Salford Red Devils – Could a stadium swap save the club?
Multiple options are on the table as the survival of a historic Salford sports club is at stake.
The AJ Bell stadium Credit: Google Maps
The Salford Red Devils have been facing financial woes for some time – but a new owner could leave the rugby union club homeless.
Salford City FC are in the process of purchasing the AJ Bell Stadium as part of a joint bid with the Sale Sharks rugby team which already play in the 12,000-seat stadium in Barton-upon-Irwell.
The sale is expected to be finalized in a few months, according to advice from Salford who partially owns the site – but the Reds will stay for the remainder of 2022.
A stadium swap is under consideration, with local authorities seeking to acquire the Peninsula Stadium and rent it to the Red Devils once the football club leaves.
But the cost of bringing Moor Lane up to Super League standards may be too high for the rugby league which is also looking elsewhere.
What’s the background?
Developer Peel L&P built the AJ Bell Stadium ten years ago after setting up a joint venture with City Council that owns the Â£ 26million sports complex.
This follows a public inquiry several years earlier in which the government granted a building permit for a new stadium with a capacity of 20,000.
The original plan was to build a new stadium to replace The Willows in Weste, which had housed the rugby league since the turn of the 20th century.
In making his decision, the Planning Inspector recognized the need for a new stadium in Salford for the rugby club to retain their place in the Super League.
But over the years, the club have failed to fill the stadium or pay their rent in full.
The local authority has been lenient, offering the club a period of free rent at the start of rental and lowering fees when Covid settles limited capacity.
However, the new owners might not be so kind to the rugby union club whose current contract at AJ Bell Stadium is due to expire in two years.
If the club were to extend the fee of Â£ 450,000 per year would be expected to rise.
What has been said so far?
Outlining all the options at a fan forum meeting in November, Salford Red Devils executive chairman Paul King said staying at AJ Bell Stadium would mean cutting team expenses – the biggest expense for the club.
Staying in place would kill the club in two seasons, he told fans – and he would not survive if he faced relegation that resulted in a loss of Â£ 1.5million in earnings.
A lease for the 5,108-seat stadium at Moor Lane will likely be cheaper, he said, but upgrading it to Super League standards could be costly.
The Rugby Football League has already approved the Peninsula Stadium – but the site still needs new projectors and a new broadcast gantry.
Higher billboards would be needed, which would mean that the front row seats might have to be removed, reducing capacity below requirements.
Unlike Barton’s site, Moor Lane doesn’t offer any training facilities – and fans have raised concerns about parking around Kersal Stadium.
But if those challenges can be overcome, King says the Peninsula Stadium would give the club a “sense of self-determination” – including naming rights.
A move to Moor Lane could also bring back Willows supporters.
âIt would be atmospheric,â he said. âA Friday night at Moor Lane with 5,000 or 6,000 would be absolutely buzzing – I think. And this will be our home.
Alternatively, the club are considering moving to a stadium outside of Salford.
Conversations have started with Manchester City about Etihad Campus Athletics – and Gigg Lane in Bury and the University of Bolton Stadium at Middlebrook in Horwich were also mentioned.
But King said leaving Salford was not his “preferred direction of travel” – and if that was what everyone wanted, he “wouldn’t be sticking around to watch”.
There is another option the club have considered, he said – shutdown.
âBending this club would break my heart,â he said. âBut if we can only sell 1,000 season tickets, if we can’t raise the funds to go to Moor Lane, what’s our other option? “
Speaking at the November meeting, the president said he would write to all season ticket holders after Christmas to ask them what their preferred option is.
And within a few months, the club could be forced to make its decision.
What was said in response?
Salford City FC and Sale Sharks declined to comment at this point in talks, but Salford’s council confirmed the sale is expected to close soon.
Salford Red Devils was also contacted for comment but did not respond.
The club’s executive chairman said he would have a better idea of ââthe costs associated with a move to Moor Lane before writing to fans in the New Year.
If all goes as he wants, the club would relocate by 2023 – and costs permitting, it’s clear King believes the club’s best option would be.
âAtmospheric and commercially, from a business standpoint, Moor Lane is better for the club and from a survival standpoint it might be the only option. “