Designing football stadiums has become big business for architechts, reports Matthew Foreman

When Derby and Bolton fans arrive at their new stadium for the first Premiership match of the season, they’ll find bars to tempt them away from the local, catering to put the hot-dog stand out of business and that symbol of 90s football, the revamped club shop. And as soon as the ground is empty the club can start preparing for the next business conference.

Every element of the new grounds’ design is geared towards squeezing every penny out of the punters (and that includes far more people than the football fans). So who are the architects of these giant cash registers, where do their ideas come from, and how do the sums add up?

Let’s start with the sums because they add up just fine. Surveyors Davis Langdon Everest are the experts in building costs. Their annual price books are industry bibles, and they use this knowledge to construct in-depth cost models for various building types. The “Football Stadium” cost model makes eye-opening reading. DLE put the total cost of a relatively modest 20,000 capacity ground, including purchase of the site and £2.4m fees, at £29.6m. £20m of that can be offset by grants from the Football Trust, sale of the old site and sponsorship deals.

To put it simply, for the price of one Marc Overmars a club can have a brand spanking new ground and have space for all those income generating extras. And that’s where the big investors really begin to firm up. Assuming a full house each week, bar food and drink alone  will bring in £8m over ten years and conferences another £6.8m. Even with a very modest (ie non-Premiership) estimate of £5m in TV rights over ten years the ground can expect operating profits of nearly £20m in years one to ten, or a 10.35% return on investment. The sort of figures that give the City a hard-on.

Investors from outside the City can also find attractions. Kirklees Council, part-owners of Huddersfield’s McAlpine stadium, estimated that two concerts by REM at the ground pumped £3m of vote-winning cash into local businesses. Given these figures its not surprising that experts are estimating that the football ground boom could be worth £1bn over the next five years.

Your club’s directors are convinced. Gate money alone is not enough any more, million pound a year catering franchises and golf driving ranges (one is being built at Huddersfield) are calling. Loudly. So who is going to design it? Architects’ attention to football ground design was, not surprisingly, focused by the Taylor Report. At a recent ground breaking conference on the future of ground design, the President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Sir Owen Luder, put it simply: “I believe there are too many Football League clubs. A system has been created which ensures that clubs that should have gone out of existence remain in business... a shopkeeper with too few customers closes and finds something else to do.” Architects didn’t want piddly little jobs renovating Feethams and the like. They wanted multi-purpose, big capacity, fat free projects, and America provided some inspiration. Gridiron and baseball grounds had added shopping malls, executive boxes and even hotels, a fact that hasn’t escaped Ken Bates’ notice. Other ideas came from cash-rich sports like rugby union and horse racing where corporate entertainment was long established.

Manchester based architects Atherdon Fuller were ideally placed to earn big bucks when clubs began to implement the Taylor Report. As designers of Old Trafford’s North Stand in 1963 they were called back to work on its redevelopment, and on the all-seater Stretford End, last year. This has led to jobs at Anfield and a hand in the out of town plans for Blackpool and Southampton. They are also tipped to work on the Wembley refit and the proposed National Stadium in Manchester. They freely admit that word of mouth has got them so much work, but take success in their stride. “There’s nothing special about stadium design,” says partner Bill Gilson. Note the word “stadium”, not “football ground”. Architects see these projects as work in the broad category of ‘sports design’, not as something unique with its own history and traditions.

The Howard Lobb Partnership is the other big name in football ground design. They cut their teeth at Doncaster racecourse and the South Stand at Twickenham. Work on Arsenal’s North Bank (sorry, North Stand) and Huddersfield’s McAlpine Stadium brought in four more jobs in England last season plus work on Kuala Lumpur’s new racecourse and the 2002 World Cup Final venue in Korea. Again the sport is irrelevant, these people design “stadia”. And success on British football grounds is a stepping stone to even larger and better paid international projects.

So there you have it. The big bucks and the big designers. Bolton fans will never have to stare at a supermarket at half time and we will never again hear of 20 fans a week being treated for minor injuries after a good afternoon on the Kop – who could argue with that? Well I’m going to try.

If there’s one thing we can all agree on it’s that these new grounds have lost that mysterious force, atmosphere. Seating, of course, has made a difference but it was the architectural idiosyncrasies of grounds as much as anything else that generated a unique atmosphere at each ground. The Fulwell End, the Kop, Craven Cottage, the Kippax all going or gone. Even the famed Marble Halls of Highbury’s East Stand are in danger. If churches, opera houses or country mansions were being pulled down or redeveloped at such a rate there would be a national outcry.

Only Huddersfield’s ground stands above the stream of identikit stadia. Can anyone really tell the difference between the Cellnet Riverside, the Reebok Stadium or the Britannia Ground? No more “favourite ground” features in fanzines or spot the ground questions on Question of Sport. The temptation to watch away matches on pay per view gets strong-er... or is that the idea?

With club directors staring at huge profits and big architectural names offering quick-fix, low-cost answers it’s not surprising that fans’ views have been marginalized. The questionnaire recently sent out to Everton fans brought the picture into sharp focus. Either accept a move and get £20m for players or stay at Goodison (and in the heart of Liverpool next to all the shops and pubs that rely on match-day trade to survive) and settle for aiming for mid-table. Southampton had the same choice, but delays in building the new ground, and therefore receiving the money it would generate, had repercussions. It seems to have been the reason for Souness’ and McMenemy’s departures and, by implication, probably Berkovic’s as well. At the other end of the scale spare a thought for Clydebank. They sold their ground to finance a new ground but were refused planning permission and now play at Dumbarton.

The building of new grounds has become as much of a dividing line between football’s haves and have nots as television money. A new ground means the money to compete, an old ground means a club not looking much beyond survival. Millwall’s experiences have put no-one off. But in the rush to demolish, remember two things. One, your club sees a new ground as a way of making money. There’s no guarantee that the money made will be reinvested in the team. And secondly, what you will get is a ‘sports stadium’ no different to any other arena. A whole class of buildings loved and used by millions will be gone forever. A recent review of Huddersfield’s ground in an architectural trade mag applauded its references to oil rig design. Very apt. A low-cost structure designed to suck a valuable commodity dry before it’s quickly dismantled while its clones are positioned over the next rich vein.

From WSC 127 September 1997. What was happening this month

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