A decade on from the high-profile dissolution of crisis-stricken Wimbledon FC into the newly formed Milton Keynes Dons, Rugby Union seems set to follow the NFL franchise model. Six-time Aviva Premiership winners the London Wasps last week announced a controversial move from their current home in High Wycombe to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry.
Local Wasps fans will face a three-hour round trip to attend matches after Coventry Council agreed to sell their 50% per cent share of the ground, in a deal thought to be worth around £19 million.
Predictably, the decision to transplant the two-time European champions into the Midlands has met its fair share of criticism. Rugby is a community; it does not have the high profile glamour and big money signings of football, the crowds are not as big and it does not command the same TV rights, but the loyal fans who attend each week keep the sport going.
This is the argument of many of the Wasps loyal supporters, who feel marginalised and disregarded by a club seemingly prepared to sacrifice much of its existing fan-base, most of whom reside in and around London and the South East, in search of a new and larger following. Season ticket holders, unwilling to undertake the 80-mile journey, are pushing for refunds ahead of the move’s completion in December. Home matches are set to resemble away fixtures after their 12 year stay at Adams Park, shared with League Two side Wycombe Wanderers.
The club themselves are relishing the move, however, with the owners, the manager Dai Young and captain James Haskell all urging fans to continue to show their support. Combined with a new sponsorship deal from Jaguar Land Rover, the move marks an exciting new era for a club who only two years ago were on the brink of bankruptcy. Indeed, the Wasps hierarchy have admitted that it was this or bust; the former giants of the English game have long struggled to break even and teetered on the edge of financial liquidation before they were offered the move.
Former player and fan favourite Lawrence Dallaglio has expressed the view that the move represents a step forward for the club, while Wasps prop Matt Mullan has insisted that the players trust those in charge to make the right decisions.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the move can hold the key to Wasps’ return to their former glories, which have been few and far between since their last Aviva Premiership title in 2008. But for the sleeping giant of English rugby, this change of infrastructure could prove to be the catalyst for the spike in attendance figures Wasps desperately need to become contenders once again. Only time will tell whether the gamble will pay off.