Are we taking the Olympic spirit too far?

You may have missed the little nugget in the media over the past week that West Ham United are going to be moving to the Olympic Stadium in 2016.  It seems the world and his wife have an opinion on this subject, whether they be fans of the Hammers, of the Olympic Park or just concerned tax payers.  I have written about my opposition to the move on numerous occasions but decided to reflect back on those reasons over the weekend.  I can now see the good and the bad in the plan to move the club 2 1/2 miles north(ish) to the newest stadium in Great Britain.  So I thought I would try to write a “balanced view statement” as my daughter’s English teacher is so fond of saying, focusing on why I think it is a good deal for all parties, and why it is a bad deal for all parties.

7686283758_062833b406_bThis was hard.  I tend to write very opinionated pieces, focusing on one side to a story.  But I genuinely can see both sides.  Even my mother-in-law sent me a text, asking my opinion and I simply don’t know.  The obvious winner in all of this is undoubtedly West Ham United Football Club.  Nobody can deny that the FOOTBALL CLUB will benefit massively from this move.  But who or what exactly constitutes the Football Club?  The team? The employees of the club?  The fans?  The owners?  Or a combination of all or some of the above?  Let’s see…

So my idea is to present five clear arguments for and against the decision of the club to move to Stratford.  There, of course, is no right or wrong answer.  In ten years time with West Ham dominating the Premier League and having won successive Champions League titles, playing in front of 54,000 local’s with families and local good causes well represented and contributing to the local economy, the doom mongers will have to hold their hands up and say they were wrong.  But if the stadium sits half full whilst West Ham play hoof ball against Carlisle United in the lower leagues (no disrespect to Carlisle United btw), whilst local businesses employ their Saturday 1pm curfew then we know something will have gone very wrong indeed.

Some people will agree with my views, others wont.  Nobody knows what the future will bring.  We can see the success that Manchester City have experienced since moving to the old Commonwealth Games stadium (although that’s not the reason why), Capital Cup winners Swansea City have enjoyed since moving to the Liberty Stadium or even Wigan Athletic have seen since Dave Whelan built the DW/JJB.  But we all remember the tales of desperation that haunted Darlington after moving to their new stadium, or the pain that Coventry City are currently going through at the Ricoh Arena.  So where, without further fanfare….

The stadium has the potential to be a White Elephant if there is no tenant
“The stadium is going to cost the taxpayer x”…how many times have we heard that recently? The cost of the stadium construction is already sunk.  There are no refunds even if we could find the receipt down the back of the sofa.  We are already paying the instalments with added interest. So tell me, if you are one of the lucky few who are paying for it via Council Tax or other levies, would you want to see it sit idle for 350 plus days a year? Of course not. So the move to bring a primary tenant into play is a sensible course of action.

7228382902_980c789e03_bAlas, there is only one viable solution and that is West Ham United. With absolutely no chance of the FA relinquishing any games from Wembley as they repay the debt there, shifting Internationals and Cup Finals east was a non-starter. The Olympic stadium will be multi-use meaning if Street Countdown can sell 50,000 tickets, then expect it to be on the agenda. It has already been pencilled in for the Rugby World Cup in 2015, and I fully expect to see some of the biggest names in music play there in the coming years, but even so it needs the regular use that will ensure it remains loved, and paid for. So whilst the tax payer may not be a West Ham, heck even a football fan, the fact that their hard-earned cash will be used is at least a positive.

West Ham United will become a bigger club by moving there
There are very few clubs in the modern world of football who compete at the higher echelons of Europe who have small stadiums. It is a fact of the beautiful game in the modern era. Bigger stadiums = more commercial revenue = more cash which depending on the owners of the club translates into more money spent on squads. With the introduction of Financial Fair Play, the investments of the Sugar Daddy are coming to an end. Clubs need to be able to generate their own cash and commercial revenues are where the big bucks can be earned these days.

