x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

English Premier League cashing in on pain of the past

Business of sport: Forced changes to stadiums cost some clubs dearly in the 1990s. But the new and improved grounds have helped to turn the EPL into a profitmaking juggernaut.

Back in the English Premier League after eight years, Crystal Palace wants to revamp its home ground Selhurst Park, which will have one of the league's smallest capacities this season at 26,309, into a 40,000-seat ground. Dan Istitene / Getty Images
Back in the English Premier League after eight years, Crystal Palace wants to revamp its home ground Selhurst Park, which will have one of the league's smallest capacities this season at 26,309, into a 40,000-seat ground. Dan Istitene / Getty Images

Millions of football fans across the Middle East will settle down in front of their televisions this weekend for the resumption of one of the most-followed sports competitions anywhere - the English Premier League championship.

But, without the introduction of all-seat stadiums, the English Premier League (EPL) could arguably have never been created, certainly not in its current form as the world's richest, most popular domestic league.

After decades of unrest on the terraces, the publication of the Taylor Report in 1990 led to the building and upgrading of stadiums into newer, safer all-seat grounds.

The EPL estimates that cost £2 billion (Dh11.39bn) at today's prices and two decades ago, clubs often struggled to find the cash to both compete on the field and upgrade grounds.

That has all changed. This season, the bottom-placed EPL club gets £60 million as part of a bumper television deal with the broadcaster Sky.

With "parachute" payments, even a club relegated this season would get £120m. Player wages eat into that money but with attendances buoyant, clubs are spending money on grounds again.

Back in the EPL after eight years, Crystal Palace wants to revamp its home ground Selhurst Park, which will have one of the league's smallest capacities this season, into a 40,000-seat ground. Last season's second-tier Championship winners Cardiff City's £48m ground only opened in 2009 and can be expanded to accommodate 60,000.

That is unlikely for now, but the club's owner, Malaysian businessman, Vincent Tan, is spending £12m to add 8,000 seats and create a 35,000-seat ground. More established clubs are also expanding with Manchester City, owned by Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, increasing Etihad Stadium's capacity to either 54,000 or 60,000.

"Games are selling out frequently prior to going on open sale and there is rising demand from supporters for more season tickets, match-day tickets and premium seating," said the club spokesman, Pete Bradshaw.

The introduction of regulations on financial fair play will limit permitted losses at clubs but any debts ran up on capital spending, such as stadium work, are exempt. In addition to expanding its grounds, Manchester City will spend £100m on an academy.

Chelsea's Stamford Bridge ground has only 5,000 corporate seats and a total capacity nearly 19,000 less than Arsenal's Emirates stadium and almost 34,000 less than Old Trafford.

Chelsea earns about £26m less on match days than Arsenal and £41m less than Manchester United per season. Redeveloping Stamford Bridge is estimated to cost a prohibitive £600m, and the club would rather relocate to a new 60,000 arena but is struggling to find a suitable site in west London.

Across in east London, West Ham United are moving out of their Upton Park home at the start of the 2016-2017 season into the stadium used for last year's Olympic Games in Stratford after a lengthy and torturous bidding process that ultimately produced a 99-year lease.

Before the Hammers, as the team is known, move in, about £150m will be spent turning the stadium into a 54,000-capacity ground with a new roof added and retractable seating. The club will pay about 10 per cent of the redevelopment figure.

"It was important to me that we struck a deal that would stand the test of time that represented the right deal for West Ham United and our loyal and patient supporters," says the club vice chairman Karren Brady.

Of the four clubs with the smallest attendances in the EPLlast season, three were relegated.

Queen's Park Rangers' average attendance was the lowest at 17,779 followed by the FA Cup winners Wigan at 19,212. Swansea City had the third-smallest attendance at 20,370, behind Reading at 23,862.

The Welsh club Swansea will probably be the second-worst supported EPL team this year because Liberty Stadium only holds 20,532. After winning the 2013 League Cup, Swansea will play in the Europa League this season and plans to spend an estimated £16.7m adding between 11,000 and 12,000 seats to its ground.

The EPL has garnered a reputation as the world's biggest and most commercially successful league with grounds 95 per cent full last season and 90 per cent full over the past 16 seasons. But not all teams garner similar figures.

Wigan Athletic's stadium was only 76 per cent full on average last season. The Lancashire club will compete in the Championship this season, but other clubs will also have spare seats. With 49,000 seats, Sunderland's Stadium of Light has the fourth-biggest capacity in the EPL but was 83 per cent full last season.

Aston Villa's average crowd is 19 per cent smaller than Villa Park's capacity of 43,300.

To reinvigorate crowds, Villa wants to bring back standing to part of the ground. This would not involve old-style terraces but rail seating, which is used successfully in Germany. Rail seats allow for an average of 1.8 seats in the space used for a traditional seat, but at present cannot be used in England. A campaign by the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) has been lobbying for change but that is not supported by the EPL.

"Our view is that the supporter experience has improved significantly since the introduction of all-seater grounds with more women, children and fans from different ethnic communities attending top-flight football in this country," says the EPL spokesman Nick Noble.

Fifa and Uefa also insist on all-seater grounds, but rail seating could be used in new stadiums.

"Retrofitting rail seating into modern standing may not be possible for engineering reasons by putting more steel and people on top of an existing rail frame," says Steve Frosdick of the consultants IWI Associates, which advises on stadium work. "There is also the problem of entry and exits and whether they can cope with the extra capacity. "Where rail seating could work is new build or filling in space at somewhere like Stoke City, which has four open corners," he adds.

"This is all part of a business case. Rail seating is safe and it's not a matter for government but for clubs to consult with fans and other stakeholders then take this case to safety officers."

The FSF campaign has widespread support outside the top flight, and Hull City, newly promoted to the EPL, has joined Villa in talking to fans about the initiative. If the campaign succeeds, the EPL could go full circle with standing returning to some grounds looking to provide a different experience for fans.

 

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