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FEATURE Storm clouds gather over Biarritz with owner poised to bail out

Storm clouds gather over Biarritz with owner poised to bail out
3 months ago

The roiling history of ProD2 side Biarritz is coming to the end of a cliffhanger chapter, with its very future in doubt if a buyer cannot be found before the end of the season.

On the pitch, Simon Mannix’s side are in the lower reaches of the French second tier, fighting the gravitational pull of relegation.

Off it, multimillionaire owner Louis-Vincent Gave is about to walk away from the club, less than a year after a €3.5million takeover fell through that would have led him to buy a controlling stake in Pro D2 rivals Agen.

Both he and club president Jean-Baptiste Aldigé will leave at the end of the season, taking their investment with them, whether or not a buyer is found. They’ll go earlier if they can.

Louis-Vincent Gave
Owner Louis-Vincent Gave has offered to sell the club for a nominal €1, but investors would need to find a further €3m (Photo by Gaizka Iroz/AFP via Getty Images)

And the price tag for ownership of five-time French champions Biarritz? A nominal €1. That’s how eager Gave is to get out. On top of that, buyers will need to inject at least €3 million just to match this season’s €9 million operational budget.

A long-running row over financing for renovations of Parc des Sports d’Aguilera overshadowed the era of financial services magnate Gave. It has directly led to the owner putting the club up for sale, with the avoidable but genuine threat it will no longer exist as a professional entity after the end of the season.

Their conflicts with the media, local authorities, and former players, have complicated things. But they ensured the club survived five more years.

There’s little doubt Gave and Aldigé deserve their share of any blame for the situation at Biarritz – the past six years at Parc des Sports d’Aguilera could have been a plotline for an over-dramatic daytime soap opera. The president has admitted as much.

By the same token, however, it cannot be denied the duo saved the club from oblivion in 2018. “Say what you like about them, they kept the club alive,” pointed out former Biarritz player Marc Lievremont recently, in regional newspaper Sud Ouest.

“Their methods … [their] conflicts with the media, local authorities, and former players, have complicated things. But they ensured the [professional] club survived five more years.”

Damien Traille
Biarritz’s golden period in the 2000s, with stars like centre Damien Traille, saw them win three Top 14 titles and reach two European Cup finals (Photo Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images)

The good news for fans is that, according to Biarritz mayor Maider Arosteguy, there is serious interest in the club. Reports suggest talks are ongoing with a number of potential buyers, including unnamed investors from Ireland. The need for secrecy is no surprise, but it’s not the first time Irish money has been linked with the club.

Gave’s injection of funds saved the club from being busted down to the French amateur leagues at the end of the 2017/18 season, when the club was in financial strife following the death of owner Serge Kampf two years previously.

He planned to redevelop the past-its-sell-by-date Aguilera to increase match income for a club that had long relied on its indulgent benefactor. It was an eminently sensible idea, given rugby’s heavy reliance on matchday receipts.

Two years later, the then-new mayor of Biarritz council said local taxpayers could not afford the public share of the reported €30million renovation bill and insisted private investors (read Gave) should stump up the required euros.

Jean-Baptiste Aldigé
President Jean-Baptiste Aldigé (left), Biarritz mayor Maider Arosteguy (centre) and club legend Serge Blanco are all involved in the current impasse (Photo Gaizka Iroz/AFP via Getty Images)

The news was not well received. Owner and president threatened to take their club elsewhere. San Sebastian, 50km across the Spanish border, was an early option. Estadio de Anoeta has hosted Top 14 matches before, and since. Officials there, however, refused to back the idea without agreement from Biarritz council. That was never going to happen.

In fact, the San Sebastian plot twist was rehashed recently, offered up as a last-ditch roll of the dice from the owners. In reality, it was a precursor to the For Sale notices going up.

Grenoble, Nice, Monaco and Lille were also considered according to reports at the time. Players were given a sneak preview of one possible future when, in August 2021, the club – promoted to the Top 14 that year thanks to Steffon Armitage’s nerveless penalty shootout kick – played a pre-season match against Bordeaux at Lille’s Stade Pierre-Mauroy. There were even aborted plans to play ‘home’ Challenge Cup matches there.

