When Chelsea Pitch Owners (CPO) came into being in 1993, it was as a way of the fans safeguarding the future of their club at a time when the property developers were hovering over the prime piece of SW6 real estate that is Stamford Bridge.
The basic premise was simple and very effective, if the fans own the pitch and the land on which the stands are built then the ground can’t be sold (at least not without their say so).
In 1997 CPO bought the freehold (supported by a £10 million loan from the club) and have since leased the land back to Chelsea FC at a peppercorn rent. CPO has sold 15,000 shares at £100 each and, declaring my interest, I am one of those shareholders.
On the face of it Chelsea’s offer to the fans seems reasonable. Chelsea’s future is far more secure than it was in the 1990s now that Roman Abramovich has brought his £Billions to the club and Stamford Bridge’s capacity for further development is limited by the geography of its location. So, if the club want to develop a new stadium and move, they will need to own the current ground in order to sell it.
The CPO was set up entirely for the purpose of safeguarding the well-being and future of the club. The club seems to be suggesting that our time has now passed and I know many other CPO shareholders who agree (and lots of others who don’t).
My personal position is one of doubt. I need a lot more information before I can believe that CPO selling the freehold back to the club is in Chelsea FC’s best long-term interest.
Chelsea FC’s last end of year accounts show an operating loss of £68.6m against a turnover of £205.8m. The financial picture is improving but not at a rate of knots and without Abramovich’s ownership the club would be in trouble.
Abramovich appears to be here for the long haul and has publicly spoken of passing the club onto his son in the future. Yet my unease is not calmed. We have seen tragedy at Chelsea before, most recently the death of Matthew Harding, so we understand that nothing is forever thus begging the question, what plans do the club have in place should tragedy strike? It would be good business practice in most organisations to have continuity and succession plans, even company wills, in place.
Have Chelsea taken care of such details or is the strategy one of enjoying the good times and crossing collective fingers that they don’t turn bad? For without ownership guarantees there is no guarantee of the club’s best interests being served by a future owner. Such worries are currently safeguarded by the CPO ownership of the Stamford Bridge freehold.
Of far smaller concern to me is the club’s offer to buy shares at the same price (£100) fans paid for them. The intention was never that shares in CPO were in any way about profiteering but if we are to trust the future of our club to those making the offer one would hope they are good enough at finance to realise that with inflation their offer is one which asks the fans to lose money on the deal – as if football fans aren’t fleeced as it is these days!
My ‘investment’ in CPO shares was never meant as an interest free loan and I would expect a modest adjustment to the offer to counter the effects of inflation. That £100 buys much less than it did on the day a reserve team player called Rati Aleksidze and an emerging youth team player called John Terry presented me my share certificate on the pitch at Stamford Bridge (see picture).
One final thought, the main thrust of the club’s perceived need to buy the shares in order to develop and move to a ground with a larger capacity; if the well-being of Chelsea Football Club is the primary motivation and the fans have served the safeguarding of the club’s home so well for nearly two decades, why the need to buy?
Why not include the CPO in the development plans and when the time comes to sell Stamford Bridge we do so on the understanding that we will then pay the funds raised to the club in return for the freehold of the new ground?
To me, that makes sense from a business, from a football and from a fans perspective and continues to safeguard the future of the club regardless of the fates that fortune’s fickle finger might deal us.
It is not enough to simply be Carefree. It is up to the CPO to KTBFFH! (Apologies reader if you don’t understand, Chelsea fans will).
© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, October 2011