This weekend Bradford Bulls play their final game at Odsal Stadium bringing to an end 85 years to the day of professional rugby – the first game was on 1st September, 1934 against Huddersfield and the last game will be against Sheffield on 1st September, 2019.
The club has announced that it will play at the ground of Dewsbury Rams for the next couple of seasons whilst it explores options for a new stadium in Bradford. Last week the RFL was reported to be sceptical about what plans exist for the Bulls to return to Bradford and has given consent for the club to remain in exile for a single season only. The question thus remains where that new ground might be.
In a previous feature John Dewhirst examined the historic context of the Bulls Ground Question. In this feature he asks whether a new stadium will ever be developed in Bradford to provide a home for the city’s senior Rugby League club.
During the last fifty years there has been recurring speculation about Odsal Stadium accompanied by rumours about Bradford City relocating from Valley Parade. Latterly the speculation has shifted to contemplate Bradford Bulls ground-sharing at Valley Parade and there is no end of bar room gossip about the possibility of stadium construction in different parts of the district.
In the past fortnight individuals on social media have had a ball conjuring up different schemes, one of the classics being a recent tweet that valiantly proclaimed the need for a sports village ‘somewhere like Valley Road / Canal Road’. Bring back talk of the Odsal Superdome to restore some realism. Please.
For the foreseeable future it is highly unlikely that Valley Parade will be abandoned. For a start, the lease with the Flamingoland Pension Fund does not expire until 2028. Secondly, whilst the club struggles to pay the rent there is even less chance that it could fund a new stadium. We all know that Valley Parade is not ideal but it’s better than nothing and it is a workable compromise. And it’s also bricks and mortar / pre-stressed concrete as opposed to pie in the sky.
The understanding is that BCAFC has the option to remain at Valley Parade on a preferential basis after 2028 so for now, there is no compelling reason to leave. Besides, Bradford Bulls are going to provide us with a demonstration of how easy it is to develop a new ground in the Bradford district. Anyone with a few spare acres to offer? And a magic money tree?
Andrew Chalmers, CEO of the Bradford Bulls has spoken about a new stadium in Bradford that would have a modest capacity, possibly no more than ten thousand. For now, he considers that something on the scale of Dewsbury’s ’boutique’ ground with a capacity of just five thousand will suffice. It’s remarkable that Bradford rugby ambitions have been realigned to be on a par with those of Dewsbury but that is another matter.
Let’s consider what a new stadium development would entail. What would be necessary to make it viable? The answer is that it would need to be more than a single use stadium and one that was not restricted to say 25 fixtures per season to generate income.
Ground-sharing would thereby transform the financial modelling but the reality is that City and Bulls have quite distinct requirements. Aside from the fact that the latter has typically derived its support from the south of the city, a crucial differentiator is that BCAFC would likely seek a capacity of at least twenty thousand. By contrast the Bulls have publicly stated that a capacity of ten thousand would be an upper target.
In other words, if ground-sharing was to occur the Bulls would be the junior partner and with attendance budgets currently more than double those of Bradford Bulls, the involvement of BCAFC has a major bearing on the investment case. At a stroke therefore the BCAFC commitment to Valley Parade limits the art of the possible for a new stadium in Bradford.
Even if BCAFC could be persuaded to cohabit with the Bulls, ground-sharing alone would be insufficient for a new stadium development and you would need to incorporate complementary commercial activities of a non-sporting nature. These would likely include some or all of the following: an on-site hotel; retail outlets; leisure facilities such as a cinema, restaurants or casino; and attractions such as a bowling alley or premium gym.
A particular challenge for a new development is that it will require sufficient car park space and a configuration that can cope with thousands of visitors. Considerations would relate to the ease of entry as well as exit, incorporate decent road access and have proximity to motorway connections. Cue a reminder about Bradford’s road infrastructure and current problems of traffic congestion before jumping to conclusions about where a stadium could be built.
Assuming that a site can be identified which will accommodate such needs and be sufficiently future proof, all it then requires is financial backing and enthusiastic business partners with a willingness to invest in Rugby League, a sports code that has been on a downward trajectory for the last decade. Getting a lender who won’t charge a risk premium will be even more difficult than finding the land on which to build.
Ratepayers have good reason to question amounts that the Council has previously spent on Odsal for which there has been no obvious benefit. Similar complaints were levelled at the former Bradford Corporation for what many perceived as public subsidies to Bradford Northern, suffice to say that no-one should expect Bradford Council to provide funding for a new stadium elsewhere in the district.
