The final part of our in-depth interview
Where are we at with project Blue Yonder? We're continuing to move forward. We have two different groups of people talking to us at the moment so there are options there. One of them is suggesting a move up to Kingmoor Park and the other is suggesting doing something different here at Brunton Park. I think the thing we've learned, because we're obviously not developers, is that maybe we need to be the strong partner. Maybe we need to go out and do some of the leg-work ourselves and do the work with the city to make sure it fits properly. We then need to be co-partners with a developer rather than being led along a path we don’t know too much about. We've got some thoughts for the future, and I want to be able to talk to the councillors to ask them which they feel is best for the city, the county and for Carlisle United. It's a long way short of being dead and we have meetings virtually every week.
That suggests that we're now looking at a number of different options? We're looking at three different options but we need to get a steer off the councillors first of all. We've all seen what's happened with the airport, and we don't want to go head-to-head with them. We want to work with them to get the best outcome. The airport should have been a one-year job but it's turned into a five-year job. Eventually either the councillors or the company get fed up. We have to get to a preferred option which is agreeable for all concerned and then we can start to move it forward. It is definitely in our minds that we want to keep going with it.
For the fans who are absolutely set on never moving away from Brunton Park, does redeveloping this stadium still remain one of the options? It will always be an option but the £18 - £20 million that was quoted to us two years ago is only going to increase, which is the main problem. Every penny of that would have to come out of our own revenue unless you could find an imaginative way of doing it, like sharing a stadium with somebody else or something like that. It is an option but it is probably the most difficult option we have.
Are we still looking at something which is a short term achievable target or is it more of a long term thing now? I think you've always got to look inside a five-year horizon because if we do something today, and agree something tomorrow, then with planning permission and everything else you wouldn't be looking at anything shorter than a two to five year project anyway. You just need to look at the AMEX at Brighton to see that.
If we don't get the green light, how can we continue to move forward as a club? The problem we have is that the main stand was built in the 50's and, although it had some work done after the floods, it is essentially the same stuff. If we did come to the end of the line with the new stadium we would have to try and set up some sort of funding system so we could do bit-by-bit refurbishment. It would be a bit like the Forth Road Bridge because there's so much that needs done. We could bring the floodlights up to Championship standard, or start putting seats in the Paddock, but we would have to do it all very carefully and discuss it with the fans. It would be a very difficult option. On the Football League board I think we have monies available from transfer levies, so I'm suggesting that some of that money should be made available through grants to clubs to improve the facilities. I think technically it should probably be aimed towards youth football, but that is a very broad based thing.
What's the evidence from clubs who have made moves recently. Are they seeing an improvement in attendances or day to day revenue? If you take Morecambe, they haven't seen a rise in attendances at all. Where they have seen a big improvement is on the conferencing and banqueting side. They have such good facilities that people are hiring it virtually every day, so their other income streams are better. A new stadium wouldn't necessarily bring more fans in but it would open up other streams of income.
How much of a drain on resources is maintaining Brunton Park? It's huge. At present we're trying to do as little as possible. If you look at the pitch alone, with it being sand fibre, to do the absolute minimum on it in the summer it will cost us £16,500. Then you have the fertiliser and all sorts throughout the season, so to keep the pitch as it is now it will cost us £50,000 - £60,000 next year. With the rest of the stadium it's just continuous maintenance. It’s an increasingly old building and things are going wrong with it all the time.
We moved off and onto Blue Yonder there for a moment, so coming back to how we will get people back to watch our team, are there any league rules governing how and when we can do ticket offers? The only thing we had problems with this season was the fact that we're supposed to allow the away team the same facilities. I think twice a year you're allowed to do an offer which doesn't include away fans, so when we had free cup tickets for season ticket holders last year we got our knuckles rapped. This year we're going to have to change the way we did that because we ended up giving money away to the opposition to compensate them for the fact they weren’t included in the offer. We are allowed to do things but it has to be across the board.
The season ticket holders do tend to revolt a little bit when we try new offers, mostly because they feel they have made their commitment up-front? They do, but we do always try to give them something back. In the next couple of weeks we've got an offer where you can bring a friend and you also get a voucher for the club shop, so you do get something back as a season ticket holder. You said they pay up front, and that is partly correct, but we now have over 400 people who pay by direct debit over 10 months. That means it’s costing them less than £10 a week to come to Brunton Park. The direct debit system has become a really popular way of doing things and we would encourage people to explore that route.
The commercial department is also vital to the club. How is that area doing at the moment? They're finding it difficult. I describe it as they're fishing and not even getting a bite at this point in time. That is a concern to us but we’re finding that big companies just aren't spending the money. We're going to have to become more competitive and look at how we sell our sponsorship packages. We're actively looking at bringing more things back in-house because, if there are profit margins, then we want to channel them into Carlisle United, rather than channelling them in through a third party. It means that instead of us getting 15% on beer and lager, like we currently do, we could sell it ourselves and make sure that our prices are as competitive as they can be with our nearest rivals up Warwick Road.
Where do we stand with existing sponsors. Are they sticking by us? Most of them are sticking with us but they are having difficulties. Stobart are not in the same position they were 18 years ago, but they've still been really good sponsors for us and they put a lot of money into the club. They do a lot more than people see up front, like giving us a coach for the academy, the big screen and things like that. They're like every other company and I’m sure it isn’t their intention to sponsor Carlisle United forever.
It must be almost impossible at the moment to forecast what the commercial turnover will be next season? The best we can do is hold on to what we've got and keep all the things we know are there. We're talking to sponsors now to ensure we can keep them involved in the coming season. We've got bits and pieces extra that we can sell – the Warwick Road End is now sponsored by H&H for example, and that’s fantastic – and we need to do much more of that kind of thing. The East Stand is also currently on offer to one company and we're meeting another one next week. I'm hopeful we can hold the income on the commercial side of things even though it is a difficult period.
On another issue, the frequency which strips are changed across football is a bone of contention with the fans. Why has it gone this way with two new strips a season? It's purely down to the supplier. Our current supplier wants to change the strips every season whereas the one before was prepared to do it every two seasons. I think somewhere in the middle is about right. If you go for every two seasons on the home strip, you have to have an away one in the middle of that, which can be difficult if you want to change the sponsor. Then, when you change supplier, you have to change both strips at the same time anyway. Inevitably it means we get fewer sales because, in my opinion, there are only so many variations of blue with a sponsor name on that you can come up with. It isn't an easy situation and it’s one we acknowledge.
Everybody wants us to have a successful football club, so have we got the framework in place to achieve that? I think we have. We'd like some more investors, which is always difficult, but we now have some younger local business people becoming vice presidents and that gives us a better view at the future. I think we'll need to change the fundamental structure around the finances to bring in bigger investors. The charge that we have over the club at present is a draw-back because investors don't want to get involved with it. We've got a good deal with Fred Story and we hope that that keeps going, but we need to get new investors in to help us along. We are in a good position to push on, but it's been a hard season and it will be a hard year. I've probably had more sleepless nights worrying about money this season than I did in the season when we lost £1 million, because it has felt like we have been closer to the ropes all the way through. As much as we try, we're still ending up with less than 4,000 through the gate and you just know that there isn't enough money in the kitty to service the wages at the end of the month. Things become really hard when it’s like that. I think once we get through this season the things we've learned will stand us in good stead as we look ahead.
for part one of this interview.
for part two of this interview.