The redeveloped Olympic Stadium will have some of the best facilities around, not only for match days, but also for the rest of the week. The short, but eventful, history of the stadium will ensure it is a desired venue for hospitality and commercial activities all year round. The sense of national pride will literally seep out from every brick.  West Ham will start to be able to compete off the field with some of the bigger names not just in the Premier League but in European football. It only takes one or two big name players to join a team to complete change the dynamics. If the club is smart, then it will look at players from the Far East for instance to bring in the important Football Tourist revenues.  With low rents, no maintenance and huge new revenue streams, the effects on the playing budget will be immense.

The stadium already has some excellent facilities and local infrastructure
7925131730_d69f645916_bI was lucky enough to attend events on many days during the Olympics and Paralympics in the Park last year. The organisation was spot on and arriving/departing were as smooth as at any venue I have seen or experienced across the world. It is quite unusual for us to build sporting facilities in this country without really thinking through the transport infrastructure implications as anyone who has tried to get a tube home from Wembley Stadium after an event will testify, but that was one big tick in the box for the London Organising Committee. The Javelin train from St Pancreas will mean fans arriving into London will be transported to the ground in less than ten minutes. Anyone coming from the South East can park up at Ebbsfleet and 15 minutes later will be at the turnstiles.  Two tube lines, one DLR line and another mainline station, all within minutes of the stadium. Parking for thousands of cars close by at the shopping centre. All of the problems that beset major venues have already been thought of AND of course tested at length.  Public transport?  Big tick in the box.

What is wrong with Upton Park?
Anyone who has sat in the East Stand can give you a list as long as your arm on this question.  There are actually seats where under Sam Allardyce’s brand of football you don’t actually see the ball for minutes on end.  Leg room is not existent, the concourses are too narrow and the transport links are appalling.  There is a road on the west side of the stadium where during every single game cars are broken into.  The police do nothing, seeing it as the inevitable consequence of leaving your car there for the pleasure of watching a game.  I know this as I have experienced it myself, twice.  If you want to get the tube home after the game then expect to queue at Upton Park station for 30 minutes plus. For some bizarre reason the traffic in Green Street, outside the ground where tens of thousands of fans spill out onto after a game, is never stopped, adding danger to an already hazardous situation.  Quite simply it cannot sustain the ambitions of the club to move up the pecking order of Premier League clubs.

Commercial and hospitality facilities are OK, but I am sure could be better.  Whilst the atmosphere is good, it is nowhere near as good as when we had the North and South Bank. So those days have long gone so why not move on?

The newest community in London gains a club
West Ham’s move to Stratford will introduce a new generation and community to football.  One of the legacies of the Olympics is the regeneration of a huge area of London, providing affordable housing for families.  And those families will be encouraged to come and watch football in the stadium, undoubtably with inducements of cheap tickets and free bog foam hands.  Hopefully the club will spend time and money reaching out into these new communities, providing funding, facilities, coaching and a cause.  The club has the chance to make a difference.  This is the single biggest fear that Leyton Orient feel the move will give – the fostering of a new generation of fans right on their doorstep.  We all know that footballers today are actually on the whole crap role models, but this could be an opportunity for change.  If the club don’t grab this one chance with both hands they will have failed not only the whole Olympic legacy but themselves.

So all positive so far, right?  We could leave it there but then the nagging doubts would soon take over my mind, so here in my eyes are the counter arguments.

The stadium will still be a White Elephant
The words legacy and sustainability were bandied about for years before the Olympics. This was going to be the major post-Games problem, and the debate as to who would get to call the stadium home started as long ago as 2008.  Few Olympic Stadiums ever fulfil the “legacy” promise as both the 2008 games in Athens and the 2012 in Beijing prove.

