There is a paradox at the heart of the debate over ticket pricing in English football. Few spectators would disagree that tickets are too expensive, and their price growth is staggering: had the cheapest tickets increased in line with inflation since 1990, the year the boom began with the Taylor Report and Gazzamania, they should cost around £7-£10, not £15-£38 (with the most expensive £126). Even taking into account the fact that grounds are seated and facilities improved beyond recognition that is a huge rise. And yet the crowds keep coming. The average Premier League gate this season is 35,931 with a 95 per cent seat occupancy rate. Indeed, Manchester City this week became the latest club to announce plans to increase capacity in response to demand. They are aiming to add an extra tier at each end of the Etihad to raise capacity from 48,000 to 61,000.
They are not alone. Liverpool this week moved closer to the compulsory purchase of houses required to make way for their long-planned redevelopment of Anfield. Since promotion Cardiff City have squeezed 900 extra seats into a ground which is only four years old and have now received planning permission to add an extra 5,000 with a second tier on the Ninian Stand. Like neighbours Swansea, who are expanding their Liberty Stadium to 33,000, Cardiff have set a new ground record this season.
Fulham have architects at work designing their Riverside Stand redevelopment, Norwich are weighing the long-term benefits of expansion against the short-term costs, inconvenience and loss of earnings, and West Ham – further legal challenges permitting – are heading for the Olympic Stadium, which at 54,000 will have a larger capacity than any previous Hammers ground.
Across north London Tottenham, selling 36,000 seats every match day and with 42,000 on the season-ticket waiting list, are already having second thoughts about the redevelopment of White Hart Lane. At 56,000 the fear is it will not be big enough. They know that Arsenal’s 60,000 Emirates has been too small ever since it opened.
The urge to build and rebuild is not just in the Premier League. New grounds open regularly, with Rotherham’s New York Stadium and Barnet’s Hive the latest. Southend finally appear on course to build a new ground, as are Brentford, while both Bristol clubs are planning to build new stadiums (separately, such is an English fan’s parochialism). Plymouth are redeveloping Home Park, Peterborough fixing up London Road, Bournemouth have just opened a new stand, Watford have permission to build one. Scunthorpe, whose Glanford Park ground was the first new stadium in the English game for 33 years when it was opened in 1988, are looking to move again.
Meanwhile, in a dispute which has echoes of the one that has led to Coventry City playing in Northampton, Hull’s owner, Assem Allam, is threatening to build his own stadium in an attempt to force the council to sell him the KC, which is only 11 years old. Stadiums can be expensive to build and maintain, but not owning your ground limits revenue streams. In Italy, where stadiums are traditionally council-owned, Juventus have built their own and are reaping the benefits, with stadium earnings tripling.
However, not everyone has the builders in. Stoke City, Aston Villa and West Bromwich have all put planned developments on hold, as have, in recent years, Sunderland and Newcastle. In explaining the delay at the March AGM, Albion’s chief executive, Mark Jenkins, said: “We are very mindful of the current economic climate. Locally, unemployment continues to rise.”
Stoke’s concern may be rooted in history. New stadiums often propel clubs forward – look at Brighton – but Stoke have twice been relegated in the wake of development: in 1977, when the cost of repairing the Victoria Ground after a stand roof blew off forced transfers, and 1997, when the Britannia’s construction was partly financed by sales.
They may also look a few miles down the road to Molineux, which Wolves began redeveloping in summer 2012 only for the rebuilding of the Stan Cullis Stand to take place against a backdrop of relegation. Phase Two, rebuilding the Steve Bull Stand, was postponed, wisely as it turned out as another relegation means they are now, like Sheffield United, playing League One football in a 30,000-capacity ground. They are still playing to two-thirds capacity, unlike Coventry, who were attracting fewer than 11,000 to the 32,600-capacity Ricoh last season. The new grounds at Derby and Leicester are a similar size, and both are one-third empty most Saturdays. Preston’s ambitious rebuild, completed when the club was knocking on the door of the Premier League, was last season 60 per cent empty. Then there are MK Dons, who are expanding capacity from 22,200 to 30,700 despite averaging 8,612 last season and never exceeding 18,000. Still, they have a trio of Rugby World Cup 2015 fixtures.
There has always been an element of risk in stadium development – look at the mess Chelsea got into in the 1970s – but clubs cannot stand still. That they have such faith in the game’s future is encouraging, even if one or two clubs may find they have built a millstone, not a launch pad.
The hope is also that one day all those extra seats will mean cheaper tickets.
Premier grounds: For improvement
Club Stadium Built Capacity Record (year set) Future plans
Arsenal Emirates Stadium 2006 60,361 60,162 (2007) None
Cardiff City Cardiff City Stadium 2009 27,815 27,815 (2013) Expanding to 33,000 in 2014
Hull City KC Stadium 2002 25,404 25,512 (2007) *None (council-owned)
Man City Etihad Stadium 2003 48,000 47,386 (2012) Applying to expand to 61,000
Southampton St Mary’s Stadium 2001 32,689 32,151 (2003) Can grow to 50,000. No date
Stoke City Britannia Stadium 1997 27,740 28,218 (2002) Permission to expand to 30,000
Sunderland Stadium of Light 1997 49,000 48,353 (2002) Plans to expand on hold
Swansea City Liberty Stadium 2005 22,500 20,752 (2013) Expansion to 33,000 planned
Older stadiums rebuilt
Aston Villa Villa Park N/A 42,788 76,588 (1946) Permission to expand to 50,000
Chelsea Stamford Bridge 1999 41,837 82,905 (1935) Seeking location for new ground
Crystal Palace Selhurst Park 1995 26,309 51,801 (1979) Need to rebuild. No plans yet
Everton Goodison Park 1994 40,221 78,299 (1948) Seeking location for new ground
Fulham Craven Cottage 2004 25,700 49,335 (1938) Expanding to 30,000
Liverpool Anfield 1998 45,525 61,905 (1952) Hope to rebuild Anfield to 60,000
Man United Old Trafford 2006 75,811 76,692 (1939) Pondered expansion to 95,000
Newcastle St James’ Park 2000 52,387 68,386 (1930) Expansion to 60,000 on hold
Norwich City Carrow Road 2003 27,010 43,984 (1963) Eyeing expansion to 35,000
Tottenham White Hart Lane 1998 36,230 75,038 (1938) Permission for 56,000 rebuild
West Bromwich The Hawthorns 2001 26,272 64,815 (1937) Expansion to 30,000 on hold
West Ham Boleyn Ground 2001 35,016 42,322 (1970) Move to Olympic Stadium Aug 2016