For all the hyperbole about the positives of moving to the Ricoh Arena, there are still many who will mourn what they see as the death of the club they knew
With impeccable timing, Wasps will unwrap a big, shiny Christmas present to their fans this Sunday – the Ricoh Arena in Coventry. Like Santa Claus himself, they’ve been handing out goodies (free tickets) to children and Leicester’s record home ground attendance of 24,000 is under threat. London Irish are the visitors for an Aviva Premiership match that will be gleefully broadcast by the BT Sport crew.
But Christmas also means Ebenezer Scrooge and this writer has no trouble slipping into the shoes of Charles Dickens’s cynical old miser. For Wasps’ uprooting to the West Midlands, far from their London roots, is as much a sporting tragedy as it is a triumph over economic forces.
Wasps were losing £3m a year at Adams Park, the Wycombe pad they rented for 12 years up until last weekend. It was a case of move or die, they said.
So they moved, and to a ground that, as sole owners and with new revenue streams on top of existing ones, will immediately give Wasps the highest turnover in the Premiership.
But Wasps also died, because many of the fans that were there through thick and thin cannot contemplate a round trip of several hundred miles to watch a ‘home’ game; many of them already faced a lengthy journey to make it to Wycombe, which is itself more than 80 miles from the Ricoh.
Feeling the pain
An online petition to keep Wasps in or close to London failed, of course, but the hurt felt by fans is touchingly evident among the 3,000 signatories.
Some vent their anger, with accusations of broken promises or threats to support a rival club. Some ask why they didn’t hitch up with Brentford FC (who are getting a new ground) or replicate Saracens, who built a stadium for £20m and paid off almost half of it through naming rights alone. Some point out that watching Wasps locally in the Championship would be preferable to the club retaining their Premiership status in another part of the country.
Rob Smith, who spent 40 years at Wasps as a player or coach, is in that camp, arguing that “there’s a time when you draw the line and say I prefer the club to stay even if that means going down the leagues rather than be transported elsewhere. You get so attached to a club and stay with them. Coventry isn’t a million miles away but it might as well be”.
Most of all, however, it’s the despair and disillusionment that comes across, one supporter stating that he saw his “first Wasps game aged seven and I’m now 64. This is worst heartbreak in all those years”.
How much store do you put on emotion? For me, it underpins all sport; it’s the reason people play and the reason people watch. But if you need to knock a few houses down to build a motorway, what do you do? Wasps have sacrificed the support of some loyal supporters because they know they will gain new ones in their new territory. It’s the price of progress.
Wasps are a business and have taken an expedient decision. But it’s a decision that not only affects their fans.
Worcester have close ties with Coventry RFC, a club that lies within their catchment area and with whom they share dual-registered players. At a cost of £1.5m, they have launched six Junior Academy centres this autumn – one of them at Coventry club Barkers’ Butts – as part of a stated aim to generate two-thirds of their future first-team players through developing local talent.
Wasps say they’re “very keen to build a close relationship with Coventry rugby club and we’re currently exploring the possibility of running community programmes and player development schemes together”.
You might think that Worcester would have something to say about that. Unexpectedly, however, my request for an interview with Worcester was politely declined, the club’s press officer saying: “While Wasps will obviously provide us with competition in all sorts of areas, we very much have the mind-set that their move should be embraced”. They’re looking forward to a new local derby should promotion be achieved.
Commendably positive, but you have to suspect their attitude may change further down the line. A new agreement on academy contracts is due in 2016 and it would be surprising if Wasps didn’t try to redraw the boundaries. They are already planning to build a new training ground close to the Ricoh.
Will talented youngsters of the future graduate to Wasps instead of Worcester? Will people stop watching Worcester to instead watch Wasps? Will people stop watching Coventry to instead watch Wasps? It all remains to be seen.
What is certain is that the Premiership landscape has changed forever and that there have been casualties. And, amid the somewhat one-sided PR-spun publicity that has accompanied this issue in recent months, respect goes to James Haskell for recognising that fact.
“We came here to say goodbye to all the fans,” the Wasps skipper told TV viewers after their final game at Adams Park last weekend. “A lot of them are going to come with us, which is a positive. Some won’t be able to make it, and it’s important that we thank them and respect them for all they’ve given.”
Fine words and wholly appropriate.
The Ricoh Arena will be the 34th ground to stage an English Premiership match – but how many of the other 33 can you name? Click http://po.st/PremGrounds to put your knowledge to the test.
Sunday 21st December: Wasps v London Irish (2pm, Ricoh Arena)