by Richard Brook
News that Coventry City are pondering a move away from the city has been greeted in some quarters by comparisons to the Wimbledon and MK Dons scenario. The story breaking while the first ever meeting between AFC Wimbledon and MK Dons is still so fresh in the mind, such parallels were an inevitability. On closer inspection the case of Wimbledon and that of Coventry have relatively little in common. Upon hearing that the Midlands club wished to uproot from its home city and relocate, approximately 50 miles away, to Nene Park, the natural reaction of the football supporter is to be outraged for the Coventry fans. After all 100 miles is a fair old trek for what would nominally be a home game.
Wimbledon were long term targets for a potential move away from their home due to subsequent owners wishing to increase the potential available fan base, whether that be the failed exploration of Dublin Dons, as far back as 1996 or the eventual move to MK Dons. Coventry appear to be, to some extent, a victim of circumstance amidst the slow motion implosion of English football, although as ever it is the supporter’s who are the most innocent. The club’s owners, Sisu, are reported to owe Arena Coventry Limited (ACL) around £1.1 million in unpaid rent, as the club do not own the Ricoh Arena, where they currently host their home matches. ACL, who run the stadium on behalf of owners Coventry City Council and The Alan Edwards Higgs Trust, have issued a demand for payment, which if still unfulfilled by Boxing Day will lead to a winding up petition being issued against the cash-strapped League One side.
Coventry’s annual rent for the Ricoh Arena is believed to be the highest in either their own division, or the one above standing at an incredible £1.28 million each year. Other League One sides generally pay a mere fraction of that amount, added to this the Sky Blues do not have the usual additional revenue streams associated with match days, such as food and drink or car parking. Coventry are keen to renegotiate their deal with ACL but it seems that their landlords want to be paid the money owed under their current arrangement.
It is because of this unsteady relationship with ACL that Coventry have made contact with other potential venues, where they might consider hosting their home games. The two main options so far have been Nene Park, as mentioned above, and today the possibility of using Hinckley United’s Greene King Stadium came out. Hinckley’s ground certainly has the advantage of proximity over Nene Park, as it represents just a 13 mile journey for Sky Blues supporters. Hinckley would undoubtedly welcome any revenue generated by such an arrangement, having received a points deduction last week for financial reasons. The Blue Square Bet North side were punished for failure to pay players. The deduction has left them with zero points having played 18 matches.
The major downside of Coventry moving to Hinckley would be that the stadium holds only 4,329 fans, while capacity at the Ricoh Arena is 32,609. Indeed even since their relegation from the Championship last season, City’s average attendance is more than double the figure that can fit inside the Greene King Stadium. However, the further flung Nene Park does not fare a great deal better in these stakes. The Northamptonshire ground can hold only 6,500 itself and close to 2,000 of those are standing capacity. Far removed from Coventry’s current all seater Olympic venue.
There is an unmissable irony in Nene Park potentially coming to the rescue of Coventry City, a club in financial strife that is clearly too big for the ground. The stadium has already seen off two clubs that, on the contrary, it was plainly too large for. Nene Park has previously been the home ground of the now defunct Rushden and Diamonds who went bust, and then by county rivals Kettering Town, who are themselves teetering on the brink and have recently vacated the stadium, unable to meet the overheads of playing there.
Indeed in Coventry City’s case there must be a question mark as to whether they could meet their own overheads by playing in such small venues as the two proposals so far. Given that the club would not stand a chance of fitting their regular crowd into either ground, one has to wonder whether the proposed switches would allow them to cover their basic bills, such as wages, utilities and registrations, with lower revenue from reduced attendances.
It also remains unclear whether Football League rules would permit the proposed moves to even go ahead. Ground-share arrangements must be approved by the Football League Board, who will usually only grant approval to agreements that will see the club play their matches within the local area from which they take their name, or with which they are traditionally associated. If we are being pedantic unoccupied Nene Park would not technically be a ground-share. In addition to this, such arrangements are not allowed to adversely affect club officials, players, supporters, board members, sponsors and other interested parties. If the rules are applied literally, it is difficult to see the Football League approving Coventry’s move.
Some have even questioned the authenticity of Coventry’s interest in moving away from the Ricoh, believing it instead to be an aggressive negotiation strategy in terms of agreeing a lower rent with ACL. By demonstrating an interest in other grounds, the suggestion is that the parties might be in a ‘who blinks first’ stand off. With ACL forced to either accept the club’s negotiations or instead find another sports club in the Coventry area, that might want use of a 32,000 seater stadium on the days when Red Hot Chilli Peppers or Coldplay are not in town.
This might seem like a risky game to play, but if reports are to be believed the Coventry City board are no strangers to brinkmanship over this affair. The Sky Blues have yet to reach an agreement with ACL despite the reported offer of a 67% reduction in rent to just £400,000 a year. While this is significantly higher than what the club have quoted the League One average at, £170,000, it still represents a very significant reduction on the £1.28 million currently to be paid every 12 months. In addition to this the club were offered the chance to pay back the arrears over the course of the next decade and given the opportunity to take over the stadium refreshments, to allow another source of revenue. The rent would also be fixed for three years barring both promotion and increased attendances.
As whenever there is the cloud of financial trouble hanging over a club, it is the supporter’s that one feels most keenly for, as their family history is turned into a gambling chip by the money men of football. Coventry won the FA Cup in 1987, and were in the Premier League as recently as 2001, and now find themselves purportedly on the brink of playing in a non-league football stadium, and on the cusp of a winding up order. It is literally anyone’s guess how this story might unfold. As the Sky Blues Trust put it “What has become of our club?”