Almost two years have passed since Aviva Premiership rugby club Wasps decided, in order to ensure its very survival, to leave the outskirts of London for the uncharted waters of the West Midlands. Eyebrows were raised when the six-times champion left Adams Park in Wycombe for the 32,000-capacity Ricoh Arena in Coventry, but those at the top of the club can point to a number of factors which appear to vindicate their decision.
Owning the stadium – which was originally built for Coventry City Football Club – has enabled Wasps to capitalise on increased ticket sales revenue, food and beverage income, and money generated from concerts, conferences and other events which the Ricoh can accommodate. As a result, Wasps posted a record turnover of £15.2m in March 2016.
Indeed, when Sports Management visits the Ricoh for Wasps’ press conference – in which the club details its plans to move into elite netball – the arena is entertaining two corporate conferences. The adjoining hotel is teaming with guests in the lobby and there are posters of upcoming events plastered across its walls. As a business the Ricoh and Wasps appear to be thriving.
Building a sports brand
When England Netball last month revealed Wasps as one of the new franchises joining the Vitality Superleague in 2017, eyebrows raised even further. Launching into a minority sport didn’t seem the obvious next step in Wasps’ growth plans, but chief executive David Armstrong explains that the move is part of the club’s plan to establish a strong sports brand.
“This idea is something that dates back to when we first acquired the Ricoh Arena,” says Armstrong. “We always knew the facility had the capability for extension into a number of other sports, particularly indoor sports.”
Armstrong points to the “strength of netball” – its growing participation numbers and commercial offer – which makes it an attractive fit. The large female demographic of netball, Armstrong adds, brings “diversity” to Wasps’ fanbase, and taps into the thirst for the sport that is prevalent in the West Midlands area.
During Wasps’ first season at the Ricoh, the club opened up availability of tickets for a match against Saracens for all netballers across the county. More than 600 turned up and – following further research on the number of registered clubs and players in the locality, as well as favourable talks with senior figures at England Netball – Wasps decided to take the plunge and bid for a franchise.
Wasps Netball – along with other new teams Scottish Sirens and Severn Stars – will join existing franchises Celtic Dragons, Hertfordshire Mavericks, Loughborough Lightning, Manchester Thunder, Surrey Storm, Team Bath and Team Northumbria in the Superleague next year after committing to meet the national governing body’s requirements of providing quality facilities for matches and developing a community engagement programme.
The former, says Armstrong, is “bread and butter”, pointing to the 7,500-capacity Jaguar Hall located inside the Ricoh Arena.
“The other side is the community piece,” he tells Sports Management. “We have an obligation to roll out community programmes and strengthen the sport from the grassroots level in the West Midlands. We have an existing community programme with the rugby team which has interacted with more than 50,000 kids in Coventry and Warwickshire – we’re not beginning from a standing start.”
Ultimately, Armstrong expects the new team to be successful both on the court and commercially, and Wasps is building solid foundations to facilitate both.
On the performance side Tamsin Greenway – coach of the England under-21s and last year’s Superleague champions Surrey Storm – is a high profile hire as the team’s first director of netball. The team will benefit from the strength and conditioning, physiotherapy and nutrition expertise provided to the Wasps rugby players, while the University of Warwick – which is getting ready for a £40m refurbishment of its sports facilities – will be its training base.
Armstrong adds: “A Wasps Netball proposition is also an interesting one for sponsors. They see the diversity agenda, they see the opportunity to get involved with women’s sport as very conducive to what their brand messages are. We’ll be able to commercialise successfully on the back of the facilities here by offering hospitality, food and beverages, as well as fan village experiences.”
With the combination of the recognisable brand, the resources to spend on players, the marketing expertise and the “world-renowned” performance capabilities, is Wasps skewing the playing field and making itself favourites to dominate the championship before a ball has even been thrown?
“Calling ourselves favourites is probably premature,” Armstrong admits. “The challenge of starting a team from scratch and recruiting players shouldn’t be underestimated.” However, the chief executive is keen to get across that he wants Wasps to play a “significant part” in raising netball’s bar in terms of building winning structures and professionalism.
Netball fans will be able to have a sneak peak at the Ricoh’s capabilities to host the sport when it stages England vs Jamaica in December. It joins a host of sports, such as rugby, football, tennis, snooker, darts and weightlifting, which have called the Ricoh home at some point, leading to suggestions that Wasps may look to emulate Real Madrid and FC Barcelona by establishing a number of sports teams under its brand.
“It’s a bit premature to compare ourselves to Barcelona,” says Armstrong with a wry smile. “We have spent time with both Barcelona and Real Madrid to understand their model and why they introduced basketball and handball. It’s about trying to understand the audience in the West Midlands and not building something for the sake of size.”
Armstrong, though, remains ambitious and believes Wasps are at the beginning of a journey in terms of what the club and brand can achieve following its landmark move.
“We’ve barely started – I don’t think we’ve even begun the journey in a lot of ways. It feels like we’re very young and we have an awful lot to do. None of us would be sitting back thinking we’ve done the job. It’s a very early work in progress.”