Michael Farrow's sports blog

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…on the London Broncos’ dire need for their own stadium

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Twickenham Stoop

Twickenham Stoop - Current home of the London Broncos, which some feel is slowly killing the club.

In June 1980, over forty years since anybody even tried, Fulham FC set out to bring the 13-man code of rugby league football back to London. Fulham RLFC, playing at Craven Cottage, launched the following autumn. With the football club’s backing, the club yo-yoed between the First and Second Division until relegation from the First Division in 1984 saw Fulham bring their experiment to an end and withdraw their funding. Since then, the club have essentially been homeless. 28 years is a long time to be on the streets, especially in London.

Since leaving the Cottage, they’ve played in six different stadiums in four distinctly different part of London under four different names with multiple different ownership groups. The unfortunate transient nature of the club means that they’ve never been able to put down roots. Some temporary homes worked better than others. Crowds and general interest were up in 1996 with a move to the Valley in Charlton and Brentford’s Griffin Park was considered a convenient and stable home. The Chiswick Polytechnic Stadium was unsuitable and they tried Crystal Palace National Sports Centre twice but it didn’t work either time. Then again, it’s no surprise as no sports team has made the Crystal Palace site work since Crystal Palace were evicted in 1915.

Their longest tenancy has been at the Stoop where, after a financial crisis in late 2005, they settled permanently and took on the name of their landlords for six season, becoming Harlequins RL until the end of the 2011 season. The Stoop is a fine rugby stadium, possibly the most suitable venue that the Broncos have played in but it also has proved the worst venue for drawing consistent attendances. It would seem that its position in Twickenham, difficult to access from other parts of London and in one of the few areas of London where professional rugby union is taken seriously, just doesn’t work for rugby league. It was hoped that the recent rebranding would breathe some life into the sagging Super League club but it is clear that if they’re still playing in the Stoop and still losing matches, they’re still going to be relying on the same core support that have been following them across London for over a decade-and-a-half.

Given the club needs to leave, the question becomes where next. There were reasons they shacked up with Quins in the first place, chief among them was to remove uncertainty as to where they’d play from season-to-season. It needs to be a long term or permanent solution. None of their footballing landlords were accommodating enough and often looked for large rents in exchange for having their pitches torn up. It is doubtful any would be receptive to a return.

Like many less-popular sports, it seems that rugby league in the Capital is suffering from London being just too big. As a benchmark, London has 14 professional football clubs. When you divide the city up into smaller chunks, the city has the population to support at least four rugby league teams if the interest was there and that’s part of the Broncos’ problem – they can’t be all things to all men. If they have a view of where their core support comes from, they need to focus their energy and efforts on that core area. The stadium should be there, community programs should be there and advertising money should be spent there. The problem with their gypsy-like existence is that there has never been a chance to undertake a strategic concentration of resources on a certain area and it has hurt them for a long time. Twenty-eight years without a shovel in the ground is frankly ridiculous.

The worst part of the situation is that with every passing year, it gets harder to build anything. Had they sought to build a stadium in the 80’s, where London’s population was in decline, it would have been cheaper and easier not only to buy land but to build the stadium as well. The Broncos have said in the past that they still consider themselves a West London club and for some fans it is west or bust. However, this puts them into competition with every property developer in the city and four football clubs who are all looking for large tracts of land to develop.

In a way, I shouldn’t get too annoyed at the failure of several ownership groups to finally sort this problem out. In the last 32 years, how many new stadium projects have got off the ground in London on property the club do not already own? Only Millwall and Arsenal have moved, both of which with help from the local council and, in Arsenal’s case, with strategic overuse of compulsory purchase orders.

