Several football grounds now double up as venues for professional rugby. Roger Titford suggests that competition from another sport is becoming a problem for clubs that are already struggling
Once upon a time, about 130 years ago, football and rugby sat happily enough alongside each other as almost alternative flavours of the same basic sport. Then came professionalism, division, social change and a century or so of estrangement, with each finding security in its own territory. Times are changing again.
There are growing signs of rugby in my football town (Reading) and I’m getting a little uneasy about it. People in rugby colours on a Reading match day, another grim pub proclaiming itself the new home of London Irish fans, a set of rugby posts here and there, and our local paper carrying pages on the sport too. Back in 1897 the original articles of association of Reading FC Ltd mentioned eight other sports (including croquet) that the directors might seek to promote but rugby was not one of them. Rugby indeed was the surprise package when the Madejski Stadium was opened in 1998. Richmond arrived without much warning, portrayed themselves as joint-owners rather than tenants and lasted a year before going bust. After a year’s grace London Irish took their place. “More lodgers,” tutted the locals.
I thought of this as ground-renting, a temporary arrangement of assistance in logistics but with each club keeping to their own fanbase. But what I see around now, the repeated unsolicited emails I get from London Irish and the existence of a 20-year partnership agreement, suggests I’ve got it wrong. The club’s press officers, past and present, put this case for a “win-win” situation: at a new stadium site the presence of both sports brings many more people into contact with the venue. The catchment area has enough potential for both sports, given their different demographic appeal, and the £600,000 annual revenue (at last count) is very important to a Championship club.
You can’t fail to see the short-term benefits but I’m still not convinced that the extra money will be a history-changing advantage to Reading and 20 years is a long time in football (ask Leeds and Fulham). The pessimist in me sees a rival sport in a growing, high-profile, TV-endorsed league and a non-local virtually relegation-proof club being invited to enjoy our stadium and tantalise our potential fanbase as we battle away in football’s under-publicised second tier. Perhaps I’m alone in heeding a suspicion of future strategic danger in this situation; a cuckoo taking over a nest. It can’t happen, can it? Look around and you too might begin to worry.
Stockport County have experienced the horror – attacked and almost killed by Sale Sharks, according to supporter David Meller. “Sale now own Edgeley Park and County, who have suffered relegation and administration since the ground ‘share’, are now looking to start again at a place of their own. Sale Sharks refuse to change their name or acknowledge Stockport.” The driving pro-rugby force at Stockport was previous chairman Brian Kennedy, who introduced the Sharks in 2003.
There is a similar tale in Huddersfield where Town fan Dan Herd claims that Ken Davy, chair of both football and rugby clubs, “tried to push his first sporting love, the Huddersfield Giants, down the reluctant throats of most Terriers fans”. While Town now have a new football chairman they no longer have a stake in the stadium – despite being the party that paid the most into the development of the new stadium in 1994, according to Herd. As at Stockport this is a business relationship from which the local football fans can see no benefit. In fairness it should be said that Bristol Rovers took over Bristol RFC’s ground in 1998 after the rugby club got into severe financial difficulty and the Rovers fan I contacted was quite content with the sharing arrangement.
When counting up I was surprised how many of the 92 League clubs are currently also hosting rugby union or rugby league matches. I found 14, and another dozen or so who have had experience of staging rugby in the modern era. Of the current dual-use grounds the biggest sub-sector is where a new stadium incorporates both the established local clubs from the start: in Wigan, Doncaster, Cardiff, Swansea, Huddersfield and Hull. Even in these relatively new and neutral situations there are tensions. Hull City fan Matt Rudd reports “a tolerance bordering on mutual dislike” and regrets the lack of any football heritage expressed in the stadium. At the long-established grounds of Sheffield Utd, Notts County and Rochdale the rugby clubs appear to be the junior partners.
In relatively prosperous parts of the south-east club rugby union is growing in popularity and perhaps starting to flex its muscles. Wasps, previously tenants at QPR, are now at Wycombe Wanderers, where again one man owns both clubs and the demands of rugby are beginning to take precedence. Wycombe don’t need to increase their ground capacity or move stadium but that is the direction Wasps are pushing. According to supporter Paul Lewis: “Wycombe’s crowds are down, debts are up and there is evidence of fans switching codes.” In the meantime, Saracens ignored Watford’s recent deadline to be informed of their future intentions.
Like Saracens and Wasps, London Irish are a suburban London club moving out into the Home Counties and astutely seeking a second target audience. And there are willing punters. I once met a man who really liked the Madejski Stadium itself and was happy to go along and watch whatever was cheapest there. Not a connoisseur I grant you but he could have been grist to Reading’s mill and the business point is that there is not an infinite number of chaps like him within our locality. Though the other WSC correspondents I contacted said the crossover support for both football and rugby was currently small, on current trends there will be a competitive market for fans, sponsorships and even playing talent. Danny Cipriani once had trials for Reading.
This longer-term struggle between sports will not be limited to a few towns. Rugby union can offer structures and environments that football might envy: a mood untainted by hooliganism where you can drink alcohol at your seat; a home international championship with the added glamour of France and Italy; a shorter season that doesn’t seem to last 50 weeks a year; no dissent to referees. All sticks to beat modern football with. Rugby league has stayed more or less within its traditional boundaries yet moved its main thrust to the summer so is in less conflict with football. Beyond insisting that football fixtures take priority over rugby the Football League does not yet have a formal view or policy on these developments. “They are seen as matters for individual clubs to come to whatever practical business arrangements they want to,” said spokesman John Nagle.
So individual football clubs might be making some money or saving on overheads through the increasing number of “partnerships” with rugby clubs. At Reading it’s currently working well but the example of Stockport County shows how badly it can turn out. To a large degree it’s down to what the individual club owners want to do. But there is a wider aspect too. It’s not just my club that I support, it’s also the game of football in general. Rugby union has set the Championship as its benchmark and the figures below show how it is growing. (Sale and London Irish crowds have more than doubled since moving into better equipped football stadiums.) If this kind of growth is encouraged (and football is playing a part here) there will be temptations for a future owner to decide there’s more money in rugby than football and downgrade his investment or even switch codes by acquiring or inventing a rugby club. That could never happen? It did the other way round – back in 1903 Manningham RFC disbanded and became Bradford City with a League place granted overnight.
Some say these changes might be giving the public what they want. I’d say a lot of the public don’t know what they want and are easily led. Football, for its own sake, needs to lead them and to be conscious of what could happen over a few 20-year leases. Over in Stockport they’ve already heard the first cuckoo of the 21st century.
From WSC 285 November 2010