. Although the games would be held in Birmingham, it was much more a West Midlands affair and that's great for the area. One thing seemed to have been overlooked though.
Wasps CBS Arena tenants Coventry City were due to play their first home game of the new campaign on the 7th August. The rugby 7’s was due to be wrapped up by 31st July which would allow the pitch a week to recover after three days of rugby.
Villa Park was the stadium first going to be used, as it had been at the rugby World Cup, but fears over the pitch condition and the earlier start to the season due to the Qatar World Cup, meant that Aston Villa pulled their proposal. They feared the playing surface would not be up to standard for the beginning of the season after such a relentless schedule of rugby.These concerns were not shared by ACL, who agreed for the rugby 7’s to be played at CBS Arena.
As it now appears, there was also no contingency or communication between Wasps and Coventry City, in regards to the playing surface and the possible knock-on effects of hosting the tournament at CBS Arena. This has meant that Coventry City have now had to postpone the first 3 of their home games this season as the pitch isn’t up to the required standard for Championship football.
Most top flight or elite sports grounds now use hybrid pitches, a mix of real turf and synthetic materials, to ensure that the playing surface will be consistent all year round. It requires less maintenance in the winter months, when pitches can become waterlogged or patchy, and allows the surface to be played on more frequently. But still, 3 days of competitive rugby will do some damage.
For Coventry City, as a tenant, the minimum requirement of CBS Arena should be that the pitch is usable as and when it is required. They are due to play at least 23 games on that pitch during the course of the season, not taking into account cup games and potentially play-off games. In contrast Wasps will play a minimum of 12 games at home. As mentioned the rugby season doesn’t start until September, so are Wasps looking out for themselves and ignoring their tenants needs?
It’s hard to ignore that Coventry City are the money makers at CBS Arena just by volume of games alone. Add to the fact that last season their average attendance was 19,541, 10,000 more than Wasps were achieving, it seems hard to understand why they seem to have been a second thought when allowing the ground to be used for the Commonwealth Games.
So what is the best solution for all parties? The obvious answer would be for Coventry City to buy CBS Arena from ACL and take control of the running of the stadium. Or, at the very least, purchase a 50% stake in ACL. A 50% stake would enable Wasps to generate capital without having to sell off all their assets, it would allow Coventry City to own a stadium which they could then decide how it is used during the off season and provide more income for the club.
You would hope this would alleviate the burden on Wasps and they would be able to survive in Coventry. It is hard to believe that a sport that was born 11 miles away in Rugby (which even has a CV postcode!), has had no top flight rugby representation, or team within a 40 mile radius of it, until Wasps swapped Wycombe for Coventry. It would be a loss for the Midlands as a whole and our sporting history if they decided to leave.
The facts are what they are though. The current model isn't working for either party. More people attend the CBS Arena on average to watch football than they do to watch rugby. Supply and demand.
In this day and age a professional sports team should not be having games called off at the start of the season because the pitch isn’t up to standards. So maybe it’s time, after 17 years, for Coventry City to finally have somewhere they can call home!
Written by Tom Browne