The great Bramley-Moore capacity debate rumbles on with seemingly contradictory comments in recent weeks, vacillating from greater ambition as stated at the beginning of the year to a more cautious approach last week “future-proofing” not growth. This was topped yesterday by the club’s official statement regarding 99% of respondents wished to have a stadium with a capacity greater than 50,000.
I’m going to begin by saying that the club should really just have the fortitude to say “X” is the capacity, we’ve done our research, done our costings, the architect agrees and that’s it. Sure, there’d be some moans if it’s at the lower end of the scale but if it’s announced as a final decision then there’s little or nothing the fans can do about it.
Instead we have a situation that allows fans and people like me to speculate and present our cases as I’m about to do now. The club are well intentioned in asking for fan comments, I can accept that on matters relating to atmosphere and matchday experience, however allowing the debate to continue on more fundamental aspects particularly surrounding the business model, seems to demonstrate (again) a lack of leadership.
For the record, I believe the major factors determining the final capacity are as follows:
Cost, budget and availability of capital
I’m going to focus on the last two in this article – demand and ambition.
I’ve heard it said that it is thought that the demand is not there to support a 60,000 or above capacity stadium.
One of the justifications for this is that we “struggle” to sell 40,000 seats at Goodison. Even if true, (which I don’t accept on the evidence of full houses for the last two years, 12 months of which was some of the poorest football seen at Goodison in a generation) there would be very strong mitigating circumstances in terms of not all away fans take their full allocation, the general poor state of an antiquated ground and facilities, the many poor sight lines and “letter box views” and most importantly the number of obstructed views where one or both goals are obscured by pillars.
Anecdotally, there’s numerous stories of fans who won’t go to the game for the above reason. Despite that a 100,000 unique home fans have attended one game or more in the last two seasons which demonstrates the demand for non-regular attendance – that at a time when perhaps less than 3,000 tickets would be available to home non-season ticket holders per game, almost of all of which offering the worst views in the stadium.
Whilst every club has its own set of circumstances it’s possible to quantify the impact of a new stadium on attendances. Since 1998, 32 league clubs have moved into a new stadium. When one compares the average attendances of the 5 years prior to moving with the 5 years after, the average rise in attendances is 62%.
When one looks at clubs with an old stadium utilisation rate (i.e. % of capacity) greater than 80%, then there’s some startling rises in 5 year averages including Arsenal 57%, Southampton 94%, Derby County 90% and Sunderland 135%. The one relatively poor performer in this context is Manchester City at just 34%.
Of course, other factors can come into play, the old Dell at Southampton was hopelessly outdated and small, but on the flip side Arsenal identified demand for a much bigger increase in capacity than to 60,000. It was only the planning process that restricted the build to 60,000.
What is interesting about Arsenal is that historically, up to the point where they moved to the Emirates is that their attendances and ours show a great similarity. In fact, if you take the averages from 1894 when they joined the Football League up to their last season at Highbury, we pip them with an average of 31,027 to 30,972.
Liverpool FC, with impeccable timing have announced their plans to go to 60,000. I really believe Liverpool’s positioning as an international club, a PL experience destination, and with an artificially low season ticket number give us tremendous opportunities in our own city. I don’t use the “senior club in the city” tag lightly. We have a tremendous opportunity through the new stadium, the redevelopment of Goodison, the regeneration opportunity more widely, as well as our immense latent support to become the preferred footballing destination in the City welcoming fans new to football and returning Evertonians.
I’ve stated in previous articles we can attract 60,000 crowds through a segmented marketing approach which requires fewer sales in each category than similarly sized clubs.
The most difficult factor to quantify is ambition. One could argue that spending the thick end of £0.5bn on a new stadium demonstrates ambition, but we have to view ambition in the context of what other clubs, particularly those we wish to compete against are doing. Look at Spurs, backing themselves with a 72% increase in capacity.
That should be the measuring stick by which our ambition is judged. I am sure around the board room there’s talk of ambition but I’m not convinced there’s talk of our relative ambition. Putting it another way, do other clubs talk of higher ambitions than we do? On the basis of results relating to commercial performance and business models the answer over many years has been a resounding yes.
Why is the 60,000 so important to Everton fans? It’s important for two reasons in my mind. Firstly, the message it sends to the rest of the Premier League. It makes a statement that we’re prepared to invest and build comparable to our nearest competitors. It states that after 30 years we’re putting ourselves up there with our peers
The second factor is of course revenues. It would appear reading between the lines that the fear of not filling the seats is the driving factor, not necessarily the cost. We, the fans, realise that revenues are vital in the modern game. We have seen with our own eyes the effect of not being competitive financially and the impact on the pitch. We also recognise that a larger capacity reduces the requirement for significant price increases for ordinary fans, particularly if the executive/premium seats are properly priced and sold.
Fans know the fan base best
It is the idea that the club might think it can’t sell the seats that is so galling. As fans we know our own fan base better than anyone. The near 40,000 who attend Goodison know for want of a better term, “market conditions” better than any survey or consultation will ever provide. The fans have a unique insight into future fan behaviour. It is their friends, family members and work-mates who will make up the additional numbers. The fans know why so many other fans don’t attend on match days currently – mostly related to the poor facilities and match watching experience despite the love most Evertonians, match-going or not have for Goodison.
For almost all Blues this is not some vanity project that we must have a certain capacity just for the sake of it. We can enjoy the vanity of an amazing location, design and match day experience in the years to come – it’s about ensuring, just as we ask for on the pitch, that the board and the club leaving nothing on the table. By doing so and ensuring a successful outcome the project immediately becomes de-risked.