Manchester United have become the latest club to seriously consider the idea of expanding their stadium. Adding about 12,000 new seats to the Sir Bobby Charlton stand would bring the overall capacity of Old Trafford to around 88,000, making it one of the biggest club football stadiums in the world.
Recently, Liverpool have developed one of the stands at their existing ground, as have Manchester City, while Chelsea plan to upgrade Stamford Bridge, and Tottenham are building an entirely new ground on the same site as White Hart Lane.
Everton are another club looking to upgrade, seeking out the possibility of moving to entirely new ground on another site. Their current home at Goodison Park is a much more modest stadium.
For anyone who played Football Manager, or its previous incarnations, while growing up, expanding your stadium is a rite of passage and almost a no-brainer if you have the money. So this may sound strange: but the question is why are these clubs seeking to expand and upgrade?
There is an obvious attraction to shiny new things. That’s one reason. As is the increased revenue from ticket sales and extra ‘customers’ for bars, food stands, and programme vendors. And then there’s the fact that everyone else is doing it: and if they have better grounds, other clubs don’t want to be left behind. Onwards and upwards.
No one wants to stand in the way of progress. But for some, it’s easier than it is for others. In the case of United and Liverpool, they don’t need to buy new land, and the increased revenue probably means that expansion pretty much pays for itself. In Tottenham’s case, the new stadium will be used by the NFL, opening doors to sponsorships and partnerships otherwise closed to the north London club.
But in the case of Everton, the waters are slightly murkier. Having to buy new land and build an entirely new stadium is an expensive business: there is no guarantee that ticket sales would boost revenue to the extent that it would pay for the development. Not any time soon, anyway. And ticket prices would likely have to be raised, meaning attending would be a less attractive proposition for many.
A Premier League club shouldn’t have too much of a problem filling their ground, though. Like Manchester City and Arsenal, who are often derided for empty seats at their ground, Everton would surely be able to rely on corporate hospitality, season ticket holders, tourists, and other non-traditional football supporting groups to boost their gate numbers. City and Arsenal are able to claim capacity crowds for almost all their Premier League games because they count tickets sold, rather than tickets scanned at turnstyles.
In the end, if your goal is revenue, why would you care about bums on seats? Only bills on credit card statements.
There are other reasons why Everton want to move, but they are also nonspecific and yield no guarantees. An upgrade might make the club more attractive to future investors, for example, or it might look better on TV and attract more fans in the Premier League’s emerging markets in Asia and the USA. But it would be a risk to spend money they don’t have reaching for intangible opportunities.
The benefits of having a large, top notch stadium used to be fairly clear. Now they are anything but.
Arsenal bought their current site, Ashburton Grove, in 2000, after three years of searching. They moved into their new home in 2006, and since then their trophy haul remains two FA Cups. No one expects a stadium to win trophies, of course, but there is a link: stadium debt repayments are widely attributed to Arsenal’s inability to spend money on players at a time when football’s boom market started to take off, leaving them languishing behind. They are also maligned for their seeming worship of fourth place, but again, the financial constraints at the time meant the Champions League and its money were vital to Arsenal’s future.
All that because Manchester United’s success in the 1990s and early 2000s meant that they could garner the sort of worldwide appeal that football clubs were never able to before globalisation started to motor. They hit lucky at exactly the right time, because they had a large and iconic stadium which had been redeveloped in the 1990s, and were able to increase their commercial operations in parts of the world football was never before able to reach. Arsenal had to build a new stadium to keep up, though, because United were making by far the most money on matchdays, revenue which was being topped up by the global appeal of their brand.
And yet, the Gunners – in hindsight, of course – didn’t necessarily need to do any of that. They now make the most money out of any Premier League club in the form of matchday revenue, but the boom in commercial opportunities for English football teams around the world, coupled with an ever-growing TV rights windfall means that matchday revenue is now less important to clubs than it has ever been. Manchester United’s handy pie chart below may not reflect Arsenal’s makeup, nor would it reflect Everton’s, but it is a good example of how Premier League clubs are set up in a business sense.
But once again, Everton don’t find themselves in as cushy a position as Arsenal did two decades ago when they started looking for a new home. As David Conn points out in The Guardian, the Gunners did have to borrow to build The Emirates, but they were also able to make money developing luxury flats in Highbury and the area around it – they were lucky, because Islington is, with the best will in the world, a much trendier area than Kirkdale and Stanley Park.
But look how much money Everton make on matchdays: a paltry £18m compared to Arsenal’s £100m and all of the other clubs they want to chase in the league table. They make less per game than West Ham did even before their stadium move. The same as Southampton.
When Manchester City and West Ham United moved grounds, they did so to ready-built stadiums which – arguably – would today be white elephants were it not for their tenancy. To a club in Everton’s position, an extra £20-£40m per season would be offset fairly quickly by stadium repayments at a time when they, as a club, have never been richer. Nor would it bring any guarantees of success – in fact, it may be more likely to bring the opposite, as we’ve seen with many clubs moving into new stadiums.
What Everton do have, though, is a more money than they’ve ever had before from the TV deal. Their need for matchday revenue has decreased, and even if it were to increase, it would still pale into near-insignificance when placed beside the money they make from TV.
They have one of the best atmospheres in the league at Goodison Park, and even if the ground is dated (they may even want to move for the sole reason of fleeing the support poles that plague most of the stands) a move to a new ground would bring no guarantees with atmosphere, either. If they’re worried about the visuals of their old ground to a worldwide audience who prefer the ‘premium’ look of Old Trafford, The Emirates and The Etihad, they might want to worry about the sound and intensity, too – one of the things that makes English football so attractive to a foreign audience.
Any model which relies too heavily on broadcast rights is a fragile one, though. And in that sense, you can see why any club would want to increase their commercial and matchday slices of the pie. TV money relies on football’s popularity, but while Sky Sports is reporting a decrease in viewing numbers of almost one fifth in the first few weeks of the season, perhaps it is wise to plan for an eventuality that sees the future deals fall short of the £8bn it reached this time around. There may be no concrete sign of a decline in football’s popularity, but it is certainly prudent to plan for the worst.
A stadium is a visual of how a club presents itself. Other than the capacity’s ability to bring in revenue, a ground shouldn’t matter. To many clubs in the position to simply upgrade their ground, if they can do it and make more money the upgrade makes sense. But just spending on a ground makes no sense unless it is worth taking the short term hit in revenue for long term gains.
Everton may feel they need to increase their matchday revenue in order to compete – but fewer and fewer people want to watch football in stadiums these days anyway. The Premier League is only special because the grounds are intense and the football is too. We’re losing that at an alarming rate as real fans become priced out and tourists take in the event in silence. Very soon, Everton’s old ground might be the one thing that makes them more attractive than most clubs.