New stadia and success – can a balance be achieved?

Since the inception of the Premier League Stoke City, Wigan Athletic, Bolton Wanderers, Manchester City, Sunderland and Arsenal have all moved into new stadia. Since moving grounds, often at great expense, all of these sides have failed to win silverware. The benefits, however, are believed to be increased match day revenue and the ability to attract a better class of player. A multitude of clubs share this view with Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, Everton and Liverpool having discussed the prospect of shifting location, primarily to increase seat capacity. Is new stadia the prescription for ambitious PL clubs assessing their long term future or will these grounds suffer from a dearth of history and atmosphere?

Since the takeover of West Ham in January the new co-owners have not disguised their ambition to eventually move to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Cheaper ticket prices, higher gate receipts and rejuvenating local support are all practical, well-intentioned reasons for seeking this change. But the estimated cost of transforming the stadium in order that it is suitable for PL football is over £200 million. Turnstiles, bigger seats and an extended roof will all be required. The retention of the athletics track is understood to be non-negotiable. This important caveat coupled with leaving an atmospheric ground steeped in history has led to a varied reaction amongst supporters, as shown in this fan survey. Transfer funds would be expectedly restricted during the transitional period of redevelopment.

Under 10 miles away, a similarly traditional club is planning to move to a new super stadium. Tottenham want to construct a new ground, holding over 55,000, adjacent to their current home. Part of their inventive design is to incorporate a single tier bank to rival that of the kop at Liverpool and Sheffield Wednesday. The ambitious plans would certainly bring a hostile, vociferous atmosphere to compensate for the selling of the stadium’s naming rights. The possibility of England hosting the 2018 World Cup has alerted a range of clubs to the possibility of redeveloping stadia, such as Sheffield United in the Championship.

Of the aforementioned teams who have moved stadia in recent times, Arsenal are the obvious candidates to have accumulated trophies. Despite challenging on all fronts, the Emirates Stadium is yet to witness the return of silverware. The north London side moved from Highbury to the new ground in Ashburton Grove in May 2006 at a cost of £390 million. However Arsenal did sign a £100 million sponsorship deal with Emirates Airways who secured the ground’s naming rights. Loans were acquired to construct the stadium and the principle debt is serviceable over a 14 year period. The assertion that these debts have constrained Arsenal’s purchasing power in the transfer market is short sighted given recent financial reports showing the clubs is on a strong financial footing, having boosted revenue.

A more pressing problem, concerning their transition to the 60,000 capacity ground, has been the persistent question of atmosphere. The view that the crowd can become a team’s twelfth man can be seen as a trite analysis. But for fans who prefer to call their home, Ashburton Grove or ‘the Grove’ is corporate sponsorship emblematic of this problem? This is debatable but the club have lent some credibility to these claims by inaugurating the process of ‘Arsenalisation’ of the Emirates. This will include the ’12 Greatest Moments’ walls around the lower concourse, each portraying a key moment in their history. The traditional cannon logo is now found as a pattern on some of the seating areas and the club are planning to unveil a ‘Highbury shrine.’ Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis recognised that these changes were fundamental based on fan feedback which conveyed a sense that the spectacular stadium was yet to feel like home.

Arsenal have demonstrated that moving to a modern stadium with increased capacity can be in a club’s long term interests. A variety of clubs share that vision but will be mindful of ensuring relative success to guarantee that new stadia are not left half empty. Moreover Arsenal fans will relay the importance of creating a semblance of history and ambience to a new ground which starts as a blank canvas.

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