Wembley takes pounds 7.9m leap into the black

MICHAEL FLATLEY'S musical Lord of the Dance helped lift Wembley plc into the black again in the first half of the year as the leisure group prepared to sell the national stadium for pounds 103m.

Wembley boosted profits from its Arena after a poor 1997 by extending the number of "event days" from 58 to 75 from January to July. No less than 21 of these featured Flatley's high-kicking Irish dance musical.

Lord of the Dance helped boost profits at the Arena and the Stadium by 17.6 per cent to pounds 7.9m, while profits in some other parts of the business stood still. The impact of hospitality packages on World Cup ticket sales saw earnings at Keith Prowse, its ticket agency division, fall from pounds 0.8m to pounds 0.3m.

Wembley is in the midst of a giant restructuring package which includes the sale of Wembley Stadium to the English National Stadium Trust, a body set up especially to redevelop the Stadium.

Wembley is concentrating more on its greyhound tracks and gaming business. A video-based lottery gaming machine has proved popular at its track venues in Rhode Island, in the United States, where profits rose 10.7 per cent.

Claes Hultman, chairman of Wembley, said: "The pro-posed sale of Wembley provides a tremendous opportunity to develop and refocus the Wembley group. The conclusion of the sale will finally allow us to exploit fully the remaining untapped potential within the business."

Wembley has gone ahead with big changes in management after a difficult year in 1997. Alan Coppin, group chief executive, will leave the group by the end of September, to be replaced by Nigel Potter, group finance director and the deputy chief executive since May.

Wembley slipped into loss in 1997, largely because of the impact of a pounds 15.5m award made against a United States subsidiary. The group is still locked in negotiations to try to reduce the loss.

Despite the rise in profits against last year, earnings per share in the first half actually decreased by 10 per cent. Tax payments, heavily offset in 1997 by bringing forward earlier losses in the US, rose sharply. The shares rose 6.5p to 325p.

The group said the World Cup had hit the UK hospitality industry hard. Together with the recession in Asia, it severely reduced the sale of hospitality packages at Lord's, St Andrews and Wimbledon, where Keith Prowse does a large part of its business. Corporations were able to travel to France easily rather than taking their guests to annual events in the UK.