COVENTRY rugby club has confirmed it has been in talks with the Sky Blues over a groundshare of its Butts home – as we exclusively revealed last month.
We revealed Coventry City Football Club had identified the Butts Park Arena home of Coventry Rugby Football Club as the city-based site for a potential new stadium.
We identified the site after new Sky Blues managing director Chris Anderson had stated in a BBC Coventry & Warwickshire interview that a site had been identified “in Coventry” and had been inspected and provisionally backed by the Football League.
Despite subsequent media speculation that Mr Anderson had in fact meant a Warwickshire site and had even misunderstood the local geography, the rugby club’s chairman Jon Sharp admitted to BBC Coventry and Warwickshire’s Phil Upton on yesterday’s Ruck & Maul show at 6pm that the Butts had been examined by the Sky Blues, and there are discussions.
Yesterday’s BBC interview was interpreted by one newspaper report of the broadcast interview available on BBC i-player that Mr Sharp “indicated any possibility of that (a groundshare) had seemingly been ruled out some time ago”. But nowhere in the interview does Mr Sharp say this, or indicate it.
Instead, he confirmed the Sky Blues had looked at The Butts and he explicitly did not rule out a groundshare in future. But he raised several potential problems with the proposal and said there were “no specific plans”.
The Coventry Observer had known the potential groundshare was being actively considered, with the sub-leasing rugby club attempting to obtain the 125-year head lease at the Butts currently owned by former Cov rugby player Chris Millerchip, who now lives in New York. Coventry City Council is the ultimate freehold owner of the site.
Some sources had believed the council as freeholder could try to scupper the lease deal if it knew of the football club’s interest – such as insisting the ground continues to be used solely for rugby.
The council has invested significant political capital in ensuring the indebted, formerly London-based Premiership rugby club Wasps’ ownership of a 250-year lease of the Ricoh Arena is successful, after last year’s sale to Wasps, with the council retaining the freehold.
The Butts proposal has emerged amid talks over the Sky Blues extending its current rental arrangement to play at the Ricoh – at least for another two years, although it is understood Wasps had sought a longer term extension.
It is uncertain whether Mr Sharp’s comments concerning confidential discussions reflect that Cov rugby club is now moving towards ruling out the groundshare proposal with the Sky Blues.
The potential hurdles to any such plan have long been apparent, including the difficulties of space, parking and transport arrangements in a compact land footprint in a built-up location near Coventry city centre.
Mr Sharp indicated the lease deal was expected to be concluded imminently, and involved the Coventry rugby club company he wholly owns taking over a larger piece of land that the current 4,000-seater stadium footprint.
As we revealed last month, the Sky Blues have been considering how the Butts Park Arena might be redeveloped to a capacity of between 12,000 and 15,000, but could be expanded upwards to over 20,000 if the club’s full promotion ambitions are realised. We also revealed the plan was to expand commercial operations at the Butts.
Invited specifically by the BBC’s Phil Upton to clarify “speculation” there had been talks about a groundshare, Mr Sharp said: “Well as everybody knows we’re actually selling the city’s tickets for them as ACL (Ricoh stadium company Arena Coventry Limited) unfortunately couldn’t accommodate them for weekday sales.
“So we talk to them, we’re in discussions with them. We do not have any specific plans to work with them, or Coventry United or anybody else. I’m quite adamant about this and that’s why I’m trying to develop this stadium for Coventry rugby.
“What the future may hold I can’t speculate on.”
Mr Sharp was then invited to be “unequivocal” that there had been no proposal or discussions over a groundshare with the Sky Blues. He confirmed: “Well they’ve certainly had a look at it and the size is a restriction. The cost of development of it is another restriction. And the fact that we play rugby there and that the pitch is not suited to football is yet another restriction.
“What is happening at the moment is that I personally am acquiring the whole of the land or the lease to the land from the railway line down to the Butts Road and from side to side – not just the area where the pitch and stand is.
“It’s currently owned by a gentleman who lives in New York and he’s been very helpful to the club in the past. We thank him for that. But being in New York is a bit of a distance.
“So I’m now in a position to acquire it. The lawyers have drawn the documents up. We’re ready to go and when that’s all done I can start talking to some of these other potential joint venture partners, be they property developers, be they caterers, be they event managers… That will give us superior income. It will then allow us to improve the squad, hopefully, and put this club back where it should be.”
Mr Sharp also said in the interview: “The most important thing is that I’m committed to the development of Coventry rugby and to see the club consolidate its success both in terms of commercial success, business success and in terms of playing success.
“What we have there in order to facilitate both is a brilliant city centre location and I see it as being an underused location. How can we make a business out of it when we only use it 15 times a year to play rugby on?”
He said now the club’s finances were “getting in better shape” professional people were employed to stage more events “around the clock”, adding: “We wish to improve the facilities. I believe there’s not enough corporate hospitality capacity there and I wish to improve that.”