Parallel realities and Worcester City
Posted by John Beech on November 3, 2009
As I update my club files daily, I often wonder whether the news items refer to one club, or to two, existing in quite different realities. The stadium project is often the prompt for such thoughts.
I’ve written on the last forty years of Portsmouth’s plans for a new stadium, now on at least their fifth version (1), and the other day I noted that at Southend £1.9m had spent preparing for a stadium which hasn’t materialised, and where the club is under very serious threat because of a debt of one third of that sum due to HMRC (2).
Of course any fan expects his or her club to have ambition. A recent posting on the Supporters Direct blog posed the question, with respect to Merthyr’s decision to cut its cloth accordingly, of a choice between bravery and foolishness. I would perhaps rephrase this slightly – the choice is between hard reality and dreaming of funding dreams.
A case which has struck me particularly of late as apparently trying to do both is Worcester City.
On the one hand, the club is grateful to anonymous fans who have made it possible for a player to be taken on loan (3). This is in the immediate context of the board struggling to release funds for player purchases (4).
On the other, the same club is, after twenty years, still dreaming the dream of a new £2m stadium.
Now, there is a logic in the plans for the new stadium, the usual one of selling the old ground for more than the new one will cost. The difficulty lies in the bridging of the move and, er, a funding shortfall of £720,000.
I can see the sense of a Premier League club seeing a need to build a new stadium so that they can increase their currently constrained matchday revenues, but the further down the pyramid you are, the more this strategy becomes a high risk, and only hopefully high return, strategy. The costs of a new stadium are to a large extent fixed, the capacity of the stadium being a relatively low variable cost. It follows that lower tier clubs must make a much bigger gamble on the appropriate capacity.
For an interesting comparison, let us compare Worcester with Darlington. Darlington has a population of 100,000 and faces local Premier League competition for the floating fan. Worcester is only a tad below this population and faces both local Premier League and same-city Rugby Union competition for the floating fan.
Darlington, now in League 2, built a 25,000 seater stadium. Current gates are around the 1,700 mark (5). Darlington has been in Administration twice since embarking on its new stadium.
Worcester, two tiers below in the Conference South, planned a 6,000 seater stadium, and the buzz word was ‘exciting’ (now scaled back to 3,800). Their average gate last season was 637, a drop of 11.67% on the previous season (6).
The real problem that Worcester face is that the club is now committed to bringing its two realities together into one rather worrying reality. The board planned to sell the current ground over a year ago to a residential developer (7). However, planning permission for the new homes has dragged on, and last month was rejected, meaning a considerable drop in the price of the ground (8). A revised plan is due to be considered this month. The pressure to sell the old ground remains because of the club’s debt to the Royal Bank of Scotland (9).
Not surprisingly fans, and in particular the Supporters Trust, have become somewhat concerned by the situation (10 and 11). They are right to be concerned – I fear there will be tears before bedtime, as there usually are when parallel worlds collide.
Good news – Worcester City and St Modwen have reached a new agreement for a scaled-down development at Nunnery Way. Budgeted cost is now down from the original to £600,000. More details here.