The AJ Bell stadium Credit: Google Maps
Salford Red Devils have been facing financial issues for some time – but a new landlord could leave the rugby league club without a home.
Salford City FC is set to buy the AJ Bell Stadium in a joint bid with rugby union side Sale Sharks who already play at the 12,000-seater in Barton-upon-Irwell.
The sale is set to be completed within a couple months, according to Salford Council which partly owns the site – but the Reds will stay for the rest of 2022.
A stadium swap is on the cards, with the local authority looking to acquire the Peninsula Stadium and lease it to the Red Devils once the football club leaves.
But the cost of bringing Moor Lane up to the standards of the Super League may be too high for the rugby league side which is looking elsewhere as well.
What’s the background?
Developer Peel L&P built the AJ Bell Stadium a decade ago after creating a joint venture company with the council which owns the £26m sports complex.
This followed a public inquiry several years earlier in which the government granted planning permission for a new stadium with a capacity of 20,000.
The original plan was to build a new stadium to replace The Willows in Weaste which was home to the rugby league side since the start of the 20th century.
In reaching her decision, the planning inspector recognised the need for a new stadium in Salford for the rugby club to retain its place in the Super League.
But over the years, the club has failed to fill the stadium or pay its rent in full.
The local authority has been lenient, offering the club a rent-free period at the start of the tenancy and reducing the fees when Covid rules limited capacity.
However, the new landlords may not be so kind to the rugby league club whose current contract at the AJ Bell Stadium is due to expire in two years’ time.
If the club was to extend, the £450,000-a-year fee is expected to increase.
What’s been said so far?
Setting out all the options at a fan forum meeting in November, Salford Red Devils executive chairman Paul King said staying at the AJ Bell Stadium would mean cutting spending on the squad – the biggest expenditure for the club.
Staying put would kill the club within two seasons, he told fans – and it would not survive if it faced relegation which would lead to a loss of £1.5m in income.
A lease for the 5,108-capacity stadium at Moor Lane is likely to be cheaper, he said, but bringing it up to the standards of the Super League could be costly.
The Rugby Football League has already approved the Peninsula Stadium – but the site would still need new floodlights and a new gantry for broadcasting.
Higher advertising hoardings would be needed which would mean the front row seats may have to be removed, reducing capacity below requirements.
Unlike the Barton site, Moor Lane does not offer any training facilities – and fans have raised concerns about parking around the stadium in Kersal.
But if these 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 supporters back from the Willows.
“It would be atmospheric,” he said. “A Friday night at Moor Lane with 5,000 in or 6,000 in would be absolutely buzzing – I believe. And it will be our home.”
Alternatively, the club is considering relocating to a stadium outside of Salford.
Conversations have commenced with Manchester City about the Athletics Arena at the Etihad Campus – and Gigg Lane in Bury and the University of Bolton Stadium at Middlebrook in Horwich have been mentioned too.
But King said that leaving Salford is not his ‘preferred direction of travel’ – and if that is what everyone else wanted, he ‘would not hang around to watch’.
There is one more option that the club has countenanced, he said – closure.
“To fold this club would break my heart,” he said. “But if we can only sell 1,000 season tickets, if we can’t raise the funds to go to Moor Lane, then what’s our other option?”
Speaking at the meeting in November, the chairman said he would write to all season ticket holders after Christmas asking what their preferred option is.
And within a few months, the club could be forced to make its decision.
What’s been said in response?
Salford City FC and Sale Sharks would not comment at this stage of the talks, but Salford council has confirmed that the sale is set to be completed soon.
Salford Red Devils was also contacted for comment but did not respond.
The club’s executive chairman said he would be have a better idea of the costs associated with a move to Moor Lane before writing to fans in the new year.
If everything works out the way he wants, the club would move by 2023 – and costs-permitting, it is clear what King believes the club’s best option would be.
“Atmospherically and commercially, from a business perspective, Moor Lane is better for the club and from a survival perspective it might be the only option.”