8th Dec, 2016

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Ricoh talks failing & Butts move attractive, says Coventry City boss

Les Reid 19th May, 2016 Updated: 28th Oct, 2016

COVENTRY City Football Club’s talks over staying at the Wasps-owned Ricoh Arena are not working and the club must further explore a move to a redeveloped Butts Park Arena, managing director Chris Anderson told the Coventry Observer today.

Our exclusive interview with him is the first on-record public comment from anyone at the club concerning the groundshare proposal for the Butts home of Coventry Rugby Football Club with up to 25,000 capacity – a plan first exclusively revealed by this newspaper six months ago.

Mr Anderson – an academic, ex-German semi-professional footballer and author of a sports statistics book – took over as MD and executive vice chairman last November.

Earlier this year he spoke about the club examining two options – an unnamed new stadium site or negotiating a better deal with Wasps, to secure vital stadium revenues to ensure the cub’s survival and to invest in Tony Mowbray’s team and young talent.

But today he struck a different note concerning any prospect of staying at the Ricoh, saying his 17-point negotiation plan with Wasps over revenues had come to nought.

The club’s owners Sisu have long insisted a new stadium had to be the way forward as there was no prospect of significant 24/7 commercial and sponsorship revenues at the Ricoh Arena, where the club is a mere tenant.

Wasps will need as much revenue as it can muster from the stadium it bought from the council and Alan Edward Higgs Charity in 2014, on a massively extended 250-year lease deal not offered to football club on which the Ricoh always depended.

Wasps has reported debts of £35million in a retail bond scheme first revealed by this newspaper, and has to pay over £2million a year in interest payments alone. Corporate catering profits go to Wasps owned Arena Coventry Limited (ACL) and Compass who have a Joint Venture agreement.

Mr Anderson also voiced disappointment over plans to remove the Sky Blues’ vital youth academy from the Alan Higgs Centre in Allard Way in June next year, into which Wasps is to move its training and academy facilities. He told us it now appears to be a done deal.

Mr Anderson revealed the Sky Blues had recently been informed by the centre’s operators there would be no going back on arrangements for the Sky Blues to leave the centre by June 30 next year, when a lease expires.

Trustees of the Alan Higgs Centre Trust have included former Sky Blues life president Joe Elliott, ex-council leader John Mutton (now the new deputy leader) and ex ACL director Peter Knatchbull-Hugessen, and it is understood they were party to negotiations.

An agreement was announced in March to transfer the Coventry Sports Foundation-operated centre’s lease to Coventry and Warwickshire Award Trust (CAWAT) to help facilitate the partnership with Wasps and potentially a new swimming pool, a move publicly supported in March by Coventry City Council.

The Coventry Sports Foundation claims Wasps had provided security of tenure for the long term, while the football club had spoken of moving its academy elsewhere.

But Mr Anderson said he and the club had attempted to have discussions with the centre about CCFC’s academy remaining there long term.

We also questioned Mr Anderson over fans’ anger over the erection of giant Wasps flags on the A444 roundabout outside the Ricoh Arena, with no Coventry City flags, perceived as a further insensitive council-backed move by many.

CHRIS ANDERSON ON MOVING TO BUTTS

Mr Anderson said “We’ve said all along we are considering all options. I’ve only been here since last autumn. I needed to get up to speed and understand what the options are.

“The Butts Park Arena is one of the options that’s come to the fore that we are actively considering for the obvious reasons. The football club needs to be in control of its own destiny when it comes to revenues.

“It could be a really interesting option. It has real potential in a number of ways. It’s important we consider it seriously and consider the conversations.

“What I love about those options is it is such a good location in the city boundary, with the opportunity to link the two sporting clubs together and make sure both have a future.

“This isn’t a takeover of the rugby club by the football club or vice versa, but a partnership and sharing a ground in the city centre. When you go to the Butts Park Arena you can imagine it and see it in your mind’s eye.

“..The Football League have given preliminary approval to the site. They’ve inspected it (as this newspaper revealed last November). They’ve given us a report and they are on board with it.”

CHRIS ANDERSON ON STAYING AT THE RICOH ARENA

He said: “I can confirm we’ve had ongoing conversations with Wasps to understand what the opportunities might be to stay at the Ricoh Arena long term. Those conversations were amicable but ultimately we haven’t arrived at the point where they’ve been able to give us what we need.

“We respect that and understand they are hemmed in by various arrangements they’ve made, and their own business model – the long-term arrangement with Compass and the need to service their bond scheme.

“They are not free to give us what we want. We respect that. For us we have to seriously consider the other option.

“Since I’m new to the town it’s given me a fresh perspective on what’s going on. I think it seems apparent that the arrangement with Wasps owning the Ricoh, and the arrangements they’ve made to make the Ricoh work for them, has made it more difficult for the club to operate because of the constraints put on the football club.”