Bradford’s urban and physical geography does not bequeath many development opportunities and if a greenfield plot cannot be identified it will mean reliance on one of two options. Those would be a change of use from an existing industrial/retail site including a brownfield development of former industrial/retail premises or building on fields currently designated for recreational purposes.
Demolition of a retail park or industrial units would not be straightforward nor cheap and would involve protracted negotiations with multiple parties, that is with tenants as well as landlords and planning officers. All of this could delay plans such that it might take a long time to get the go-ahead. Tenants would also expect some form of compensation.
Brownfield sites are aplenty in Bradford but certain of those have remained undeveloped for good reason. Besides, planning permission may be questionable if it runs counter to Bradford Council policy to preserve available sites for industrial purposes. One of the biggest challenges facing brownfield development seems likely to be the road infrastructure and the corresponding traffic implications, an issue that will impact on choice.
A review of Google maps would suggest the availability of possible brownfield options off Parry Lane (nearby Bradford Dudley Hill RLFC) as well as Nelson Street and Dick Lane. Whether they have the necessary footprint consistent with the needs of a modern stadium is anyone’s guess – by the same criteria I am sceptical that the site of the former Royal Mail sorting office adjacent to Forster Square (earmarked by an authority on Twitter for Bradford’s new sporting village) would offer sufficient space for development. Have a look on Google maps at the scale of Manchester’s sporting village and you get the picture.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that any of these brownfield options would lend themselves to being prestige developments capable of attracting major investors or credible projects. In the absence of such, any new stadium will be truly boutique, albeit more corner shop than high street. Bradford Northern’s ground at Birch Lane (1908-34) was similarly of a boutique nature and we can expect to hear more of this term to avoid the embarrassment of stating the obvious.
With regards the change of use of existing recreational grounds there are political implications and a good chance that property deeds would forbid such plans. For example, it is inconceivable that sites such as the King George V Playing Fields off Canal Road have not already been eyed by property developers, a flat site that would be prime for industrial or commercial development.
Green Belt policy is another matter to test the elasticity of our elected representatives in City Hall. And then there will be the inevitable NIMBY appeals by local residents disappointed at having a new sports ground in their neighbourhood.
For all the brave words about Bradford, let’s not deceive ourselves about the state of the district or pretend that it is a place where outside developers are desperate to invest. The Broadway Centre is as good a litmus test as any of Bradford’s ability to spawn ambitious projects, in particular those dependent upon the disposable income and consumer habits of those who live in the district.
A premium location in the BD area capable of attracting investment for a multi-use stadium is therefore more likely to be outside the original city boundary and on the fringes of the metropolitan district. Preferred sites for such a development would probably be situated in one of the following: (i) in the Aire Valley; (ii) in close proximity to the M606 corridor; and/or (iii) in co-ordination with plans for the future development of the Tong corridor. We can dismiss Ilkley being considered but ironically, Odsal is a location with factors in its favour, at least on a broad brush basis before getting into the detail. What chance a new ground in the near vicinity of the original?
The age old problem for Bradford’s sports clubs has not gone away. For the past 150 years the leading cricket and football clubs in the district have agonised over options for suitable home grounds that are affordable and convenient as well as flat. Nothing has changed and although cars and the modern public transport network have increased personal mobility, there is no greater choice nowadays than in 1985 when BCAFC had to consider the possibility of vacating Valley Parade, in the 1920s when Bradford Northern looked to move from Birch Lane, or in 1907 when BCAFC evaluated alternatives to Valley Parade and the new Bradford Northern club had to find a home away from Park Avenue.
In my opinion the tragedy was that a City of Bradford Stadium / Arena for the joint use of Bradford City and Bradford Northern was never built on the land of the former Midland Railway valley sidings. This was a sprawling, vacant site for the best part of a decade after the Forster Square railway yard and station had been drastically cut back forty years ago. Had the finance and imagination existed it could have been an impressive development.
That opportunity however has long since disappeared. (NB In the wake of the fire disaster in 1985, the emotional call for a return to Valley Parade was another factor why the former railway land was never contemplated as an option for a new ground.)
By all the above criteria, Valley Parade is not best situated for a sports stadium and would never have been built had today’s standards been applied. For all its faults it has the advantage that it is a purpose built facility and is readily available. The Horsfall Stadium likewise. Both offer the opportunity for Bradford Bulls to relocate without leaving the district and to avoid the uncertainty and considerable expense of trying to find a new site on which to build a stadium.
Even if Valley Parade was considered too expensive, surely Horsfall could become the boutique stadium that the Bradford Bulls leadership has spoken about. Likewise there is always the option of ground-sharing with Dudley Hill RLFC to avoid contagion from soccer. After what happened in 1996 it would have been a supreme irony for Bradford Bulls to end up at Cougar Park in Keighley, but that would have been a step too far for the once proud club.
