United takes lead on accessibility, and drops behind on development
Manchester United, as widely expected, is to become the first Premier League club to fully commit to meeting the new Accessible Stadia Guidelines. With work due to start this summer, the club will enable hundreds more disabled fans to attend games – a move that was both widely expected and highly praised when announce this week. Yet, with around 2,600 Season Ticket holders displaced, and Old Trafford’s capacity cut, there is a price to pay for the club’s forward thinking. Beyond the latest remodel, questions still linger about Old Trafford’s future.
United’s plans for the 2017/18 season and beyond had been widely trailed, with the club under-taking a consolation process that included supporters, fan groups and outside parties. The result is a phased plan that will transform the East Stand lower and parts of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand over the next three years. Meanwhile, a “goodwill” package is being offered for displaced supporters, including price-matching to current facilities and free cup game tickets for a season. It appears to be both a progressive move from the club, and, for once, one that takes into account the plurality of supporters’ views.
“Manchester United prides itself on its work in this area for more than 25 years, and will continue to ensure that it remains at the forefront of our thinking,” said Managing Director, Richard Arnold in a statement.
“We know that many of the affected season ticket holders have held their seats for decades and it will be a sacrifice to give them up. But we also know that the vast majority will understand and support this expansion.”
Indeed, United’s open outreach and wide consultation through this process is in marked contrast to the aloof approach for much of the Glazers’ decade in power at Old Trafford. It is likely to garner widespread understanding and support among the match-going public.
Beyond changes being made to meet the new guidelines, it is now more than 10 years since Old Trafford’s last major renovation, when the club added more than 8,000 seats by developing the North West and North East Quadrants at a cost of £42 million. The Quadrants, which were already planned and budgeted before the Glazer family takeover, were built between July 2005 and May 2006. The work increased capacity to more than 76,000, leaving Old Trafford as the largest club ground in England by some distance.
In subsequent years reorganisation of seating, primarily to offer better access and exit, together with premium facilities, reduced capacity to its current level of a little over 75,500. That move was some 10 years after the club built the triple-decker North Stand, now named after Sir Alex, and then added second tiers to both East and West ends of the ground. In the years before the Glazer family sets its eyes on Old Trafford, the policy of continual expansion enabled the club to keep ticket prices relatively low, with an engaged supporter base significantly higher than that of rivals.
Yet, plans to further develop both the South Stand – now named after Sir Bobby Charlton – and the South East and West Quadrants are seemingly on hold. The club has conducted more than one feasibility study over the years, with engineering, planning and cost challenges that are more complex than with previous developments. While adding capacity in the South Quadrant areas is technically feasible, if costly both in terms of investment and land, it appears that any plans to build over the railway track to the south of Old Trafford are not in the immediate planning.
In March 2016 it was widely reported that a second tier was being considered on the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand, adding anything up to 7,500 new seats. It would raise Old Trafford’s capacity to around 80,000 given the current changes. A truly visionary approach, to mirror any development of the South Stand to that of Sir Alex’ opposite, would increase capacity beyond 94,000. That is highly unlikely to happen, although there is still talk of a middle way.
Under the Glazer regime any cost-benefit analysis will focus on the potential revenue upside versus construction costs, with the cost of adding a second tier, let alone a third – whether it stopped short of the tracks, went over them, or involved tunnelling – likely to run into the tens of millions.
Then there is the question of keeping rivals in check. In the past 15 years Arsenal moved to the 60,000 capacity Emirates, at great expense but with a high revenue upside, while Manchester City was gifted the former Commonwealth Games stadium in Eastlands. Elsewhere, Liverpool has added some 10,000 new seats by redeveloping the Main Stand at Anfield, while Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur will each move to new stadia on existing sites in the coming seasons. Even West Ham United, now occupying the former Olympic Stadium at great expense to the British taxpayer, may become a greater financial force in the years to come.
Beyond the Premier League, Real Madrid is remodelling Santiago Bernabeu, while Barcelona is set to expand Camp Nou to beyond 105,000 supporters. Now that’s visionary.