Almost halfway through a season shaping up to be London's best ever, it is a painful irony that the capital's most successful club is facing financial ruin. A deadline for expressing interest in buying Wasps from their owner Steve Hayes is looming on Thursday with no certainty over the future if a sugar daddy fails to come forward.
Wasps are mid-table in the Premiership, and going into yesterday's round of matches the other London sides, Harlequins, Saracens and London Irish, were one, two, three. Today the four play at two grounds – Adams Park and Vicarage Road – the hosts would love to leave behind. Among the quartet only Quins own their stadium and so have the greatest annual revenue, £10.6 million in 2009-10, and security. The others lose money hand over taped-up fist.
Yet when Saracens' chairman, Nigel Wray, visited Clermont-Auvergne, a French club with huge municipal and corporate support, last season he was heard saying that with 10 million people living in London, drawing a break-even crowd was entirely possible. The first question is: "where to?"
Saracens sent a flash mob of players to Trafalgar Square and other sightseeing spots in London on Thursday to hand out flyers for their latest match at Wembley, versus the Ospreys next weekend. There have been crowds of 40,000-plus at Wembley, but at discounted prices and a huge cost in marketing and stadium hire. Without their South African owners, Remgro, who absorbed a £4.5m loss last year, the glitz might have faded a long time ago.
Wasps have won the league six times and Saracens once, but it has not spared either the same nomadic life they led in the amateur era. Sarries left Southgate in 1996 for Enfield Football Club and then Watford FC's Vicarage Road, where crowds have slumped well below 10,000. The proposed redevelopment of Copthall athletics stadium in Hendon is mired in planning problems.
A rebranded London Wasps sold their old Sudbury home for housing, shared Loftus Road for a while, then went to High Wycombe while retaining the "London" in their name for kudos. Last season was the first since leagues began in 1987 that Wasps finished below the other London clubs.
Hayes has reportedly put a price tag of £9m on the sale being handled by chartered accountants Baker Tilly, who have said "up to six parties have made approaches about buying London Wasps", including a consortium of property and financial investors, a group from a southern hemisphere playing nation and an eastern European party. Hayes had a "sports village" model but nowhere to build it after Wycombe council withdrew their support for a site near the town.
Finding land around London when supermarket chains have vastly bigger spending power than rugby clubs remains easily the biggest stumbling block. The former Saracens and Harlequins chief executive Mark Evans, now working in sports consulting, believes only the strong – the stadium-owners – will survive. "With Wasps it is not just a case of buying the brand," Evans said. "You've got to find somewhere to put it and any club's big capital spend is on a stadium.
"Historically the London clubs were just about participation but the difficulty with that was that no stadiums were ever developed," he added. "Where Harlequins had an advantage was in having 11 acres of land that they owned. They still had to spend £15-20m on developing what was effectively an athletics track with a clubhouse and a pitch in the middle. Now they have sold out a Friday match with Toulouse next week, they have a good team, a good academy and fairly manageable costs. I think they have very nearly cracked it. The other clubs had to look around for partners and though it is not impossible, it is very tricky. To make it work you have to generate big crowds."
Wasps have one of the most exciting English finishers in a decade – the 10-try wing Christian Wade – but he has no stadium of the club's own, a squad denuded of a team's worth of top internationals by retirements and departures in the past five seasons, and humdrum training facilities.
They have staged St George's Day games at Twickenham, and Harlequins are preparing for a fourth Christmas "Big Game" there. London Irish have arguably the most powerful brand with their craic and Gaelic drummers taking over Reading FC's Madejski Stadium once a fortnight since 2000, though they have used Twickenham too, but their plans for a training facility at Sunbury were rejected by the Government last week. In the Championship, London Welsh and London Scottish have money and ambition but no credible plan for where they would play if promoted.
Hayes was not around when Sky reported on the team's plight last week, leaving the executive chairman, Mark Rigby, to field questions from his office in Manchester.
"Compare London with Paris," Evans said. "London is only twice the size but it has 14 professional football clubs compared to Paris's one. What works best for rugby in England is a county town population of 100,000 with, say, another 350,000 in the counties around it, and no football club.
"I saw Wasps supporters saying they need someone else to come along who is prepared to lose a few million. If that's what we're relying on as a sport we're in a horrible place."
Harlequins Played at Twickenham before acquiring The Stoop in 1963. Recently branded themselves as "The Heart of London". Average attendance this season: 11,371. Revenue: £10.6m.
Saracens Based at Bramley Road from 1939 until open era prompted move to Enfield FC in 1996 and Watford FC a year later. Hosted five matches at Wembley since 2009. Average attendance this season: 6,000. Revenue: £6.9m. Lost £4.5m last year.
London Irish Headquarters have been at Sunbury-on-Thames since 1931 but moved home matches to the Stoop for 1999-2000 and Reading FC's Madejski Stadium from 2000 to date. Average attendance this season: 7,157. Revenue: £7.5m.
London Wasps Won their first league title in 1990 while based at Sudbury. Moved to Loftus Road for six seasons from 1996-97, on to Adams Park in High Wycombe in 2002. Average attendance this season: 6,500. Lost £2.2m last year. Revenue £8.4m.
Revenue figures from Deloitte LLP
- More about:
- Guinness Premiership
- Harlequin FC
- Harlequins (rugby)
- London Irish (rugby)
- Saracens (rugby)