The unforgivable Welsh

To most Oxford fans, the announcement that London Welsh would be packing their leeks and heading back to London was treated in the same way that Channel Islanders probably celebrated driving the Nazis out of Jersey in 1945.

To a tiny minority, there was bemusement at the level of vitriol, particularly amongst Welsh fans. So why were Oxford fans so vehemently against the Exiles?

If it’s not to state too obvious a point, Oxford is neither Wales or London, or indeed any intersection between the two. Club rugby hasn’t always been like it is today; just a couple of decades ago all rugby union was proudly amateur, rugby was what you played to let off steam from a working week. Even at the very top level, internationals would play in front of thousands in the, then, Five Nations, before returning to work as sheep farmers, RAF pilots and lawyers. Clubs, therefore, were clubs in the truest sense of the word. They represented the people within them rather than anything more broad than that. So, London Welsh was, in simple terms, for Welsh people in London. Club rugby was a very parochial affair.

Then Premier League football came along an invented a new way of making obscene amounts of money from sport through subscription TV. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon; products got polished up, competitions were invented and players professionalised as competition intensified. It happened in cricket, both codes of rugby, hockey, netball, even darts was given a make-over.

What football has that other sports tend not to have, is firstly, a huge audience, but more importantly, it already had the infrastructure already in place; the competitions had a hundred years and more of prestige, clubs represented not just those within the club, but cities, religions, class groups. People moved around the country, but were still defined by their football club.

In football location, history, fan loyalty are all important factors in defining that club. That doesn’t seem so important in other sports in the new era. So, London Welsh were a club for Welsh people in London, but someone thought abandoning that core value and setting up in Oxford was OK. Welsh aren’t the only ones; Wasps are in Coventry, London Irish in Reading, Saracens were in Watford. It wasn’t everywhere; Bath, Leicester and Gloucester all retain strong geographical identities; but frequently rugby – or maybe specifically the owners just seemed to treat these clubs as ‘brands’ they could move around to wherever they thought they could make the most money.

And that idea; abandoning your history, your fanbase to suit your ‘business model’ is a grotesque idea to any fan of a football club. You only have to see the vitriol aimed at MK Dons to see that. It strikes right at the heart of being a fan. To an Oxford fan, the idea of walking away from your own people is an intolerable treachery and that’s what it appears London Welsh did. It’s like the perverse rules you hear about in prisons; where everyone has killed someone, but the one that killed a child; well, in a sea of unforgivable wrongness, this is somehow more unforgivably wrong.

Now, we probably shouldn’t be too smug about this. Firstly, football is unusual in being so loyal to its location, most sports represent small groups of people, some, like cycling, represent almost nothing at all apart from the whims of millionaires and sponsors. And a recent report suggested that newer fans prefer football as events – big team playing other big teams rather than your team taking on the world. Club loyalty is on the slide; in 20 years clubs may move around seeking the best demographic for their brand. It happens in American Football.

The point stands, however, basically London Welsh was never going to work with Oxford United because it committed the ultimate sin by simply by making the move.

Judging another club by football’s standards is a bit arrogant; it assumes football is right. From my perspective, although the arrangement with Welsh was uncomfortable, it was also largely irrelevant. Apart from in one way; the pitch. Undoubtedly the pitch impacted our results. Chris Wilder gained a reputation for tedious football when he had to focus on pragmatic rather than attractive football, Alfie Potter’s form collapsed in the bog Michael Appleton didn’t seem to learn that his principles were an irrelevance when the ball doesn’t roll true.

Last season was the worst I can remember in terms of entertainment and a lot of that was down to the pitch; it couldn’t cope with overuse. The patches of mud and bog were synonymous with rugby, which is concentrates around certain areas. But, in a sense, aside from moving the club to capitalise on the money available to them, this particular aspect wasn’t Welsh’s fault. They needed a facility, Kassam had one and rented it out even though it wasn’t fit for purpose. Should we be surprised from a slum landlord? Perhaps not.

So in a sense, this isn’t London Welsh’s fault – insomuch it’s not the fault of their fans – it’s the fault of their hapless owners who sold the club’s soul in order to move, and Kassam’s poor service to his tenants. Now they’ve gone I hope they can return to what they originally were, serving Welsh exiles in London. I hope they thrive doing that, it’s a very noble cause, but also, I hope they learn never to do it again.

Hyperbollocks!

Seven days ago we were complaining about London Welsh’s tenancy at our ground and the impact it was having on our pitch. Suddenly the tables have been turned with Welsh announcing its intentions to buy the stadium. It may want to, but can it?

When it was announced that Radio Oxford had some ‘interesting’ news relating to Oxford and London Welsh Twitter was, as always, agog. One tweeter, quite rightly, corrected me by making the distinction between news which is ‘interesting’ and that which is ‘big’. Radio Oxford weren’t claiming big news (although they subsequently took a big amount of airtime discussing it), they claimed it was interesting.

On Friday morning, Phil Gayle and friends announced that London Welsh were in discussions with Firoz Kassam to buy the stadium. Twitter was agog, this was big.

Let’s look at this in stages; the first is the detail of the release itself. This appears to have come from a very general discussion with London Welsh about life in Oxford. Part of the day-to-day cycle of PR that happens to coincide with Saturday’s games. In it they talk about working in the community. Perhaps the conversation started with the subject du jour; the pitch. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that this discussion might evolve into something about long term plans and relations with both Kassam and Oxford United. Good journalism aims to find angles, and when I say angles, I mean new audiences to read their stuff. An Oxford United angle opens a whole new audience.

