20,000 new seats but will they be any cheaper?
Old Trafford is set to expand once again to over 95,000 seats from the current capacity of 76,212, according to recent media reports. While these rumours are not new, nor a timescale given to the project, or planning permission granted by Trafford Borough Council, they are given some credence by a recent interview by M.E.N with United’s group property manager George Johnstone.
While the news is hardly unexpected – the club have been looking at options for expanding the single tier South Stand for some time now – it is welcome for the thousands of fans who are locked out of many of United’s home matches. But the development poses some real questions: is the move designed solely to increase turnover at debt-ridden United, or will any of the new seats be offered at affordable prices?
Since Old Trafford was converted to an all-seater stadium in 1992, at a capacity of just 44,000, there has been continual expansion in size and facilities. Firstly, the club added more than 11,000 new seats by building the giant three-tiered North Stand in 1995. Further seating was then added with second-tiers built on the East and West Stands. The North East and North West Quadrant second-tiers were completed in 2006 to restore something of a bowl to the stadium for the first time since 1992.
The new project will is likely comprise of two phases and has two potential outcomes. Firstly, completing the second-tiers of the South East and South West Quadrants, for an additional 8,000 seats. This has always been a matter of time and money as the expansion would use very little extra land.
Secondly, building a three-tier replication of the North Stand on the South side of the stadium that will add an additional 11,000 seats for a new Old Trafford capacity of 95,212. However, the South Stand expansion is a much more complex project because of the Manchester to Liverpool railway line and Manchester United FC Halt station that lies behind the stand. Any project will be affected by the presence of the track, with either a two or three tier new stand certain to overhang or possibly be built over the railway. This will necessitate the club buying up to 50 houses on Railway Road and create a far more difficult planning process.
A less expensive two tier addition to the South Stand is also believed to be under consideration by the board and would not be built over the railway tracks. This would create a final Old Trafford capacity of about 91,212, similar to Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu but well short of Barcelona’s soon-to-be expanded Camp Nou at 106,000.
When United last conducted a feasability study on the project the costs came out at more than £100 million and are unlikely to have fallen in the meantime. With club debt at more than £700 million and rising there must be serious doubts about how the club could fund the project without rolling the costs into the club’s ongoing bank and PIK debt.
The debt also quashes the mooted possibily of a reduction in ticket prices. After all more seats equals more revenue, and financing a stadium expansion together with debt repayment will require a lot of extra revnue. One of the reasons why United were one of the only top clubs in the country to raise ticket prices for next season, in the depths of the worst recesion since the 1930s.