But the inconvenient truth about relocating a professional rugby club in France is that it is far from straightforward. They are not standalone entities. They are linked to an amateur association which holds the FFR licence that allows the professional side to compete in the league.

Despite everything, Gave’s decision to walk away now came as something of a surprise. A sod-it moment of epic proportions, with a potential fallout to match

Aldigé tried and failed to hitch Biarritz’s professional outfit with Lille-based Federale 1 side Marcq-en-Barœul, when it became clear that the amateur association ‘back home’ wouldn’t countenance their professional arm playing 1,000km away. The northern club refused.

The end game – which has still to play to a conclusion – began last summer, when a €3.5million takeover that would have cleared Gave and Aldigé to switch ownership allegiances to Pro D2 rivals Agen acrimoniously collapsed right at the start of pre-season.

Reports at the time suggested that Biarritz full-back Joe Jonas and tighthead prop Guy Millar would follow owner and president to Stade Armandie. They both stayed put when the deal fell through, while a raft of new signings intended for Gave and Aldigé’s new club ended up heading to Biarritz, leaving Agen owner Jean-François Fonteneau to plug the gaps at his end of the failed deal.

Both Biarritz and Agen scrambled in the final and extended days of last summer’s recruitment season to fill gaping holes in their squads left because of ultimately failed expectations.

Mohamed Haouas
Controversial France prop Mohamed Haouas was one new arrival last summer after leaving Montpellier (Photo Gaizka Iroz/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s no wonder that neither side has troubled the top half of the Pro D2 table this season.

Despite everything, Gave’s decision to walk away now came as something of a surprise. A sod-it moment of epic proportions, with a potential fallout to match. After last summer’s sale fell through, and the flurry of late recruitments, Aldigé suggested the pair were in it for the long haul.

Biarritz had been very busy on the recruitment market in the first half of the season, reportedly agreeing pre-contract deals with eight senior players for the 2024/25 campaign. Since late February, however, when future funds dried up, all player moves have been outward.

Those confirmed new arrivals, as well as those already on the books, are questioning their futures. It would be no surprise if more than one – 14 senior squad members are coming to the end of their contracts – decide not to wait and see if there’s a Biarritz to come to next season.

One of Aldigé’s 2024/25 recruits, Nevers’ Kylian Jaminet, told Rugbyrama: “If [I’m] left in the dark for one or two months, I’ll certainly look for offers elsewhere.”

It’s likely to take any new owners rather more than €3,000,001 to restore former glories. As well as a squad and coaching set-up to rescue and an academy production line to restart, there’s local confidence to rebuild.

He said he’d been sold an intriguing and impressive project when he agreed a pre-contract. That’s all in the air, now.

Meanwhile, Mannix, who was parachuted in as head coach at Biarritz in December, is reportedly on a shortlist for Portugal’s vacant head coach position.

Academy players will now be fair game and, thanks to rules surrounding players yet to sign a professional contract, a potential goldmine for a cash-strapped club. Montpellier are already reportedly interested in back-row Temo Matiu and lock Youssouf Soucouna. It has to be a serious interest: President Mohed Altrad would have to be willing to pay up to €700,000 in mandatory fees to take the pair to the GGL Stadium.

With a suddenly cloudy future, it’s likely to take any new owners rather more than €3,000,001 to restore former glories at Biarritz. As well as a squad and coaching set-up to rescue and an academy production line to restart, there’s local confidence to rebuild.

That will be an even more pressing project than any ambitious renovation – because a ground is no use to anyone if it’s empty.

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Comments

1 Comment
J
Jon 117 days ago

They are not standalone entities. They are linked to an amateur association which holds the FFR licence that allows the professional side to compete in the league.
That’s a great rule. This looks like the chicken or egg professional scenario. How long is it going to be before the club can break even (if that is even a thing in French rugby)? If the locals aren’t into well it would be good to se them drop to amateur level (is it that far?). Hope they can reset from this level and be more practical, there will be a time when they can rebuild (if France has there setup right).

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