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THESE MIGHT BE THE LAST GAMES AT ODSAL – BEXIT LOOMS

2nd August 2019, 10:52

THESE MIGHT BE THE LAST GAMES AT ODSAL – BEXIT LOOMS

READ Andrew Chalmers' latest column - in partnership with Bradford's Telegraph and Argus.

I remember first visiting Odsal in 2005 and watching Lesley Vainikolo playing, alongside Shontayne Hape in a Super League encounter. It was early season and Graham Lowe and I were busy working and plotting for the upcoming international program for the Kiwis. 2005 of course was a big year, and included the Tri-nations series, which the Kiwis ultimately won, defeating world champions Australia 24-0 at Elland Road, probably the biggest upset in international rugby league ever.

I also recall the winding trip down the hill to the modern South Bank hospitality facility in the Bradford wind and rain. It was a great game, in a coliseum environment, and what was clear to Lowie and I, was that it was a ground blessed with decades of history. This sacred patch of land had been graced by ten’s of thousands of players and I dare say millions of adoring fans in its history. Undoubtedly this iconic land mark has intersected with nearly all Bradfordians in some way.

It’s not hard therefore to be swallowed up in the emotion of what is a very difficult and complex decision facing the Bradford Bulls. For most of you, who have lived and breathed the roller coaster that has consumed the club in the last decade, I’m sure you’ll be able to share your piece of knowledge and understanding to this dilemma. But for the record, I want to outline my view of the position, so that as fans and supporters you are kept informed of the process currently underway.

What is clear to me, is that whether the RFL, or the Council like it, as leaseholder and land owner respectively, the stadium is ultimately their facilities. When I was first invited by the RFL to look at putting a proposal together for the failed club, I did so without the full benefit and knowledge and understanding that these primary stakeholders had. More importantly, I was sufficiently concerned enough about the underlying issues with Odsal, that I refused to sign a proposal to lease the stadium. I have maintained that position since arriving in 2017.

The club can leave and vacate Odsal in practical terms on the 30th September 2019. We are required to pay rent monthly, which is deducted from the clubs central distribution, at the same rate that was struck when the club had a £1.4m per annum Super League distribution, effectively £72,000 per annum. The clubs central distribution in 2019 is only £148,000 per annum. In 2018, it was £75,000 per annum! Quite clearly affordability becomes an issue, unless you are in Super League. Needless to say the RFL and the club are discussing the issues. Putting the disagreements around the non-lease to one side, the operating costs for this asset will continue to be a burden if left unresolved. It’s not just about the lease costs, it’s the entire occupancy costs of utilising a legacy asset.

Simply, it’s a little bit like operating an older aircraft. The airframe will not last for ever, the engines become more expensive to maintain and operate, the working parts will need replacement, and quite frankly it becomes uneconomic to operate, and ultimately either needs a complete overhaul or it needs to be replaced. How many DC-10’s do you see operating these days? And remember if you’re a passenger on the plane, you don’t expect to have to pay for the wheels to be replaced or in the case of Odsal – the lights, when you have already bought a ticket! It’s not our ground it’s an iconic legacy asset that is nearing the end of its economic life. That’s the inconvenient truth.

In the case of Odsal, its not just rent, but rates, insurance, utilities, maintenance and operating costs, which make Odsal the most expensive ground relative to income generated in rugby league in the UK. In absolute terms the full occupancy costs parallel those of the top Super League clubs.

I understand rugby league has an issue with plenty of stadiums in the United Kingdom. But look at Belle Vue, the home ground for Wakefield. After many years the Wakefield Council finally provided the club a £3.2 million interest free loan to acquire the stadium for the purposes of building a new facility there. Or look at York City Knights, also part of a consortium, receiving significant funding from York Council, so as to provide facilities for the club and for the community. Leeds Council, is also the low cost funder of the Leeds Rhinos Headingley new state of the art upgrade costing in excess of £30m.

The Bradford Council as land owner, and the RFL as the lease-holder need to lead the resolution to this problem. They both need to actively and sincerely participate in resolving this dilemma. Because certainly, the Bradford Bulls will be forced to vacate Odsal in September, without resolution and with that decision being made by the club on the 15th August.  

I certainly think the RFL is the accidental holder of the lease hold interest, but it makes no sense from my view for them to hold that position indefinitely. And likewise the Bradford Council must play its Local Government role for after all in the year 2152 the current lease hold interest expires and reverts to the Bradford Council.

What this city also needs is a closer collaboration between the major professional sporting clubs, ie the Bantams and the Bulls, and a discussion about how sport, and education needs can be better accommodated in Bradford for at least the next 50-100 years. It does appear to me looking from the outside in, that somewhere someone forgot to plot a viable long-term strategy for the city incorporating all the key stakeholders. The city desperately needs a state of the art sport and entertainment complex, that can accommodate the needs of all stakeholders, not just the professional sporting clubs, and I think it needs a credible Bradfordian to champion this.

I appreciate that Bradford Council and rate payers services have suffered under the austerity measures applied for the last two decades, but what is needed now is creative innovative leaders to come forward and help craft intelligent solutions. Pretending the problem doesn’t exist – isn’t a strategy. Perhaps the newly appointed Prime Minister Boris Johnson, might consider assistance to infrastructure in Bradford. Under the rule of others, you can see other UK city’s that have clearly benefited from central government support to help lay a foundation for economic prosperity. Actually I’ll get BOJO’s Bulls’ shirt on the Uber to no 10 Downing Street first thing Monday. Let’s be fair, our new PM might actually be a closet Bulls fan!

Having been drowned in the BREXIT drama over the last few years, I see the parallels with our BEXIT decision. (Yes, I’m sorry I couldn’t resist). For us, we must prepare for a strikingly similar No Deal BEXIT assuming the Bradford Bulls can’t reach a proposal with the RFL and Bradford Council. The ongoing financial impact on the business must be immediately addressed, so we therefore proceed to BEXIT on 30th September, with our decision being made on the 15th August.

Under BREXIT of course, the “Irish backstop” is effectively meant to make sure that the Irish border remains open whatever the outcome of the UK and the EU's future relationship negotiations. Under our BEXIT scenario, No Deal means vacating Odsal, relocation to a new ground, very potentially outside of Bradford. The concern for many including me, is that if we don’t plot a path back to the city, then the Bulls may well end its tenure in Bradford forever, and cease to become a Bradford icon. That starts to feel like “no backstop”.  

So if Boris Johnson, wants to catch a game at Odsal, he’ll need to hurry, because I fear that a BEXIT No Deal scenario with all its implications will be here soon. Rest assured the club will talk to all stakeholders fans included extensively before the deadline of 15th August. Fingers crossed for Sunday afternoon.