After increased speculation about the future ownership of the AJ Bell Stadium, we sat down with Sharks CEO Sid Sutton to set the record straight, and find out about his plans for the future of the club and where stadium ownership fits into those plans.
So Sid, let’s start with a bit of background – how did we get to this point?
As all of our supporters know, it’s been an ambition of this club for a long time to own our stadium and to have a place to call home. We want a home with a brilliant atmosphere that the fans love to come to, and we want a stadium we are in control of.
One of the options we looked at was building a new stadium at the Crossford Bridge Playing Fields, in Sale, but, as was well documented last year, the Trafford Council withdrew its support for that plan in September.
That was really disappointing for everyone at the club, partly because an awful lot of time, money and effort had gone into the process, but mostly because we believed that taking the club back to its roots in Sale was the best way to grow the club and secure our future.
Since that point, our resolve to find our own home has remained as strong as ever and we’ve spent a huge amount of time exploring potential options. The option of acquiring the AJ bell has been in the background for a little while but it became quite pressing when our existing tenancy agreement was due for renewal of July this year. We could have rolled over into another long-term tenancy, but we decide to accelerate the option of buying instead. It was very apparent that both the existing AJ Bell owners, the council and Peel Holdings, were keen to sell purely for commercial reasons.
We firmly believe that if we’re going to continue growing the club on and off the pitch, we must invest into a home for Sale Sharks.
Why is it so important for us to own our own stadium?
First and foremost, this is about the fan experience. We want to be able to control what we can do at the stadium and at the moment we are very limited in terms of what we can do with things like having a band outside, running fan parks, choosing the catering and that kind of thing.
If we enhance the fan experience, then we believe we’ll grow the fanbase, and attract more fans to the AJ Bell and that will help us grow the club commercially too.
The other point is that the cost of renting makes no financial sense. We want a stadium where we can create other revenues other than the match day. The financial structure of the existing lease agreement is not good for the club. This is all about ensuring the long-term viability of Sale Sharks. Owning our stadium is crucial to the future of the club.
There are obviously other parties involved here – what does this mean for Salford City FC and Salford Red Devils?
Owning our own stadium is so, so important, but we have said that we won’t put in an official bid until Salford Red Devils are being looked after or until they have been consulted and have found a place to go. That question has been a huge factor in the negotiations so far for me. We’re a community club and we have a good relationship with Salford Red Devils. We want to play an active role in securing their future and we’re doing everything we can to do that.
During the due diligence process, it became apparent that financially remaining at the AJ Bell Stadium wasn’t an option for Salford Red Devils. In addition, they openly said that they couldn’t afford to either buy the AJ Bell Stadium or stay there as a tenant so we actively sought a second party to buy the stadium with us.
Salford City FC are a willing party with huge ambition and a need for a new home, they have also the financial ability to be a joint owner of the AJ Bell. Both Salford City and ourselves are completely aligned that Salford Reds need to be catered for before any deal is done on the stadium. Several joint fans forums have been held to ensure all parties are being open, honest and crystal clear with their own fan base.
Commercially it makes sense to us, but the most important thing to say is that the council and Salford Red Devils are still looking at other possibilities and we won’t be pushing forward until this is resolved.
How big would this be for Sale Sharks and the future of the club?
Massive. It’s a huge deal and one that we are all really excited about. This is a real stake in the ground for the future of Sale Sharks. We could have a home that we can build and grow and fill with fans who are passionate about the club.
We know the AJ Bell Stadium hasn’t always been the easiest to get to via public transport, but we’ve worked so hard to make changes and for this season we’re confident that we’ve addressed the challenges that fans faced in previous seasons.
And we want this stadium to serve the local community. Our plan is for the stadium to be a huge asset for the area, through the work of our Community Trust.
What does this mean for Alex Sanderson’s team on the pitch?
This is huge for Alex and the players. The better the atmosphere is, the more attractive it’s going to be for the players. We have some of the world’s best rugby players here at Sale Sharks and we want them to enjoy playing in our stadium.
Alex and his team are doing a fantastic job and we have to do our bit to help create an intimidating atmosphere for away teams.
The sky is the limit for this team and owning our own stadium is a huge part of that.