Imagine there was a football team with a traditional working class support that gave up the cherished memories of its full of character home ground, which it owned, and moved away to rent a taxpayer funded converted athletics stadium. The first season at the new stadium witnessed an early European exit to an obscure eastern European outfit and then patchy form resulted in them slipping to 16th place in the league. This week that team has just defeated Barcelona and were reported to be top earners from last season’s Champions League with revenues of £76 million (equivalent to about 60% of West Ham’s annual revenue from all sources). The team is, of course, Manchester City.
Despite the obvious parallels there are also important differences. Critics of the London Stadium will point out that the conversion of the City of Manchester stadium was to a dedicated football stadium rather than a multi-purpose arena; and I’m sure there is some justification in that as far as the matchday experience is concerned. In addition, although City pay more in rent than West Ham do, and are responsible for all operating overheads, they are able to benefit more from the associated (and now significant) naming rights and matchday income.
In the first 6 years in their new home City finished 18th, 8th, 15th, 14th, 9th and 10th respectively. Despite what we may believe a shiny, new high capacity stadium doesn’t guarantee success. It wasn’t until the injection of Thai (briefly) and Abu Dhabi money that City’s new successful era began. It is arguable whether that investment would have been forthcoming if they had still played at Maine Road.
I know a few Manchester City fans and all are delighted with their new found status. They are now the second most profitable English league club, after their near neighbours, and with massive financial backing are well placed to continue the upward momentum. I don’t recall too many rumblings related to the move but, if there was a lot of moaning in Royle family style sittings rooms across the City at the time, it is long forgotten now.
Famous victories under the lights against Barca may seem a long way away to the average Hammer’s fan at the moment. The optimism of the new stadium (where it existed) has been overtaken by events and with the negativity fuelled and amplified by the media. With few exceptions the media is rather patronising towards West Ham regarding them as a wayward cousin to the ‘real’ glamour London clubs or Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. A rare moment in the sun is tolerated but other than that the club and its supporters are seen as a caricature that belongs in an Eastender’s plot. The nature and generosity of the deal for the London stadium has made the club a perfect target for journalists and online media sites to exaggerate and repeat half truths. It has not been helped by the actions of some supporters while similar flash-points at other grounds, with Manchester City fans smashing up the toilets at Old Trafford or Liverpool fans throwing flairs on to the pitch at Selhurst Park, barely get a mention. The stories about a return to the hooliganism of the 70’s or 80’s and the stadium being unsuitable for football are clearly risible.
I have mentioned before that in the past West Ham have relied heavily on TV money for revenues; far more so than our closest rivals in financial terms do. Staying at the Boleyn Ground (as it was) did not provide any opportunity for the club to develop or even to maintain the status quo with our peers. Whether it was viable to developing Upton Park into a stadium that could generate more revenue is another question but a moot one now. The point being that West Ham’s future depended on being able to increase Matchday and, more importantly, Commercial income. The alternative was to slip further away from any aspiration to join the leading London clubs and join the also-rans of Palace, QPR and Fulham instead. It is possible that some fans would be quite happy with this situation if it meant that traditions were maintained but, as a business decision, passing up the opportunity of the London stadium move would have been foolish; particularly with Tottenham hovering in the wings.
The gulf in earnings between West Ham and the (financially) big clubs is so huge now that even if the teething problems with the new stadium are fully resolved it can only take us a few rungs up the ladder. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where we are able to grow organically into becoming a regular Champion’s League participant. Major outside investment is the only route to such a promised land and that is something that would change the club out of all recognition.
The London Stadium and its location is ideal to attract the attention of investors (likely to be overseas) but the unanswered question is what type of club do we want?