The recent news that Wasps Rugby Club are reportedly in talks with the owners of the Ricoh Arena to purchase a controlling stake in the stadium has come as a hammer blow to many Coventry City fans who were hoping that the club’s return to the arena purposely built for them would begin the healing process after years of mismanagement, legal battles and heart-ache. It was with a sense of a bright future to come with which Coventry City returned to the city, the idea that a rugby club from miles away could own the Ricoh Arena rather than the local football team returns the focus to the grey clouds rather than the silver linings.
Wasps owning the Ricoh Arena though would have far wider and bigger reaching consequences than to affect the future business model of Coventry City Football Club though. The issues surrounding the franchising of a Rugby club which has had historically close-knit relationships with its community in the London area speaks to the increasing commodisation of sport in this country. Both the Coventry City Council as well as the Rugby Football Union and Premiership Rugby are in effect sanctioning the controlled decline and extinction of Coventry’s local Rugby Union side as well as robbing loyal Wasps fans of the chance to support the club they have followed for their entire lives.
It is not absurd to suggest that a Football club and Rugby club could share the same stadium. The current example is that of Reading FC and London Irish who both play their home fixtures at the Madejski Stadium, the pitch stays in good conditions throughout the season and both are relatively successful for their stature within their own sports. In some ways Coventry City could benefit from a change in ownership at the Ricoh Arena, it could solve the food and beverage sales issue allowing the club to take in greater revenue and longer-term the football club could learn a great deal from working close to a sporting institution that is near the top of its own sport.
However the model of packaging an existing team up with its own local ties and supporters and moving it to a different place is not only unpalatable for many sporting fans in the UK but it is unworkable. How many current Wasps fans would support Coventry Wasps? How many in Coventry and the surrounding area decide to support a completely new team? How can the owners of Wasps justify the cost of buying a stadium when surely there will be little support for the idea?
When the news was first revealed a couple of weeks ago the Coventry Telegraph released an opinion piece entitled ‘Why Coventry City have only themselves to blame for missing out on a stake in the Ricoh Arena’. At first glance the attitude of the article seemed beguiling considering what was at stake for both the city’s Football and Rugby Union clubs. Upon reading it further though it expresses a depressing sentiment about the workings of sport in this country today. Whereas before only Coventry City and possible Coventry RFC would have considered buying the Ricoh Arena, however Leicester City’s reserve team have played at ‘home’ at the Ricoh, West Brom’s reserves were slated to do so this season as well, Saracens played a match there as well as those damned Wasps.
It is faintly ridiculous that Coventry City do not own their own stadium and for that SISU have to take a large piece of the blame. Their arrogance and false belief in their own negotiating skills brought the club to its darkest hour. But SISU aren’t the only ones to blame for why Coventry City do not own their stadium. But in a world of sport which is increasingly dictated by the powers of money, Coventry City’s inability to own the Ricoh Arena nine years after it was built has opened up the opportunity for a sporting organisation from the London area to buy the stadium for its own uses.
Why are Wasps even considering moving from their spiritual home to the Midlands? It is a product of the increasing modernisation of the sport of Rugby Union. The sport only turned professional in this country in 1994, since then we have seen the Premier League model of the dominance of a few elite clubs taking over the game in this country. Wasps have won titles at national and continental level not so long ago but have fallen behind to Northampton Saints, Saracens, and Leicester Tigers who all own their own stadium. In recent years it has seemed anachronistic that such a modern and successful sporting institution was playing its home fixtures as tenants to a fourth-tier football club.
According to many close to the sport of Rugby Union, the authorities in the game are keen for Wasps to move into the sporting market of the West Midlands. With Coventry RFC and Moseley RFC under-performing in what is the spiritual heartlands of the sport, it is viewed as a market for the game with big potential. The Sky Blue Trust’s recent statement on the potential Wasps move revealed that the sport has in-built machinations to allow clubs to insert themselves into pre-existing communities. This is simply paying another Rugby club to act as a ‘development side’ to allow the franchise moving in to have access to local communities and players to save them the effort of having to build them up by themselves.
What’s worse about the franchising of Wasps Rugby Club is that they are not going to be a Coventry team per se, they are viewed by the Rugby authorities as being a West Midlands team. Not only are Coventry RFC about to be turfed out by a ‘bigger’, ‘more important’ club but Wasps are seemingly set to link up with Moseley RFC and use their community ties rather than Cov’s. Not only would Wasps in Coventry be unsustainable given an almost guaranteed lack of support in the stands but they seemingly have no plans to build roots in the city itself.
The irony of the situation has either been lost or is being completely ignored by those involved with ACL and the Coventry City Council. Not long ago many key players in those organisations were decrying the heart-ache of Coventry City playing outside of its city. When ACL issued an administration order against CCFC they stated that they ‘care deeply about the city’s football club’ and that they were reluctantly making the move in order to get Coventry City ‘on a stable financial footing for the future’. Now they are not only sanctioning the franchising of another place’s beloved team but they are placing Coventry City into an uncertain future as a result.
The possibility of Wasps owning the Ricoh Arena is down to pure, cold, hard business. In terms of influencing a pure business decision, us fans are largely powerless. However what we can do is unite with both Coventry RFC fans as well as loyal Wasps fans to remind those making the decisions that the move will only be unsuccessful. Wasps are abandoning their history and community in the hope that people in Midlands ‘sporting market’ will do they same despite having pre-existing and meaningful ties with their own teams. Coventry City Council and ACL are close to making a dangerous decision to sell the Ricoh Arena without considering the long-term impact it will have on the local community.
The point here is simple but is one that shouldn’t need a 1,300 word essay to point out. Don’t sell the Ricoh Arena to Wasps, it will not work and it could have a long-term and nasty impact on the city. Can common sense please prevail?