Wimbledon 99: Profits build arena fit for the new century

Remarkably, the LTA's development plan for British tennis is on time and on budget.
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WIMBLEDON'S FIRST home at Worple Road in 1870 was spread across three lawns and built at a cost of pounds 425 for the purposes of croquet. Multiply that by 100,000 and then double it and you will still not reach the eventual pounds 100m bill for the ambitious development plans the All England Club launched six years ago. After years of procrastination over whether the Championships could remain in their somewhat cramped SW19 home, the Lawn Tennis Association decided to stay put. The Championships would remain the last of the Grand Slam tournaments to be played on grass, but modernisation and expansion would be crucial. The LTA unveiled a 20-year blueprint for the future.

Stage One would involve building a new No 1 Court with 11,500 seats (to replace the existing version, which had 6,500 seats) and a new broadcast centre to cope with the ever-intensifying demands of the world's media. Stage Two would involve remodelling Centre Court to expand the capacity by 800 and building a new facilities centre, primarily for the players and the media, on the site of the old No 1 Court. Stage Three would involve developing the south side of the 42-acre grounds - including the construction of a new No 2 court - and increasing the overall number of courts and the overall capacity. The whole venture, the LTA said six years ago, would be self-financing and would continue well into the new millennium. Remarkably, given the scale of the project, things are going to plan.

Construction of the new No 1 Court started in 1994, turf was laid a year later (the grass needs two years to grow), and the court opened for business on schedule two years ago. A new broadcast centre went into operation at the same time, as did the giant open-air screen, where thousands of those unable to get into the main courts can watch the action sitting on the adjacent grassy bank. Crowds rose that year to record levels of more than 430,000 over the fortnight.

The expansion of Centre Court is now complete and its capacity this year has increased from 13,085 to 13,813. Other new features on display from today will be a new translucent rain cover and state of the art drying fans on No 1 court; an autograph and interview booth, where the public can meet the players, and an LTA Starter Tennis area, where young visitors can try playing for the first time. By next year, the facilities centre should be complete and the development plan will move into Stage Three.

The most impressive statistic is a financial one. While the Championships continue to be a cash cow - a surplus of pounds 33m after costs was handed over to the LTA last year for development of the game in this country - all the building has been financed by debentures.

In 1994, the All England Club issued 2,100 Centre Court debenture seats at pounds 19,625 apiece, entitling each holder to a ticket per day of play for five years. The Club had instant plough-back revenue of pounds 41.2m from that issue alone, while the buyers each secured 65 tickets over five years at a cost of around pounds 300 per ticket. Two years ago, 1,000 debentures were sold for No 1 Court at around pounds 15,000 each, which brought in another pounds 15m, while another Centre Court issue this year will raise some pounds 50m from investors paying around pounds 24,000 each.

For aficionados it is a price worth paying, while those less interested in the game can legally re-sell their tickets on a individual basis (re- sale of non-debentures is forbidden) for several times what they paid. Wimbledon even offers its own debenture buy-back scheme, whereby holders make profits on their tickets and the Club then sells them on to corporate hospitality clients for further profit.

Critics might argue that the rich have gained access at the expense of "true fans", but the Club argues that the market can sustain the prices, that only a fraction of tickets are debentures, and that the income is vital for the future.

"Whether you look from the point of view of the players, of the fans, of the media or the overall ambience," John Friend, a club spokesman, said, "the whole point of the developments is to maintain The Championships' international leadership."