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Coventry City’s present and future haunted by CBS Arena ‘curse’ | Coventry City


On Thursday afternoon Coventry City have told their supporters that they will be performing for Saturday’s Championship match against Blackpool and that the venue will be the Coventry Building Society Arena. Confirming a home game 48 hours before kick-off is not something a football club should normally do, especially one that has experienced a significant renaissance over the past half-dozen years. But when you’re the tenant of England’s most cursed stadium, you should never take anything for granted.

Lawsuits, rent strikes, extended evictions and, this fall, the collapse of one of the country’s premier rugby clubs: CBS (formerly Ricoh) Arena has seen it all. Little of it was pretty. The question the city’s residents are now asking is: Is there a prospect for something better in the future?

The current state of the game is characterized by awkwardness. Wasps went into administration this month, becoming the second Premier League rugby club to do so this autumn, sparking a crisis that has deeply shaken domestic rugby. The players were reduced, the team was reduced suspended from competition and club hope against hope for the buyer.

The consequences did not end there. Wasps are also the leaseholders of CBS Arena, a once-prized asset the club acquired in 2014. This lease is managed under the auspices of a separate company, which may also go into administration on Monday if a buyer for it cannot be found.

There is interest in buying the lease and Sky News reports that the NEC group, which runs a number of entertainment venues in Birmingham, has submitted an application. But nothing has been made public so far and this week the bondholders who funded the £35m debt that allowed Wasps to move to Coventry were asked to come up with cash immediately to help facilitate the “marketing” of the potential deal.

Wasps play Worcester in May 2021; both rugby clubs now face an uncertain future. Photo: Andrew Boyers/Action Images/Reuters

If the news weren’t so grim, it might bring a wry smile to the fans and supporters of Coventry City, whose recent history has been characterized by a dispute over the ownership of the Arena. The Sky Blues’ owner, Sisu Capital Ltd, a London-based hedge fund, only recently abandoned a long, bitter and futile attempt to claim damages from Coventry City Council over the deal that allowed Wasps to buy the lease.

Sisu claimed the council, which previously held 50% of the Arena lease, had struck a deal with Wasps at a subsidized rate. The Board argued otherwise, and a number of courts agreed. It was only when Siss was denied the opportunity to pursue the case at European level that the proceedings were finally dropped on Valentine’s Day this year. 24 hours later, Sisu’s Joy Seppala heralded a new era free of antagonism. “We want to draw a clear line under the past and continue to build new and strong relationships with all our partners, including Coventry City Council,” she said.

Three months later, Wasps defaulted on their obligations to repay the £35m they borrowed, setting off a spiral that culminated this autumn. There was, however, time for one more argument. The start of Coventry’s Championship season has been delayed after a series of inspections found the pitch unfit.

Blame for the turf being significantly embarrassed has been placed on the rugby players who competed in 65 sevens matches over three days in July as part of the Commonwealth Games. The pitch was leased by Wasps for the Games. According to reports in the Telegraph, further legal action by Coventry City was looming. Wasps said Coventry were well aware of the possibility of a substandard pitch and were advised to play their matches away from home.

This latest controversy may cast a different light on Sissu’s conciliatory statements, but what her next move will be remains to be seen. The club is partnering with the University of Warwick to explore the possibility of building a new stadium on its grounds. At the same time, there are constant reports that Sissu wants to sell Coventry City, possibly to an owner who could also get the lease on the stadium.

Fans have been watching a second-tier game in the club's first season at the Ricoh Arena, but Coventry have been relegated twice since the ground opened in 2005.
Fans have been watching a second-tier game in the club’s first season at the Ricoh Arena, but Coventry have been relegated twice since the ground opened in 2005. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Adding to the bleak outlook, Coventry were forced to admit on Friday night that they were “exploring alternative back-up plans” in order to host Tuesday night’s Championship game against Blackburn Rovers.

For Dr Dan Plomley, sports finance specialist at Sheffield Hallam University, owning a ground is crucial for professional sports clubs, especially those outside the Premier League. “The land is the main asset that the club uses to generate money,” he says. “Clubs don’t have a lot of physical assets: mostly training grounds and stadiums. So, it’s always the most important thing for the club. Coventry City played second fiddle [to] Wasps since they took him over in 2014. The moment you become a tenant in your own home, that’s a problem.”

Perhaps the one thing worse than being a renter in your own home is not having a home at all. Owners Wasps uprooted a club with a centuries-old history in London, taking them first to High Wick before landing in Coventry, where the team, especially in recent years, have played against empty sky-blue seats. Meanwhile, during Sissu’s tenure, Coventry City endured two spells in exile, first at Northampton, then at Birmingham. The return to CBS Arena, under any conditions, was celebrated by the fans.

Dave Eales, acting chairman of supporters’ group the Sky Blue Trust, says the uncertainty caused by Wasps’ collapse is “another worrying distraction” for the football team and fans. “We all hope that this can be resolved soon, with the stadium ownership issue resolved and a long-term lease agreed for the club to continue playing in Coventry.” An alternative beyond contemplation. “Moving out of town again would be catastrophic,” Ailes said.


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