Who will build a stadium fit for heroes?

Five cities are vying for the cash to fund a new national sporting arena. Patrick Tooher reports
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THE retractable roof slides back smoothly over Toronto's luxurious, space-age Skydome stadium to reveal a packed house of 80,000 all-seated spectators. They could be watching the Toronto Bluejays, the 1993 World Series baseball champions, in action or Michael Jackson in concert. Either way, there are plenty of shows to choose from. The Skydome stages 260 events a year and attracts 6 million visitors.

Contrast that, or the majestic San Siro stadium in Milan, with Wembley, England's premier stadium, where 2 million people attending 35 events a year have to endure poor toilet facilities, restricted views and lousy food.

But all that may be about to change. Five candidates are expected to be declared when the deadline for applications to build a new national stadium for the 21st century closes on Friday.

The Sports Council, one of the National Lottery's "five good causes", could hand out up to pounds 100m for the project. Applicants will be expected to find at least 35 per cent of the money themselves. The construction industry will gain as the winning design is put out to competitive tender, while the benefits to the local economy should be huge.

But predicting who from Wembley, Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford or Sheffield will be successful when the outcome is announced in late September looks as difficult as div- ining the winning numbers in the National Lottery itself. Much of the uncertainty stems from confusion surrounding the financial status of Wembley, owner and operator of the famous stadium that is exclusively contracted to host England's international football matches and the FA Cup Final until 2002.

Bidding in conjunction with Brent Council, Wembley is understood to be looking for between pounds 50m-pounds 75m in the lottery cash to improve the 78,000- seat stadium.

While a recent pounds 120m rescue plan secured Wembley's immediate future by reducing a mountainous debt burden, a decision to locate the new national stadium outside London would deal the company a hammer blow, as the prospectus accompanying the debt-for-equity swap highlighted. "There is a risk," it warned, "that a second national soccer stadium may be developed outside London, which would, over time, represent a serious competitive threat."

The problem for Wembley is applicants for public money are not allowed to make a profit for private gain, and Wembley, of course, is a quoted company with private shareholders.

Following the recent furore over the Churchill papers, when members of the late Sir Winston Churchill's family gained pounds 12m from the sale of his private and state papers, there would another outcry if National Lottery money again fell into private hands.

One solution being considered is to put the stadium into a trust with the quoted company operating a management contract.

Even Wembley's most ardent opponents agree that the capital city should be home to one big national stadium and that Wembley should be rebuilt. What is less clear is whether a new stadium further north should be built from scratch and what its purpose should be.

For example, will a new national stadium be used mainly for football, or will it also be capable of holding other events? A verdict in favour of a multi-purpose stadium would enrage the many football fans, who hate watching a match across a running track. Also unresolved is whether a new national stadium will be used as the centrepiece for any British Olympic bid.

Then there is the cost to consider. One Wembley source, who thinks pounds 250m is needed to build a new national stadium from scratch, doubts if there are enough big events to fill two 80,000-seat stadiums.

"You would need an Olympics every year. Wembley stadium didn't stage a single pop concert last year because the big acts were not prepared to appear. I doubt those bands would have travelled north to a similar venue, either."

Of the other contenders, Manchester started out as favourite but the city may be disappointed again after failing twice to secure the Olympic Games.

A 121-acre site in Eastlands, a mile and a half from the city centre in Piccadilly, has already been cleared, and a stadium design produced after an international competition among architects for the failed 2000 Olympic bid. But critics argue a showpiece stadium for the Commonwealth Games needs a capacity of only 25,000.

Moreover, Manchester's two football clubs, United and City, are developing their own grounds into all-seat stadiums capable, in Old Trafford's case, of holding up to 55,000. A third Manchester site might be seen as a luxury - or a white elephant.

As for athletics, a track of international standard exists just 30 miles away at Sheffield's Don Valley arena. Sheffield itself is looking for pounds 80m to increase the stadium's capacity from 25,000 to 50,000, but is considered a rank outsider to become the new national stadium.

Odds on Birmingham winning are much shorter. It plans to build a pounds 130m stadium on the southern fringes of the National Exhibition Centre and is keen to boast its central location. But the proposed site's relative proximity to Wembley, and difficulties gaining local authority planning permission, may stand against it.

Perhaps the most intriguing bid comes from Bradford, rapidly emerging as the dark horse in the race. It is submitting imaginative plans for an 80,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof to be built on the existing 70 acres at Odsal, home of the former Bradford Northern Rugby League club. Seats will slide in and out to ensure spectators are close to whatever event they are watching According to bid organiser John Garside, there are only two stadiums in the world with retractable rooves, in Toronto and Tokyo.

Mr Garside reveals that Bradford bid will cost pounds 100m. "But we won't require in excess of pounds 40m from the National Lottery. The rest will come from the private sector, from well-known UK banks and institutions."

But Bradford's bid may be hindered by not having worked closely with the FA Premier League, the body which has pledged pounds 50m to the project.

The Premier League has the financial clout following a pounds 304m television deal struck with Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB pay-TV group, and is strongly represented on the Sports Council panel, which will play a key role in deciding the national stadium's location.

However, nobody seems to know who will own and control the national stadium - the Premier League or the Sports Council - if and when it is built. Like so many other issues in the debate, there seem to be more questions than answers.