The whole city is at the mercy of property developers, especially sports stadia. In the last 30 years, Chelsea and Fulham both nearly lost their stadiums. Greyhound and speedway tracks have disappeared to the point where only Wimbledon and Romford are left. Asset-strippers have stolen stadia from non-league football clubs at an epidemic rate, the most recent seeing Fisher’s Surrey Docks Stadium left derelict. Athletics venues are generally protected and cannot be adapted. Where can a rugby league club catch a break? Conceivably, you can’t build on metropolitan open land and so the Broncos are virtually out of options.

West London’s four professional football clubs have all shown willingness to move from their current sites. Chelsea and QPR have both recently spoken of this desire, with the Blues fighting a very public PR battle with their own fans over the ownership of Stamford Bridge. The Chelsea Pitch Owners was formed to protect the stadium from predatory forces after the last time Chelsea nearly lost their stadium but they won’t budge on the idea of moving away and, unfortunately, they just won’t “trust Roman”.

Brentford, former landlords of the Broncos, have progressed further down the path to a new stadium, at least publically. For ten years, they have coveted an industrial site on Lionel Road near Kew Bridge. Progress was made and a master plan for the site was devised, including a 20,000 stadium for rugby and football, but the project was put on indefinite hold after their partner Barratt Homes dropped out due to financial issues. Fulham have abandoned the idea of leaving Craven Cottage, instead choosing to rebuild their Riverside Stand in the hope of adding 5,000 to the capacity and bringing in the corporate hospitality cash that they currently do not receive. The Broncos have no stadium to begin with and so they’re already fighting with one hand behind their back. They are fighting for their next Super League licence with the other tied behind their back because most other rugby league clubs have it so much easier.

The Greater London Urban Area, which is the continuous urban area that is centred on London, has a population of 8,500,000 and occupies an area of 627 square miles. This is larger than the entire metropolitan county of South Yorkshire. The challenges Castleford and Wakefield, to name two clubs in the midst of building new stadia, are considerably different to that facing the Broncos. There’s no moving out to the motorway, as Cas will do, and no building on Greenfield land, as Wakey will do. In London, access via public transport is all important. It’s difficult to drive across the city at 4:30am, let alone on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The inability to build on metropolitan open land has already been noted in an earlier paragraph.

The advantage the Northern clubs have over the Broncos can be driven home with the example of the Sheffield Eagles. The Eagles, reformed in 1999 after the original club was merged with Huddersfield, played in the Don Valley Stadium with a reduced capacity and it wasn’t working. They moved to the Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane, which is centrally-located, and initially crowds went up threefold. Their lease with the Blades has become one of the cornerstones of their club. When the Broncos were shacked up with different football clubs, it was never that convenient and it always cost a lot of money.

Chief Executive Gus Mackay has made a new stadium one of his top priorities, with the Broncos due to leave the Stoop at the end of the year. To set up a modern, expandable stadium, you’ll probably need 3.5 hectares of land. There’s also likely need to be some element of residential development to prop up the project. However, without serious amounts of private cash and institutional support from the RFL, the Greater London Authority, the Mayor’s office and the council of the London borough who takes them on, it’s not possible.

If it could be done, a stadium of their own would change the game considerably. A well-designed, expandable facility that has all the trappings of a modern sports stadium to allow year-round non-sporting usage would completely transform the Broncos. Within years, the financial sinkhole would be a viable going concern, followed by becoming a valuable sports property. It also locks them into a single area, finally opening up the rest of London to be developed for professional rugby league.

However, it would be the impact on the rugby world in general that would shock most. By building a stadium in London, they’d be doing something that Wasps, London Irish and Saracens couldn’t do and it would send a mighty message out from a game that’s too often regionalised and marginalised because of its place in the “unfashionable” North.

A stadium can be the silver bullet. If it is done right, it can generate revenue and a focal point for the community. It’s time for this club to take the transition and become a London institution. The days of tenancy have to come to an end. Where they put the pesky stadium is something for another blog, the focus for now is on getting the team into a new stadium. After all, 28 years is a long time to be on the streets, especially in London.

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Written by Michael Farrow

March 26, 2012 at 2:34 pm

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