What they actually confirmed is that they planned to remain in Oxford. Which is not an unreasonable thing to say; people are not exactly flocking to their games; they look like a cuckoo in the nest at the moment. There is nothing very London or Welsh about Oxford. I’ve been going to the Kassam Stadium for long enough to know that the alleged 10,000+ gate they claimed to have against Wasps recently was likely to be less than half that in reality. And that’s a big game in their world. If they can establish themselves as an Oxford resident, then perhaps casual Oxford rugby fans would start going to their games.

To reinforce their long term commitments to the city, they said they were interested in the stadium. And, more crucially, that they were looking at ways of buying it, including how to finance it. So, this is more a casual interest in owning the stadium, not an imminent purchase.

The ambition is there; it’s the same stated ambition of Woodstock Partners, but as they have found out, vision without finance is hallucination. The second thing to consider is whether London Welsh have the finance to actually do the deal. I have more important things to do than pour through their accounts, but the fact is that Welsh were in administration 3 years ago. They weren’t saved by some Russian oligarch, they were saved, via the fraudulent behaviour of their receiver, by their previous owners. It’s one of those deals that sends chills down your spine when you hear about it with a football club. There appears not to have been any new money in the club, just a financial restructure which made the problems go away… for now?

So where might the cash be coming from? The Aviva Premiership TV deal is worth £152 million over 4 years, even if that money were divided equally between each team in the division, which is unlikely, that’s only £3.2 million per club per year. Nice money if you can get it, but not exactly enough to buy a £12 million stadium and run a successful rugby club. Sponsorship is likely to be fairly limited because the media coverage is hidden away on the BT platform which has a total available audience of 750,000. How many of that audience is likely to be a rugby audience? 10%, 5%?. The limited BT football deal is worth about 6 times the rugby deal, which gives you an idea of proportionate interest in various sports. And gates are small, as I’ve discussed.

It seems unlikely that Welsh have the finance in place; London Wasps, a dominant European force in rugby never achieved their ambition of having a ground of their own in Wycombe (either Adams Park or somewhere new). And that was during a time when rugby and the economy, as a whole, was booming.

So, the money needs to come from somewhere else, or the price of the stadium needs to drop. Assuming that Firoz hasn’t had his heart melted by the changing shape of the ball, let’s assume that he’s prepared to stick at the £12 million asking price. Why wouldn’t he? He currently has two tenants paying him rent, why drop the price? So, perhaps there’s an outside investor ready to bankroll the deal. There are ‘heavyweight guys in the Welsh community’ claims London Welsh MD John Taylor sinisterly. Perhaps. There are some attractive elements to a deal like that; the entertainment complex, which is accessible and has parking, has revenue coming in 7 days a week and the conference centre offers similar opportunities. The hotel may also be attractive. But the stadium is the stadium. You can’t do much more with a stadium than play sport in it. Or host Elton John. Maybe they’re planning a series of Tom Jones specials?

You might buy the ground as a loss leader to get the money from the hotel, conference centre and entertainment complex. But assuming that you’re a reasonably minded investor; you might want to see the stadium making some sort of money or at least covering some of its losses. Welsh are hardly packing them out, current average attendance is 4,303. But they’ve only played 6 games. That’s 25,800 paying punters; 61,000 less than Oxford fixtures have brought in this year; amounting to perhaps £2 million difference in ticket sales year (a rough estimate). And their position in the Aviva Premiership remains precarious to say the least. Suddenly Oxford United become an important part of this deal. Like the minor partner with a deciding vote.

Oxford offers a pretty sound income stream; even in lean times it attracts solid attendances playing more games; that’s decent money for tickets and other concessions. That’s rent on the club shop, and so on. Has anyone seen any London Welsh merchandise in or around the Kassam? They don’t have the footfall. Football is still bigger than rugby by some distance. Rugby’s profile is driven, in part, by the quality rather than quantity of its audience. It’s a more targeted, affluent, middle-class clientele, but it’s not necessarily large. Not by comparison to the massive, but hugely varied football audience. This works for rugby at a national level because the scarcity of international fixtures allows tickets to be sold at a premium, alongside sponsorship and TV rights. It offers a concentration of well-off people with money to spend. At a club level, they simply don’t have the volumes of people for interest levels to rise much above that of the lower leagues of football.

Which takes us to the final stage. What kind of landlord would London Welsh be? There’s something suspicious about Welsh’s stated ambition; short of some ‘heavyweight Welsh investors’, there’s no real substance to their credibility. They don’t have money, they don’t have crowds, and they don’t have success on the pitch. I would worry about their financial stability. On the other hand, they are a sports team who might be interested in sport rather than rent (as we have at the moment). If Welsh were able to do what Oxford can’t and buy the stadium and with it achieve stability that could be a good thing. They won’t survive without the income/rent from football, so they have little choice but to work with us. That means pooling resources benefiting from improved sports facilities, stadium development, joint marketing and so on. The pitch is the only thing that doesn’t benefit from the deal but overall, but presumably there’s a emerging science on how to achieve the balance between the two sports; enough clubs are doing it now.

One final thought; whilst this might just be a casual conversation which has got out of hand, you might want to question if this was serious then why is it public? Big financial deals are sensitive things; they tend not to be done in public. Investors don’t want people knowing what kind of money they have available. Why release the information so readily? Especially when there’s a second interested party involved; why publicise something to encourage your competitor into the bid? That means you will either lose or get into a bidding war. If you were serious in the short term, you’d keep it under wraps. So, perhaps this is just a marketing ploy by Firoz Kassam and/or London Welsh to try and draw Oxford into a deal they’re currently reluctant to get into.