As the arrival of Wasps in Coventry draws nearer, the dust has settled from the whirlwind sale from the Ricoh Arena and the realities of the situation are starting to become clearer. Despite a late bid from SISU, the sale of the Higgs Charity’s 50% stake in the stadium was all but a formality ever since Wasps completed the purchase of the council’s half. The situation should have provoked much more anger at a decision which effectively screws over both the city’s football club and its rugby club, instead it has been quietly accepted.
That evening on 5th September feels a long time ago now. It should have heralded in a new era but with the Sky Blues struggling in lower mid-table, that feeling of ‘same old City’ has once again set in around the club. Crowds have fallen almost instantly to levels that they would have been without that time in exile. The club should have been galvanised by this glorious return yet its taken very little to sour that optimism and the apathy has once again set in.
Not only has there been a tacit acceptance of Wasps in Coventry but there seems to even be a burgeoning excitement at their arrival. After years of abject underachievement from Coventry City, the attraction of Wasps is that this city might have a winning team at last. Some early success will go a long way to defining just how much Wasps can make this gamble pay off. Currently though Wasps are far from being a team capable of instant success.
The justification from the council for selling the Ricoh Arena at a cut price to Wasps is that they as an ‘elite sporting organisation’ will bring untold economic benefits to the city. Yet this is a club who have abandoned most of their fan-base, of the 17,000 tickets already sold for their first game in Coventry, around 3,500 have been given away for free (with a further 9,000 being given away for the next three Wasps games in Coventry). Wasps and Premiership Rugby may have carefully cut out any dissenting voices in their own PR, 17,000 might be seen as a disappointing figure given that nearly 30,000 Wasps fans went to Twickenham to see their team take on Saracens in a regular season game this year.
Franchise sport though does eventually wear in as seen in the case of MK ‘Dons’ who can now take advantage of a generation who know nothing of the old Wimbledon. It remains to be seen though whether top-flight Rugby Union is enough of a draw to eventually attract regular sell-outs at the Ricoh Arena, in fact the current trend is that of declining attendances in the sport. This might work in both the short and long-term but no-one knows for sure and the future of three sports teams have been gambled with.
From a selfish point of view as a Coventry City fan, the worry is that any failure from Wasps’ part will be felt double by the Sky Blues. Respected local journalist Les Reid has already speculated that Wasps plan to increase our team’s rent at the Ricoh Arena to £400,000 as part of their business plan. Given the outcry and condemnation of SISU’s exile of the club in Northampton, they may actually have little choice to accept given that their bluff of building a new stadium has been called out by the council.
As Coventry City blogger extraordinaire Tom Furnival-Adams outlined in a piece in the Coventry Observer, Wasps now call the shots for Coventry City. Our own success for the long-term depends on little else but the charity of a rugby team from London. There is scope for it to work well with Wasps investing in the facilities to improve the match-day experience and even offering help in other areas for Coventry City. At face value, Wasps CEO Nick Eastwood has repeatedly said that a successful Coventry City is good for Wasps, we have to hope he is being honest.
Through even the worst times at Coventry City, there has always been that silver lining that one day SISU will leave and that someone will spot the untapped potential of this football club. Part of that untapped potential was the possible ownership of the Ricoh Arena which would provide year-long revenues that could be invested in the club and result in a phoenix-like rise back to the top flight. That has been taken away by the arrival of Wasps and the potential of this football club has been capped.
The council more-or-less got away with taking such an antagonistic move against a team that was once the embodiment of Coventry as a city partly because people have stopped caring about this football club. Once upon a time we resented the fact that Coventry City were marginal in the world of English football, now the Sky Blues are becoming are marginal interest in their own city. The sale of the Ricoh Arena has permanently changed the possibilities of what can be achieved at this football club and those that still care enough will now have to adjust their expectations accordingly.
Whether SISU’s Fantasia Park will actually be built as a result of this is starting to look beside the point. Once though talk of building a 12,500 seater stadium for Coventry City would have seemed ridiculously pessimistic, looking at current attendance levels and it would be an achievement to fill it on a regular basis. The ‘ambition’ of the fanciful stadium project though is emblematic of what the future might be for Coventry City.
Our stay in the third-tier is starting to look less and less temporary as the club’s glass ceiling gets ever lower. Every grey cloud at this football club once had that tiny silver lining that everything might one day get itself together. To mix up my metaphors even more, Wasps’ purchase of the Ricoh Arena sets Coventry City’s situation much more deeply into stone. It might not seem different quite yet, but life as we know it for this football club has ended and a new life on the margins awaits.