SKY BLUES BEING ‘SQUEEZED OUT’ BY WASPS, COUNCIL AND OTHERS?

The Coventry Observer yesterday exclusively revealed a leaked council email in January to Coventry rugby club had proposed blocking the Butts groundshare proposal.

Asked if he felt the football club, as many supporters feel, is being squeezed out of the Ricoh and the city by Wasps, Coventry City Council and others, Mr Anderson said: “Are we being squeezed out? I can understand why a lot of supporters would feel that way.

“It does feel that way. I can’t comment on people’s intentions. One way of showing we’re not being squeezed out is to show us that the Butts Park Arena is being fairly examined. It’s a combination of factors that has produced the situation we’re in.

“It’s a very difficult situation for us to operate in. We don’t own the ground, we don’t have the access to revenue. I said to you when I first arrived that we need the support of everybody in the city, and that would include the support of the local authority.

“It’s difficult to see why the local authority wouldn’t want to be supportive of the two sporting institutions in the city with a distinguished history. They are community institutions which are valuable and important in the cultural landscape – with the city bidding to be capital of culture – and in a business sense. They provide jobs.

“In any other town you would assume the local authority would be absolutely on board with that.”

CHRIS ANDERSON ON CCFC ACADEMY’S FUTURE

He said: “When I think about our academy with local boys, the best athletes in our community, training at the Higgs centre, we would like to stay there and continue using it.

“That has become difficult. Coventry Sports Foundation has found it necessary to explore alternative uses. We’ve consistently said to them we would like to remain there. They have not been very engaging with us.

“Again, we need everybody behind the football club. I don’t see why anybody in Coventry would want the city’s most talented athletes frozen out of the city – a purpose-built facility which was built for the academy.

“I’ve not seen any evidence that the football club has ever indicated to the Coventry Sports Foundation that they would not want to stay there for the long term. I’ve seen no evidence of Coventry Sports Foundation coming to us officially to say we’re offering you to stay at the Higgs centre long term. They’ve not made that offer.

“It feels like they’ve decided we’re not part of their plans.”

WASPS GIANT FLAGS ON A444 OUTSIDE RICOH

Asked about the furore over flags, Mr Anderson said: “We would love to see our own flags on the roundabout. I completely understand our supporters’ feelings about the flags. I’d prefer our flags to be flying there, or for us to at least share the 10 flagpoles.”

PALTRY c.£75,000 RICOH REVENUES

Mr Anderson said Coventry City Football Club estimates it received a paltry circa £75,000 of non-ticketing matchday revenue as tenants of the Ricoh Arena in the season just ended.

It comprised of just £72,000 from the sale of kiosk food and drink to fans around the stadium concourse – with 85 per cent of those revenues going to ACL/Wasps – and just £2,700 from car parking from just five games, with the rest going to ACL/Wasps.

The club received not a penny from corporate catering, he added, nor, crucially, from any commercial activities around-the-clock 24/7 on non-matchdays.

The club’s total revenue is expected to be recorded in the next accounts at between £5million and£5.5million for this season. Football League rules restrict to around 40 per cent of revenues the amount clubs can invest in players on the pitch – making it more difficult to compete with clubs who have their own stadium revenues.

Club sources estimate between £1million and £2million was generated by the Sky Blues from non-ticketing matchday revenue alone when at its former Highfield Road stadium it owned just outside the city centre, more than a decade ago.

Mr Anderson emphasised the Sky Blues would share revenues from non-matchday commercial activities at the Butts Park Arena, which could include student accommodation, conferencing, catering, weddings, funeral, hotel facilities and/or more.

He added the average non-matchday revenue for football clubs was between £350,000 and £1million a year – and owning your own stadium brings more lucrative income from stadium naming rights, and other sponsorship and advertising deals.

MORE ON BUTTS PROPOSAL

The Butts stadium could increase from the current one-stand 4,000-capacity to 15,000 initially, rising to up to 25,000 if Coventry City secures promotions. As we reported yesterday, Cov rugby chairman Jon Sharp said one possibility was to build two stands initially.

Consultants on real estate and planning have been examining potential possibilities at the Butts for over a year.

The proposal is that Coventry City and Cov rugby would have shares (on a ratio to be decided) in a property company at the redeveloped Butts Park Arena.

Each sporting club would have its own separate operating company. The aim would be to protect each of the clubs from any insolvency event affecting the other.

Use of the expanded Butts by Coventry United Football  Club and potentially other sporting institutions are being examined, Mr Sharp told us yesterday.

Mr Anderson added: “It all links back to the playing squad. We’re trying to get back up the leagues again.

“Our dream is to play in the Premiership. Stadium revenues are the difference between having to sell your (homegrown young) players like James Maddison and not having to.

“We want to make sure people at the rugby club also understand this is a unique opportunity for both clubs. It’s a partnership of people which will preferably allow both clubs to thrive side by side.”