Watching a Premier League match these days is a constant and at times disturbing reminder of the rampant commercialisation of English football.
As the pioneers of this great sport, there is an unmatched sense of tradition and soul that makes English teams and their dedicated stadia that much more special to follow and admire. Unfortunately, the increasing financial needs of English teams in the modern footballing environment are threatening these grounds.
As the latest in a trend of teams to consider changing their home in one way or the other, West Ham United is famously pushing through a move to the Olympic Stadium. In what has been quite a long saga dating back to ownership under Eggert Magnusson, West Ham's bids have morphed along the way, from outright purchase to 99-year tenants, unless last minute challengers Leyton Orient can succeed in sharing the rental through a successful judicial review.
The benefit to a move to the Olympic Stadium is simple and mostly financial at its root. The amenities, facilities, and surrounding areas of the stadium will supposedly gather a larger following for any occupants it houses. Furthermore, the larger physical size of the stadium will allow for greater advertising and marketing capacities. In short, the overarching driver behind any move to the Olympic Stadium is that it will guarantee more yearly income.
While these supposedly guaranteed benefits have the potential to be true, those connected to West Ham should review the quantitative and qualitative considerations before wholeheartedly embracing the move.
First, the financial potential can actually be challenged. West Ham United was reported to have averaged 31,079 in attendance last year in the Championship. While that is definitely respectable and evidence of its famously loyal fanbase, it is still nearly 4,000, or a little more than 11% less than the stadium's 35,016 maximum capacity. Demand has to meet supply for any moves to a larger ground can fundamentally make sense.
Of course, there is the Premier League factor whereby the attendance last year could have been unusually lowe due to the team being in the much less glamorous Championship. Excluding last year, and including this year's attendance so far (assuming it as a full year's attendance for the sake of simplicity), Upton Park's average attendance has been around 34,123 over the past 5 Premier League years.
Again, very respectable indeed, but still around 1,000 below its maximum capacity. Given this, Gold and Sullivan had better be absolutely certain that West Ham will be able to immediately draw significantly larger crowds in a 60,000 seater Olympic Stadium. At the very least, the added attendence would have to be substantial enough to justify an added yearly rental expense of some 2.5 million GBP, as well as massive expenses for mandatory installation of retractable seats and a full roof.
It begs the question - if Upton Park was not able to fill 35,016 seats consistently over the past 5 years, will a very expensive move to the Olympic Stadium guarantee enough of an immediate and large enough attendance hike to justify the great costs?
Furthermore, while increased advertising and marketing can be cited as reasons to offset the rental expenses, the attendance question still plays a part. As other clubs in Europe, and more recently the World Cup in South Africa has shown in its Stadia, sponsors are ultimately attracted through the popularity and attendance of a club, rather than simply more blank boards being available. Again, supply and demand is the key.
At its current state, sponsors compete with one another to secure their advertising space in a stadium like Upton Park. As a result, each advertising board in Upton Park will bring in more through this competition.
In the hypothetical scenario that West Ham United in the Olympic Stadium averages about 45,000 in attendance out of 60,000 (subjectively speaking, a generous estimated hike of 10,000), will sponsors still compete for that space and drive up the revenue per board? Again, the assumption that sponsorship revenue will definitely increase requires second thought given the massive financial ramifications of the move.
Then, there is the qualitative argument that was alluded to earlier. Upton Park is truly a historical ground. It is the home of The Academy of Football - World Cup Champions and England legends were born and forged on these grounds. The incomparable Tony Carr produced most of England's last 3 World Cup squads on these grounds. The great Bobby Moore played on its pitch, as did Sir Trevor Brooking, Dicks, Moncur, Di Canio, even Tevez for that matter.
Given that West Ham's proposed move to the Olympic Stadium would further require the maintenance of the racing tracks, supporters would be removed significantly from the pitch, which would inevitably affect the atmosphere as it has done with so many Italian and French teams.
English football moves with the financial demands of the modern era. While that is inevitable fact that has to be accepted, the move to the Olympic Stadium requires careful considerations by supporters and owners alike. These are times when old, well-known English clubs have sacrificed the history of their original grounds in some way to maintain revenue hikes year over year. These are times when Arsenal has abandoned Highbury; a ground that its greatest ever player blessed with a last kiss, and where the Invicibles created world history. These are times when Mancunians play in an Etihad stadium. And these are times where Newcastle's amazing St. James Park bizzarely spent a few years as an internet domain. Amongst these regrettable cases, Upton Park, regardless of its condition or state of its surroundings, remains a sanctuary of the history and philosphy that embodies West Ham United.
A move to the Olympic Stadium, while possibly having financial potential, implies an irrevocable move for all intents and purposes. Is the opportunity indeed so assured and beneficial in all aspects, to the degree where its worth losing the history of the East Stand forever? The raucous noise of the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand? The bubbles floating immediately onto the pitch from supporter's seats a yard from the pitch?
As the proposed move inches to its closing stages, the Hammers need to review what is truly best for one of the most important and beloved institutions of English football.
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