Sunday, 29 January 2012

Sincil Bank – to move or not to move

The issue of moving to a new ground is something that rears its head occasionally at every club.  Lincoln City are no different, and discussion of whether or not a new stadium would ultimately be the catalyst to success is a popular one.

Recently, however, the issue has not only come back on to the table, but seems to be a more serious consideration than I’ve known it in my 18ish year association with the club.  With fans’ opinion divided, here are some of my thoughts on the pros and cons associated with moving ground.

The plus side – potential advantages of moving

Increased commercial income

This is Chairman Bob Dorrian’s big argument in favour of moving.  Basically, if we build a ground with swanky modern facilities that can be used by community groups and businesses, such as conference suites, meeting rooms, sports training centres etc, then this will be a big source of revenue for the footballing side of the club.  Dorrian also envisages the ground being surrounded by ‘hotels, restaurants, shops and banqueting facilities’.  Basically, rather than just being a football pitch and stands used once or twice a week, the stadium becomes the centre of an important venue, used for various purposes seven days a week.

Building a new ground is better value for money than redeveloping Sincil Bank

The figures currently being bandied around suggest that a new ground could be built for £9 million, compared with a suggested £4.5 million needed to redevelop Sincil Bank.  In addition, the club might expect to see income from the land value of Sincil Bank.

Better facilities for fans

As much as we might love Sincil Bank, its position within a Victorian housing estate does create issues of access and space.  A new ground would enable modern road access and car parking provision to be planned in from day one.  Better for home fans, better for visiting fans, better for people who live near the ground.

The downside – potential disadvantages of moving

Is the commercial argument flawed?

The big question is simply ‘how much income would the new ground really be able to generate during the week?’  I hope that the board doesn’t blind itself in believing that millions of pounds will be generated through use of the ground by non-football fans.  If the location is to be Tritton Road, then it’s hardly in the city centre, and the City is not short of well-placed conference facilities, restaurants and shops.  There also needs to be clarity regarding the proposed business model - who will run these hotels, shops and restaurants around the ground?  Will they be run directly by the football club?  Then how will the costs of managing such businesses be met and who will own the risk of them failing (as so many are in the current climate)?  Would they be club owned and then franchised out? If they are to be owned entirely by other companies and simply near to the ground, then what benefit is there to the club?  Is the idea that people will go out for a meal and be tempted to buy a replica shirt?

The arguments made by the board that the club will benefit from increased additional income need to be water-tight, otherwise we could find ourselves worse–off than ever, and at the moment the commercial arguments seem very woolly indeed.

The Tritton Road location

Although any move would no doubt improve fan access over that currently provided at Sincil Bank, surely anyone who knows Lincoln at all would realise that Tritton Road is already a nightmare to negotiate at any time, let alone Saturday afternoon.  Adding a few thousand football fans (and more if the club’s future ambitions are realised) to that mix is just crazy.  If a new ground is to become a reality, then surely locations linked to the new eastern bypass, when it eventually happens, are a far more sustainable option.

The heritage disconnect

As someone with an interest in history, this is obviously an important factor for me but I’m aware that some fans don’t see heritage as a reason to stay, and I can respect that stance.  The thing is that Sincil Bank has been the home of Lincoln City since 1884, and the idea that we still watch the team from the same place that the people of Lincoln were doing 130 years ago means something.  Football clubs, even small, unsuccessful ones, are all about history, and breaking with such history is not a decision to be taken lightly – especially when the club is at possibly its lowest ever ebb.  You can never get it back once you’ve bulldozed it and replaced it with houses.

Loss of identity

Linked to the loss of heritage is the fact that Sincil Bank is a unique name in English Football, and one that has been around since the invention of the sport.  Instead, it will most likely be replaced with a sponsor-named stadium.  Goodbye Sincil Bank, hello ‘The Starglaze Arena’.  Sorry, where?

Identikit ground syndrome

This may be a sweeping statement, but I’ll say it anyway - new grounds are all identical and soulless.  They also tend to be smaller.  Although we don’t currently get anywhere near filling the 10,000 odd capacity of Sincil Bank, there is a certain loss of face about moving to a 6,000 capacity ground.  It’s like at the same time as we’re ‘securing the future of the club’, we’re admitting that we’ll never be as big as we once were.  And that's just depressing.

The quality of the football

Basically, a new stadium may attract a full house for the first game, but if the football continues to be dire and City continue to struggle on as a non-league team, then fans still will not turn up on a regular basis.  If City played at Old Trafford, would we suddenly get 10,000 fans in?  Of course not.  Good football and promotions lead to more fans, not shiny facilities.

Ground redevelopment should be more seriously considered

Although a new ground is being seen as ‘better value for money’, why could a rebuilt St Andrew’s stand not contain the new commercial facilities that the board desire so much?  The Chairman has made the blanket statement that Sincil bank is ‘not fit for purpose’, but I think that fans (and shareholders in particular) need this premise to be more fully (and openly) investigated before a more drastic path is taken.

Who will pay for it?

Although I can see that short term pain can be worth it for long term success, for how long will the club be paying off the new ground?  Will these payments affect the manager’s ability to buy players in the near future?

The experience of other clubs

The idea of moving to a new ground is nothing new, and many other clubs of roughly Lincoln’s size, though mostly not of our pathetic non-league status it must be said, have moved in recent years.  These include Northampton Town, Rushden and Diamonds, Oxford United, Shrewsbury Town, Darlington, Doncaster Rovers, Hull City and Chesterfield.

Some of these have been less than successful – Darlington being the highest profile example, although many will rightly say that they are something of a unique case and were massively overambitious.  Oxford Town have similarly suffered through an overambitious chairman.

Shrewsbury, Doncaster and Chesterfield are perhaps too early to judge, but on the face of it look like they will go down as success stories, with the clubs at least no worse off than before.  It has to be said, though, that these clubs moved at times when they were in good form on the pitch, and the move was to accompany success, not to be the catalyst for it straight after relegation.

Every football club is different, and every town and city they are based in is different.  Direct comparisons with other stories of success and failure are therefore very difficult to make.  Sadly, City’s history is not resplendent with things going our way though…

My thoughts

Overall, I’m not currently swayed by the arguments to build a new ground, and I’m slightly concerned that the board is becoming a little starstruck at the thought of some shiny new facilities (remember what happened the last time they got starstruck when appointing a manager…).  The future stability of the club is of paramount importance, and on current arguments a new ground seems to fall a long way short of guaranteeing that outcome, with the risk of losing the club’s sense of identity and heritage too great a gamble. 

I for one need to see far more persuasive arguments being made than the ones currently being touted.

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