By February 2011, West Ham had been selected as the “preferred bidder” for the arena by the London Legacy Development Board. Lengthy and messy legal proceedings ensued as both Leyton Orient and Spurs contested the decision. The O’s believed the move contradicted FA rules and the arrival of a Premier League club in their immediate area would threaten their very existence, while Tottenham sought answers over the bidding process due to fears that political influence had swayed the decision.
It wasn’t until December 2012 that the Hammers were ultimately confirmed as the new anchor tenants of the stadium, which has now officially been renamed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Such was the controversy that the whole saga generated that the UK Athletics Chairman Ed Warner labelled the entire process as the “Stratford Farce”.
The deciding committee ultimately selected West Ham as their plans critically included a preservation of the Olympic legacy. The plans to host future athletic events and retain the running track proved decisive. Tottenham’s plans did not include a future for the track or even the existing stadium itself as the club intended to built a football-specific ground from scratch upon the current site.
The Hammers are believed to have struck a deal which will see them pay £15million for construction costs to amend the stadium and £2.5m annually in rent on a 99 year lease. The proposed modifications include the addition of a cantilever roof and a reduction in the capacity, from 80,000 to 54,000.
Whilst controversy still lingers over the bidding process and the actual financial details behind the deal, as it stands West Ham are currently scheduled to move into their new home for the start of the 2016/17 season.
Out of the football-based options available to the deciding committee and based upon their specific criteria for selection, West Ham were the best choice.
But this doesn’t mean that the Hammers are the right team for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
For a start, the move will see the capacity for home fixtures increase exponentially from 35,000 to 54,000. West Ham are undoubtedly a well supported club but, will the attendances in their new home be able to match this dramatic increase? Once they make the move the Hammers will play in one of the largest stadiums in the country, only surpassed by Old Trafford and Wembley. It is highly doubtful the East Londoners possess the fanbase to justify such a substantial expansion on Upton Park.
In an article in The Guardian, former West Ham goalkeeper David James raised this very same concern. While the current financial package means that the Hammers are currently getting a very good deal, James argues that “those figures only stack up as value for money if the club can attract enough supporters to fill a 54,000-seat stadium.”
The argument of whether West Ham are getting value for money and the outrage from the taxpayers allegedly footing the bill raises the financial concerns over whether the club can actually make the move. Vice-Chairman Karren Brady had announced that prior to the sale of Upton Park to the Galliard Group, the club would need to clear their £70million debts before they made the move.
Although the recent agreement with the Galliard Group seems to have provided the necessary capital, West Ham are likely forecasting their budgets to include the riches that playing in the Premier League provide. For a “yo-yo” club that has spent multiple seasons in the past decade plying their trade in the second tier of English football, this is a more than risky strategy.
In this season alone, the club’s Premier League status along with manager Sam Allardyce’s future looked in serious jeopardy. A recent revival in form over the last few months has likely secured the club’s place at English football’s top table for another year at least.
This shouldn’t detract from the view that the Hammers will undoubtedly tussle with the very real prospect of relegation again at some point before they make the move. Doubts have been raised over whether the club can afford their new home as a Premier League club so what would happen to the deal if the club were to be relegated before the start of the 2016 campaign? There is no way that a Championship club would be able to sufficiently fill a 54,000 seat stadium to justify the move on a financial basis.
In the light of their footballing options, the committee behind the decision to award West Ham with the rights to move in to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park made the correct decision in line with their desire to preserve the legacy of 2012. However, the Hammers themselves are taking a financial risk that seems difficult to justify based upon their current status and position in the game.