674280Despite the Olympic stadium in Athens being the home of two of the three biggest domestic teams in Greek football, it is still an unloved place to visit. The rest of the Olympic Park is empty, bar the outdoor swimming areas, with no reason for any of the general public to visit. Panathinaikos are the second biggest team in Greece, with years of success both domestically and internationally,  backed by one of the most passionate fan bases in Europe. The club felt that they could move to the next level, but that meant getting more fans through the turnstiles.  They believed they had outgrown their Apostolos Nikolaidis stadium in the heart of the city and so agreed to move north to the Olympic Park in 2008. They currently average just 12,000 in a stadium that can seat 69,000 and since the move have won a couple of domestic trophies including the double in 2010. The move has not been good for them, with attendances falling by 70% in the past few seasons at the Olympic Stadium, including crowds that are comparable with our Blue Square Bet Premier division. The other tenants, AEK Athens, champions last in 1994,  also moved in after the Olympics in 2004, today playing their home games in front of around 13,000 in the stadium.  It is fair to say that the move of football to the stadium has been an unqualified failure.

1992 Barcelona was another example.  Rarely half full and the unloved home of Espanyol for a number of seasons before they finally got a new stadium of their own, and consequently their attendances have risen back up to nearly 30,000 whilst the Olympic Stadium is once again empty.  Just because the stadium has the capacity does not mean the fans will be engaged enough to come to games.  And without the fans, matchday revenues fall and if there are no bums on seats, commercial partners will hardly open their cheque books.

The Olympic stadium bill for the taxpayer by the time West Ham move there in 2016 will have topped £800 million.  West Ham will have paid just £15 million of that bill.  No guesses as to who has got the best deal there

Will West Ham really become a bigger club?
Is it fair that a club gains a comparative advantage over another with virtually zero cost? West Ham will have to pay a fraction of the cost of construction to use the stadium, and are already looking at Commercial options in terms of Naming Rights which will probably cover any costs they have to pay anyway. They will also benefit from the sale of Upton Park and then simply pay low rent on the Olympic Stadium meaning they should have immediately more financial muscle than their peers. I am not sure of the actual level of debt the club currently has and whether that includes the loans made by David Sullivan and David Gold when they bought the stadium.

But I would be surprised if they didn’t use some of the proceeds of the sale of Upton Park to get a return on their investment. So with little debt the club will gain a big advantage over their rivals. Arsenal, whilst increasing their commercial and match day revenues massively by moving to the Emirates still have the millstone of debt repayment on their stadium. Chelsea want to move to a new stadium, and despite what their fans may say, if an option to move into say Twickenham came up I dare say that Roman would jump at the chance, especially with the land on which Stamford Bridge sits on being worth so much. With the bigger stadium those commercial and match day revenues will go through the roof – if they do get 50,000 every two weeks in the ground, and even charge an average ticket price of £30, that is £29 million alone in gate receipts over a season where the rent on the ground is just £2 million.

Is the infrastructure good enough for 50,000 football fans?
I was lucky enough to attend events on many days during the Olympics and Paralympics in the Park last year. The organisation was spot on and arriving and departing were as smooth as at any venue I have seen across the world. The reason why? The Games makers. Volunteers who went out of their way to help the uneducated, confused general public. They will not be around come August 2016 when West Ham move into the stadium.  Instead we will have those lovely football stewards. 

8481846135_2f88012102_b (1)We all know the pattern of most football fans – aim to arrive at the ground at 2:55pm. And that may put significant pressure on the transport infrastructure. The mistake that big stadium operators all make in this country (Wembley, Twickenham, The Emirates) is that there is nothing to make the fans get into stadiums early. Food and drink are astronomically priced and so fans eat and drink outside, where it is far more reasonable before heading into the stadium at the last minute.  

Westfield shopping complex has transformed the local area, bringing in shoppers, eaters and drinkers from miles around to spend their cash.  Will they be happy competing with 50,000 football fans?  I fear not.  I think that all too soon the habits of these spenders will change to avoid match days.

Is anything wrong with Upton Park?
West Ham’s record attendance at Upton Park is 42,322 back in 1970. Since then the ground redevelopments have reduced the capacity to 35,016. A few seasons ago Upton Park had a utilisation of 99.1% – this was the time when ticket prices weren’t too bad, where the football was entertaining and attractive and where the debt was hidden under the carpet. Today, the stadium rarely sells out in advance. In the past the big games were always Man Utd, Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal. These games were often sold out before they reached general sale. This season tickets have been available on the gate for virtually all of these. Soaring ticket prices and constant changes for the TV audience (none of these four games were scheduled to kick off at 3pm on a Saturday) mean people are staying away.

