Ten years ago, West Ham United football club came under the control of David Sullivan and David Gold, businessman friends who had made their fortunes from what is politely called adult publishing and from lingerie retail. At a slightly dazed press conference, the duo described their acquisition in largely sentimental terms: though they had previously owned Birmingham City, the Hammers was their local club. Gold, born and raised in Stepney, had even represented them as a schoolboy.
The pair also revealed that they’d been in talks with Newham Council about the possibility of moving the club from its Boleyn Ground stadium in Green Street, Upton Park, to the Olympic Stadium after the 2012 Games. A big club needed a bigger home, and Sullivan said he wanted West Ham move up a level from that of its illustrious but uneven history and join the cream of the Premier League rather than simply surviving in it. He and Gold had taken on a business with a struggling team and tens of millions of pounds in debt, but they had big dreams of turning things around.
It hasn’t yet happened on the pitch: the club was relegated in 2011 but came back up to the Premier League the following season and has broadly held its own since. However, the team’s best finish has been seventh place, four years ago, which was its last season in the old stadium. And this year, they are mired in another relegation fight, hoping their newly-appointed manager David Moyes, in his second spell at the club, can again win it for them. Before today’s home game, hundreds of fans held a protest to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sullivan-Gold takeover – they say promises have not been kept.
Meanwhile, the finances of the stadium continue to be a source of close and sometimes critical interest. The 2016 report by the BBC’s Dan Roan embedded below provides a very good examination of the main issues as they were emerging at the time: the extra public money going into converting the 2012 Olympic stadium, built only for athletics, into what is now called the London Stadium, primarily hosting football but adaptable for other types of event; the emergence of West Ham under Sullivan and Gold as the only Premier League club willing to become the anchor tenant under what appeared to be very favourable terms; the difficulty of getting Boris Johnson, who as London Mayor had overseen the progress of the Games legacy, to answer any questions about it.
In September 2018 it was confirmed that the £2.5 million a year rent West Ham had been paying didn’t even cover the cost of staging home matches and that the stadium was on course to make losses for the duration of the 99-year lease.
However, in September, London Legacy Development Corporation chiefs struck an upbeat note, saying the financial situation with the stadium was improving, helped by an increase in capacity to 60,000. And Jack Brown has argued for On London that, although with hindsight the public bodies responsible for orchestrating the 2012 Olympics could have ensured a better deal for the public purse, the London Stadium will surely succeed in the end.
In the shorter term, though, much depends on naming rights being sold. The stadium lost £25.5 million in the financial year to March 2019, and that is expected to get worse. A naming rights deal could help a lot, but securing one won’t be made any easier if its lustre is lessened by West Ham dropping to the Championship at the end of the season. A recent study concluded:
“There is significant untapped potential for European teams without stadium naming rights sponsorship, with the most valuable and long-term deals reserved for those with the highest levels of global exposure, Champions League participation and low relegation risk.”
The London Stadium isn’t wholly dependent on the fortunes of West Ham United. Even so, the taxpayer is depending on David Moyes.
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