West Ham United have been confirmed as tenants of London's Olympic Stadium, which will be dramatically refurbished. They will move into their new home at the start of the 2016-17 season after an estimated £160m has been spent on reducing its capacity from 80,000 to 54,000, installing a new cantilevered roof to cover all the seats, and installing retractable seating over the running track.
The move is likely to mean that in three years time, West Ham will be playing in the Premier League's third largest stadium, and with the potential for large attendances in a world famous arena, as well as the club's considerable footballing heritage, it may be an attractive proposition for foreign buyers. But David Gold, one of the club's two chairmen said: "Our intention is to be at this football club until we die. There is every possibility that we will hand over ownership of this great football club to our children."
Mr Sullivan though, said that the club would be looking for outside investment. It has debts of £100m, and the sale of its existing ground, Upton Park, "won't raise as much as you might think."
Were the chairmen to sell the club at a significant profit within ten years of moving into the stadium, its value having risen as a consequence of playing in the new stadium, West Ham would be required to make a windfall payment to the government. The ten year cut off was decided on the basis that, after that period, the club’s value would be a reflection of their performance on the pitch.
West Ham’s captain Kevin Nolan said the move was “the perfect opportunity to put the club in amongst the big boys.”
The bill for refurbishments will be met by several different partners. £15m from West Ham themselves, £40m in the form of a loan from Newham Council, £38m from the Olympic Delivery Authority, which was included in the original construction budget from the Olympics, and the rest, an undisclosed amount thought to amount to around £60m, from the government. The stadium will remain in the ownership of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), essentially the government, to whom West Ham will pay an annual rent of £2.5m.
West Ham's confirmed tenancy is the latest chapter in a highly protracted saga, which still faces the prospect of judicial review from Barry Hearn, the chairman of neighbouring League One side Leyton Orient.
"The LLDC have made a massive, massive mistake," he said. "They are my lawyer's words and not mine, in as far as they have ignored their own rules so we are going to challenge that with a judicial review in the High Court."
Leyton Orient's Matchroom Stadium is less than a mile away, and Mr Hearn fears the arrival of West Ham so close to his doorstep will "crush" the club.
"What does the world legacy really mean? I hear the word from politicians all the time and I don't think they can even spell the word.
"It is just a game. Well we are not in a game, we are in a fight for survival and we have to do everything available to us to continue the fight."
West Ham will now begin a period of consultation with its fans, many of whom are against the move from the Boleyn Ground in Upton Park, where the club have played since 1904, and where a statue of the club’s 1966 World Cup winning players Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Sir Geoff Hurst stands outside.
“We’ve had thirteen sell out matches in a row,” said David Sullivan, “We need a larger space, where more people can come, to make football affordable not just for the corporates but for the common man.”
As part of the deal West Ham will give 100,000 tickets a year to deprived children in the Borough of Newham, still London’s poorest.
Installing the retractable seats means the bottom tier of 25,000 seats will have to be moved, the only part of the stadium originally designed to be permanent, and much of the rest of the upper seating, originally designed to be temporary, will remain.
Plans for the stadium to host matches in the 2015 Rugby World Cup are at a developed stage, though it takes place just under a year before West Ham’s tenancy is scheduled to begin, and it is unclear whether the stadium would be in a fit state, and whether a break in construction work would be possible.
The 2017 World Athletics Championships will also take place there, as will athletics events and a concert to mark the first anniversary of the Olympics opening ceremony, on the final weekend of July this year. It will also hold regular concerts and other events.
"Through this deal with West Ham United FC, we are defying the gloomsters who predicted this landmark would become a dusty relic," said London mayor Boris Johnson.
London Assembly members have already criticised the decision to spend yet more public money on the stadium, but after an initial bidding process featuring both West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur fell apart, West Ham remained as the only viable tenant, leaving them in a strong bargaining position. The amount being spent on the stadium’s transformation is significantly higher than planned, turning it into a UEFA Category Four Stadium, fit to host World Cup and Champion’s League matches. Boris Johnson installed himself as the head of the London Legacy Development Corporation and is understood to have been personally in favour of the extra investment, as opposed to leaving the stadium in its more raw state, without few toilets, concessions and hospitality areas built into it, and the running track remaining uncovered.
Defending the decision, West Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady said: "For anyone who thinks we have had a free ride, we most certainly haven't. We want to pay our way and we accept we have to pay our way. We will put in a lump sum, we will pay a rent that will cover most of the running costs and then we will share naming rights and other revenues.
"We accept much of the cost of making this into a world class stadium has come from the government, but we hope over 99 years we not only not only pay that back but also a lot more than that. "
And she added: "The Olympic Stadium was built and paid for, for the Olympics. That's why the investment had been made. If there is a desire to continue the legacy, if it is offered to someone to bid for, it has to have the right infrastructure for people wanting to use - promoters of concerts, community sports groups, international sports. If they want to use it and create a heart to a site then they have to invest. I'm confident we'll pay back and the original investment cost of building stadium."
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