I struggle to see how Bradford Bulls will secure a new stadium in Bradford worthy of a leading professional sports club or indeed, how the Bulls could finance it. The club’s balance sheet does not glitter with gold and unless a benefactor emerges there is a fundamental constraint to what can be achieved. The cynic in me believes that the failure to develop a dedicated stadium in Bradford will be the first stage of the transition of Bradford Bulls to become a West Yorkshire franchise. The road to Dewsbury seems more like an escape route from Bradford.
The story of Bradford’s sports stadia has been one dictated by emotion and that might be what is getting in the way of the Bulls sharing with City or Avenue. Maybe there is another agenda at stake of which we are not aware. There are obviously good reasons for why Bradford Bulls should be prepared to take the unprecedented step of leaving the district.
Maybe the club knows that if it entered a ground-share arrangement in Bradford that it might become permanent if an alternative site in the district could not be found. Andrew Chalmers may consider that relocation to Dewsbury keeps his future options open in a way that taking refuge at Valley Parade or Horsfall does not.
I understand entirely why Bradford Bulls are finally making the move from Odsal, but I confess surprise that a ground-share arrangement in Bradford has been dismissed. In the circumstances, it seems bizarre that the Bulls should reject the offer of Horsfall given that it could have mutual benefit for Bradford Park Avenue and the ambition to develop a community sports centre. The geographic location within walking distance of Odsal is also ideal.
The Bulls appear to have ruled out Valley Parade on practical grounds (size of the pitch) as well as financial but ultimately they may have been unwilling to relocate to BD8 as a junior partner and the club’s supporters have been consistently vociferous in rejecting Valley Parade.
However from a BCAFC perspective there are questions of what benefit a ground-share would bring. Even allowing for a rental contribution from the Bulls there are potential costs, not least the question whether the pitch could cope with rugby and the loss of a close season in which to recover. A theoretical pitch extension would also sacrifice capacity and be difficult to achieve without major structural change to the ground. Quite how a ground-sharing arrangement would make it affordable to then expand Valley Parade and build new stands with nice black seats – again, as recommended on Twitter – is anyone’s guess. Romantic yes, realistic no.
Just at the moment when BCAFC is getting back on its feet it doesn’t seem an ideal moment to invite the Bulls, particularly not if they lack the enthusiasm to cohabit. Furthermore, you have to question the appeal of having Bradford Bulls as a sub-tenant, a club and brand that is much diminished and increasingly irrelevant, a long way removed from the one that played at Valley Parade in 2001. A club shortly to be twinned with Dewsbury rather than the likes of Wigan.
With crowds of less than five thousand the commercial case is now far from compelling. I’m all for being sentimental about fellow Bradford clubs but not if it causes major disadvantage to the one I support and compromises a BCAFC recovery.
What this is really about is modern day football capitalism. Gone are the days when clubs were rescued and sustained by local businessmen and benefactors with local loyalties and what was called civic patriotism. At BCAFC and the Bulls alike we have had a new wave of outside ownership. Let’s not delude ourselves otherwise, Chalmers has invested in the Bulls to make a turn and this is not simply about his stewardship of a Bradford institution. The sentimentality and emotion has become replaced by cold calculation whether we like it or not. We could call it progress.
The move to Dewsbury leaves Bradford City in pole position to attract a generation of supporters who might otherwise have watched the Bulls. It seems like a virtual surrender by Bradford Bulls and a downgrading of ambition, totally at odds with the club’s original strategy of community engagement and visibility, but so be it. Should Bradford Park Avenue progress plans to launch a RL club at Horsfall, my bet is that the chances of the Bulls returning to the district will diminish.
It is a fascinating state of affairs. A potential game of bluff at Horsfall and given the history of Bradford Park Avenue, an incredible turn of events should that club now promote rugby. It’s also interesting to observe how Bradford Park Avenue is being run, funded by Gareth Roberts whose motives are genuinely philanthropic.
For Bradford City, there is the opportunity to take advantage of the Bulls’ absence not only through community involvement but in respect of commercial sponsorship arrangements. We wait to see where Andrew Chalmers takes his Bulls and what will become of Odsal Stadium.
Beyond any shadow of a doubt this is a defining moment for the history and direction of professional sport in the district.
John Dewhirst is author of ROOM AT THE TOP and LIFE AT THE TOP (pub BANTAMSPAST, 2016) which tell the story of the origins and early history of professional football in Bradford. [Tweets: @jpdewhirst]