The Ageas Bowl is more than a first-class international cricket ground; it’s also a vibrant community hub with ambitious future plans. As part of Paris Smith’s 200th anniversary celebrations The Business Magazine learns how the firm has built an enduring partnership with its landmark South Coast client.
The Paris Smith connection with Hampshire County Cricket Club dates back to the 1930s, when former partner Cecil Paris captained the team. He was also a chairman of the Test and County Cricket Board (precursor to the England and Wales Cricket Board). A tree planted at the Ageas Bowl honours the late player and lawyer.
Cecil Paris would doubtless have taken great pride in the way his firm supported the club’s move to the impressive Ageas Bowl in 2000. And he’d probably have enjoyed facing a few overs on the immaculate pitch.
The range of services offered by the firm in the 1930s was broadly similar to those provided today, focused mainly on property and commercial advice. Since the club’s move to the 180-acre greenfield site, Paris Smith’s involvement has increased significantly.
The business of cricket
As well as being the home of the Hampshire team, the Ageas Bowl regularly hosts England fixtures. This summer, England will play its fourth test against India at the ground. The 23,000-seater stadium is also the venue for five matches at next year’s Cricket World Cup.
“We are a unique and constantly developing business,” explained the Ageas Bowl CEO David Mann. “We are multi-purposed with a range of inter-connected activities. Our aim is to be a leader at delivering outstanding customer experiences.”
He added: “We were the first cricket ground to have a hotel. We run a spa, an 18-hole golf course and hold concerts with performers ranging from Oasis to Rod Stewart.”
The Ageas Bowl has a clear vision to be a destination leisure resort and a popular community resource. Year by year, it has been delivering on that promise. The Hampshire Cricket in the Community charity focuses on health and wellbeing, especially for younger people. Facilities at the Bowl include a popular boxing club with three full-sized rings that offers free training to around 600 children, a running club, karate club, free golf lessons for kids and, of course, cricket coaching.
Within the cricketing world, the Ageas Bowl has provided a bit of a wake-up call as a disruptor that encouraged other grounds to invest and diversify. For example, half the hotel’s 171 rooms face the pitch and can be used on match days as hospitality suites and by broadcasters. The transformation began in 2000 when entrepreneur Rod Bransgrove invested millions in the club and became chairman of a business which had run out of money.
“You don’t get anywhere without investing and taking calculated risks and we are now seeing the benefits of that strategy, especially with new money coming into cricket from broadcast deals which will help to fund further infrastructure improvements. We’ve now completed our 2005 ‘Beyond First Class’ master plan, which included the new stands, the hotel and the 18-hole golf course,” said Mann.
Unlike many cricket clubs that are constituted as Industrial and Provident Societies the Ageas Bowl is operated via a plc holding company with a full-time board of directors, which oversees a number of separately, constituted subsidiary companies. The venue is supported by some very strong partnerships such as the one with Hilton, the brand behind the hotel, and the Naming Rights partnership with Ageas. The relationship with the local council has also been extremely important. and they have been instrumental in helping to fund our growth.
Annual turnover at the Ageas Bowl has risen steadily from around £3 million before the 2000 ground move, to approximately £21m this year. “We are starting to become profitable, building a sustainable business which is a key part of the local economy and now employs around 300 people,” said Mann.
The Ageas Bowl recently bought 22 acres of land with access directly on to the adjacent M27 motorway and this will be used to provide additional parking and to improve access and egress at the stadium, as well as to improve the layout of the golf course. Other potential new projects include the creation of a new community health and wellbeing centre to alleviate pressure on local NHS resources.
Advice on ground move
The ground move was complicated from a legal perspective. “We provided a lot of work on the land purchase and property deal for the new site,” said Peter Taylor, managing partner at Paris Smith.
Agreements signed on what had been fields and a multitude of planning issues were discussed and agreed with the landowner and with Eastleigh Borough Council. “We believe it was the first time a county cricket ground had been built outside the boundaries of a town or city,” said Taylor.
Janet May, partner and head of planning, and Mark Howarth, head of Paris Smith’s commercial property department, led much of the work for the Ageas Bowl to buy and redevelop the site.
May also led on the planning application for the hotel, golf course and new stands. Challenges included project managing an environmental impact assessment, transport plan and landfill site issues and installing floodlights near the flight path of the local airport.
Mann said: “Paris Smith played an important role helping us to conceptualise our master plan and then putting it into place, and helping us to secure all the planning applications and gain the relevant permissions.”
After a relatively modest start to life at the Bowl, the ambitious expansion plan really took off in 2012 when Eastleigh Borough Council gave the go-ahead for around £35m of funding to add to more than £15m put in by Bransgrove. James McNeil, partner in the banking and finance department, was heavily involved in the negotiations.
“When all the parties came together to sign the financing deal, I’d never seen so much paperwork in a single room,” said Mann. “We had representatives and lawyers from the council, Sport England, Hilton, the hotel builder, the company managing the hotel, the catering company, and venture capitalists involved with the spa.”
Taylor commented: “There was a lot more work to do once planning permissions had been granted, with multiple construction projects and all the inevitable issues relating to a project the size of the hotel. At the time, we regularly had 12-15 lawyers and planning consultants working for the Ageas Bowl.”
McNeil recently helped renegotiate the terms of the council’s funding, which will protect their income stream for the next 35 years, while fixing the liability of the venue. “This was good for the council as it guarantees revenue for them, and good for us as we now have certainty over our commitments and can manage our resources accordingly” said Mann.
“The council funding package was a very good example of public/private partnership,” he added. “Eastleigh Borough Council had to have a very strong economic case to go ahead. Research commissioned by the council indicated that the Ageas Bowl would generate a positive economic impact of around £55m annually for the local area, including creating over 300 jobs directly.”
Determination to get the job done is a Paris Smith characteristic. “We knew how important it was to the Ageas Bowl and Hampshire County Cricket Club. What we have achieved has been professionally very rewarding for us,” said Taylor.
The Ageas Bowl and Paris Smith have a common sense of purpose, he believes: “We aim to enable success for our clients through positive engagement with legal excellence. The Ageas Bowl is focused on creating positive experiences in the world of leisure and making sure every touch-point is an enjoyable one.”
Although the firm has been at the wicket for a long time, it avoids complacency in the relationship. “We always look to improve what we do and how we deliver our services. We are always trying to make sure we learn and improve,” said Taylor.
Mann commented: “It is very helpful to us to be able to flex Paris Smith’s resources as we need them. Progress in getting the various projects going has been frustrating at times, so it has been great to have their continuous support.”
He agreed that a strong partnership with the firm underpins a team performance. “Paris Smith was flexible on fees throughout our refinancing process in 2012. I know they are always at the end of the phone when we need advice. They respond quickly to assess how an idea we suggest might affect the whole enterprise because they understand our business and vision so well.”