Monday, 29 December 2008

Why whinging nimbies are wrecking The Rec

The following is taken from my column for The Bath Chronicle. To read more, click here

"It's a responsibility of ours to provide value for money in such economically difficult times," joked Steve Meehan to journalists on Monday, referring to Bath's heart-straining knack of stealing a victory in the dying moments of a game.

It was a throwaway line by the Bath head coach, but there was a thread of what he was saying that rang true.

Guinness Premiership rugby clubs aren't, of course, obliged to provide value for money, if such value is measured by whether a side can serve up entertaining rugby. Just look at the invariably dreary, one-dimensional performances of Wasps.

But it does seem that, paradoxically, demand to watch live top-flight rugby in this country is rising and not falling during the economic slowdown.

On Saturday, 50,000 fans flocked to Twickenham to watch what was dubbed (admittedly by sponsors Guinness) The Big Game. It smashed the attendance record for a Premiership match, and it's testament to the increasing pulling power of top-flight domestic rugby union that two sides can attract such a huge crowd, despite the scarcity of cash at the moment.

And at the other end of the M4, matches at The Rec continue to be sell-outs too.

The average attendance figure for a Guinness Premiership match is now greater than 11,000 and there's little doubt that, were The Rec to have a capacity greater than its current 10,600, then Bath would comfortably exceed that figure week-in, week-out.

Herein lies the big frustration for Bath. They are playing compelling expansive, nerve-jangling, 'value for money' rugby that's the most watchable in the Premiership and which people are queuing up to catch a glimpse of, but they can't cater for the demand.

If they played in a larger stadium, then more fans – and more money – would be flowing in. And that would be beneficial for both the club's medium and long-term prospects.

As it is, however, the club is falling further into the red because it is constrained by the long-running debacle over whether or not it will be allowed to expand on The Recreation Ground.

It's not just the Bath fans who want value for money – the club also needs to get value for money by being allowed to expand and pursue its commercial interests in the city where it belongs, unhindered by the efforts of a cantankerous nimby clique and by bureaucratic procrastination.

What all this talk of attendance figures serves to do is bring into sharp relief the fact that Bath Rugby desperately needs to have clarity over its future – or lack of one – at The Rec.

If there's one resolution that the trustees of The Rec, the Charity Commission and the club itself should make this January 1, it's that this whole sorry saga needs to be resolved with the kind of urgency that Bath show in the dying seconds of a game.

But, sadly, I wouldn't bet against me having to write an almost identical column in 12 months' time.

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