8060630536_bc3e75b0da_bThe club does try different ticketing strategies, whether that be Capital One cup games to see us get beaten by lower league opposition for £15, Kids for a Quid and Members discounts. The cup one is interesting as according to Leyton Orient’s statement on West Ham being given the stadium, cheap tickets would be a nail in their coffin. I would disagree. Capital One (or Carling, whatever this season’s flavour is) rarely attract more than 25,000 despite the tickets being cheaper than some non league teams. After the first wave of first time visitors at the Olympic Stadium, I see the same thing happening. Even if they slash ticket prices (which they wont), the prospect of West Ham taking on Wigan Athletic, Fulham or Norwich City in front of 35,000 is a real possibility.  Put simply, the current owners have set the bar far too high already and will be very reluctant to bring ticket prices back down to levels of reality.

Millions has been spent on Upton Park bringing it into the 21st century and whilst it is modest, it is perfectly acceptable for the Hammers, bar one stand. The East Stand could be redeveloped for £15 million, making it a 40,000 seater arena.  Everything is in place for the redevelopment, yet there has always been a reason why it hasn’t happened.

I am the first to admit that transport links to Upton Park are pretty crap.  And I am one of the many drivers who have experienced my car being broken into around the side streets during a game.  But I would still take the crowded tube journey to feel the special atmosphere at Upton Park rather than thousands of empty seats in the Olympic Stadium.

A community loses the club
Upton Park is a vibrant, multi-cultural area of London, sitting in the heart of Newham, one of the poorest London boroughs.  Despite the arrival of the Olympics and all the trappings that Westfield has brought, investment in the area around the ground is still minimal.  West Ham are still one of the biggest private sector employees in the borough.  On a match day many local businesses make as much money in 5 hours than they do in the five preceding days.  Within a ten minute walk of the Boleyn Ground there are over a dozen pubs that are heaving on match days.  Take the club out of the community and the future is bleak for these local businesses.  Whilst the club doesn’t have any duty of care towards them, they will lose good will and parts of the local fanbase by moving to Stratford.

7916739500_efe35fbe5b_bSo there we have it.  I am torn.  I want West Ham to be successful, being a fixture in the top echelons of the Premier League and enjoying more regular trips into Europe that aren’t booze cruises.  But likewise I don’t want the club to lose its heart and soul.  Of course, hurt disappears over time but we will never forget the memories.  To me the first strains of “I’m forever blowing bubbles” in the Olympic Stadium will simply feel wrong.  Come and ask me in ten years time when Di Canio is leading a team out featuring Messi, Rooney and Titus Bramble out against Real Madrid and I may give you a different answer.

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5 thoughts on “Are we taking the Olympic spirit too far?

  1. Pssst… ‘Today, the stadium rarely sells out’…..we’ve sold out for almost every home game in the league this season.

    • For virtually every game this season we have sold tickets on the day of the game including against Chelsea and Spurs….that was unheard of years ago. If we were selling out weeks in advance then that is a different argument.

  2. Talk of damage to Leyton Orient is a red herring, as there are no Leyton Orient fans in Stratford. I lived in Stratford for 4 years and it is a bedrock of West Ham support, with the odd big 4 shirt wearer.

  3. Here in Australia we have an compulsion of building huge stadiums that can only be viable if every team of every sport in that city plays there. The only place it almost works is Melbourne in AFL season at the MCG, mainly because of the tradition attached and that they’re a strange down there. Everywhere else it’s a failure, especially at the Sydney Olympic stadium, which is never full and is located close to nothing. My tip, don’t go anywhere. It’s better to fill a 35k stadium and call it your own than to half fill a 70k one that held an Elton John concert the night before.

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