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.
Safe Standing could come to Old Trafford, with Manchester United reportedly exploring a ‘rail seat’ trial according to fanzine Red News. Rail seats are dual-mode seats that can either be used as a traditional seat, or locked in an upright position with a bar in place to safely support standing fans.
The technology is widely used in Germany, where standing is legal, while Bristol City have recently installed them at Ashton Gate. In the Bundesliga clubs use rail seats both to increase capacity, boost atmosphere during domestic games, and offer supporters reasonably priced tickets.
However, legislation in the UK currently demands one seat per fan in the Premier League, with traditional standing only permitted in the lower leagues and sports other than football. It is likely a change in legislation would be required to allow safe standing in the Premier League, with up to eight Premier League clubs believed to be supportive of the change according to the Daily Mail.
UEFA does not permit standing of any kind in its competitions, meaning stadia such as Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion lock the seats up for Bundesliga matches and down for the Champions League.
The potential increase in capacity in ‘seat up’ mode depends on the ratio of standing fans to seats, with any Old Trafford trial thought likely to begin at 1:1. Some stadia, such as Bayer Leverkusen’s BayArena, operates safe standing with two fans to each installed seat. The Westfalenstadion provides standing accommodation for 27,000 fans.
However, the cost is not insignificant, with rail seats costing up to 60 per cent more per seat to install than the traditional variety. Clubs converting blocks not ordinarily due for maintenance will face a significant additional capex bill, although installations costs could be offset by a higher capacity. Whether the Glazer family is prepared to push for rail seats, fund installation and lower prices is an open and relevant question.
And even if the cost and legislative issues are resolved there is still the emotive issue of standing in England; rail seats may have little do to with the terraces of old, but memories of the Hillsborough disaster remain fresh.
Given the pros and cons …
Over the past two decades the average age of supporters inside Old Trafford has been on a steady incline. The price of tickets, and the ever ‘ageing’ population of season ticket holders, has served to generate a changing demographic of match-going Manchester United supporters. Indeed, surveys conducted by the Premier League suggest that the average age an adult match-goer is 41 across the country. United is no different.
Increasing price increases mean that teenagers now struggle to attend matches as they have in the past, whether this as part of a group or with the family. This pattern has a negative impact on the development of United’s next generation of Reds, and reduces the matchday atmosphere, which is often more lively when younger fans are encouraged to attend.
It’s a challenge that could impact on United’s commercial business too. After all, young audiences are keenly sought by major global brands, and United could well alienate a key demographic, negatively impacting the club’s strategy. This is a rare area where supporters’ needs and commercial reality are very well aligned.
Yet, there are measures that can be taken – and some clubs are ahead of the curve in realising the long-term risk of disenfranchising the young. United Rant, in collaboration with Republik of Mancunia and other fans groups, is calling on United to introduce an area at Old Trafford which is designated for teenagers only. We believe that ticket price for this area should be considerably lower than the rest of the ground to encourage take-up.
It’s an initiative that can offer only upside for fans and the club – as rivals have found out. Arsenal have introduced a similar area for 1,000 teenagers this season, albeit for specific matches, at a cost to the club of just £400,000 in annual revenues. Tickets in this section cost no more than £10. Other clubs, such as Fulham and West Ham United, offer a ‘kids for a quid’ scheme. Even Manchester City regularly sell League Cup tickets for £5 to teenagers.
The average age of residents at Rant towers may also be on the increase, but we remember well standing on the Stretford End for less than £2 in the mid-1980s. That’s a little over £5 in today’s money. Prices are unlikely to drop that far today, but the club can do something about making the game just a little more affordable.
If you’re similarly minded you can sign this online petition, which will be delivered to the club in due course.
Manchester United owners the Glazer family has struck a secret multi-million pound deal with PepsiCo to rename Old Trafford. The deal, which will come into effect from the start of the 2012-13 season, will bring more than £400 million into the club coffers over the next 10 years, a source close to the deal exclusively revealed to United Rant this week.
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.