On Thursday afternoon, Coventry City told their supporters that they would fulfill Saturday’s Championship match against Blackpool and that the venue would be the Coventry Building Society Arena. Confirming a home game 48 hours before kick-off is not something a football club usually needs to do, especially one that has experienced a remarkable rebirth in the last half-dozen years. But when you are a tenant of England’s most cursed stadium, you should never take anything for granted.
Legal action, rent strikes, extended exile and, this autumn, the collapse of one of the country’s leading rugby clubs: the CBS (formerly Ricoh) Arena has seen it all. A little of it has been neat. The question people in the city are now asking is: does the future have prospects for something better?
The current state is characteristically uncomfortable. This month, Wasps went into administration, the second Premiership rugby club to do so this autumn, causing a crisis that has deeply shaken domestic rugby. Players have been made redundant, the team has been banned from competition and the club is hoping against hope for a buyer.
The consequences have not ended there. Wasps also hold the lease for CBS Arena, a once-prized asset the club bought in 2014. That lease is managed by a separate company, which could also go into administration on Monday if a buyer for it cannot be found.
There is interest in acquiring the lease, with Sky News reporting that the NEC Group, which manages a range of entertainment venues in Birmingham, has made a bid. But nothing has yet been made public and this week the bondholders who funded the £35m debt that enabled Wasps to move to Coventry were asked to immediately put money up to help “market” a potential deal.
If the news were not so bleak, it might raise a wry smile among fans and supporters of Coventry City, whose recent history has been marked by dispute over the ownership of the Arena. Sky Blue’s owner, Sisu Capital Ltd, a London-based hedge fund, only recently abandoned a protracted, bitter and futile attempt to seek damages from Coventry City Council for the deal that allowed Wasps to acquire the lease in the first place.
Sisu claimed the council – which previously owned 50% of the Arena’s lease – had done a deal with Wasps at a subsidized rate. The council argued otherwise and a series of courts agreed. Only when Sisu was denied the opportunity to pursue the case at European level were the proceedings finally abandoned, on Valentine’s Day this year. Twenty-four hours later, Sisus Joy Seppala declared a new era free of antagonism. “We want to draw a clear line on the past and continue to build new and strong relationships with all our partners, including Coventry City Council,” she said.
Three months on and Wasps had defaulted on their obligation to repay the £35m they had borrowed, setting in motion the spiral that reached its climax last autumn. However, there was time for one more spat. Coventry’s start to the Championship season was delayed after a series of inspections declared the pitch unsuitable.
Blame for heavily cut grass was laid at the feet of rugby players who had competed in 65 sevens matches over three days in July as part of the Commonwealth Games. The pitch had been rented out for the games by Wasps. According to reports in the Telegraph, the possibility of more legal action from Coventry City was imminent. Wasps said Coventry were well aware of the possibility of a substandard pitch and had been advised to stage their away games.
The latest line may give a different perspective to the conciliatory statements from Sisu, but what the next step is remains to be seen. The club is involved in a partnership with the University of Warwick to explore the possibility of building a new stadium on its grounds. Meanwhile, there are consistent reports that Sisu is looking to sell Coventry City, perhaps to an owner who could also pick up the stadium rent.
Adding to the bleak outlook, on Friday night Coventry were forced to admit they are “exploring alternative back-up plans” to host Tuesday night’s Championship game against Blackburn Rovers.
For Dr Dan Plomley, sports finance specialist at Sheffield Hallam University, owning their own ground is crucial for professional sports clubs, especially those outside the Premier League. “The ground is the main asset a club uses to generate money,” he says. “Clubs don’t have a lot of physical assets: it’s pretty much training grounds and stadiums for the most part. So for a club to have control over that is always number one. Coventry City have played second fiddle [to] Wasps since they took it over in 2014. As soon as you become a tenant in your own home, it’s a problem.”
Perhaps worse than being a tenant in your own home is not having a home at all. Wasps’ owners uprooted a club that had a century of history in London, taking them first to High Wycombe before landing in Coventry, where the team, especially in recent years, have played games to banks of empty sky-blue seats. Meanwhile, during Sisu’s tenure, Coventry City have undergone two periods of exile, first in Northampton, then in Birmingham. A return to CBS Arena, under any conditions, was celebrated by the fans.
Dave Eyles, acting chairman of supporters’ group Sky Blue Trust, says the uncertainty caused by Wasps’ collapse is “another worrying distraction” for the football team and fans. “We all hope this can be resolved soon, with the ownership of the stadium resolved and a long-term lease agreed for the club to continue playing in Coventry.” The alternative is beyond contemplation. “A move out of town again wouldn’t be catastrophic,” Eyles said.
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