Arsenal moved to a new stadium over 10 years ago. In that time, the football landscape changed dramatically and the Gunners struggled to keep up with both their debt repayments and the new requirements of modern football. As Tottenham bid farewell to White Hart Lane, the noises they are making indicate they haven’t been paying attention to their neighbours as closely as they should.
I became aware of British Football in the late 1970s/early ’80s via the BBC World Service. As I was a fan of international shortwave radio, and particularly the BBC, I also became a fan of listening to regular matches on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Part of the allure was based on the uniquely British-sounding team names, such as Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Blackburn Rovers, Queens Park Rangers, and of course, The Arsenal. There was also the rhythmic, almost singsong reading of match results by James Alexander Gordon that seemed to go on forever at day’s end.
The names of Scottish League clubs such as Partick Thistle and Motherwell used to perk my ears as well, but that’s another story.
It was all so new and different to professional sport that was rapidly becoming over-commercialised here in the States.
The charm didn’t stop with just the team names and exotic places that were coming through my radio. The stadium names as announced by legends such as Ian Darke were charming all by themselves.
Here in the United States we had places like Shea and Yankee Stadium – blandly named after the team or some person related to it. British football had grounds with names that meant something more to players and fans alike: Highbury, Old Trafford, Anfield, and yes, even Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane.
In it’s day, a place like Highbury was formidable for an opponent. The name itself evoked boldness with a level of class that couldn’t be matched. Players of other teams were in awe of its marble halls, heated accommodations, and the mystique of a club steeped in a history of top-flight football since 1915.
With the advent of the Premier League in 1992, many things began to change. First were the rights restrictions the prevented me from hearing these matches weekly on radio. That changed with satellite television and the Internet, but not until many years later.
For the clubs, this meant a growing influx of money, global interest from worldwide television broadcasting rights, and a new set of FIFA and FA operating rules to go with it. Many clubs struggled to accommodate a lot more fans, as well as larger press and television crews. Most of the Northern clubs found ways to expand and enhance their existing stadiums to meet those evolving needs.
Whether it is the restrictions of real estate or original stadium design, most of the big London clubs in particular will have completely moved to new grounds within the next few years.
- Arsenal built and moved into the Emirates for the 2006/7 season, originally to support requirements for the Champions League.
- After a long battle with Tottenham and the courts, West Ham United finally moved into London (ex-Olympic) Stadium at the start of the 2016/17 season.
- Tottenham have already started building their new stadium and plan to open it in 2018. They played at Wembley Stadium during the 2016/17 season to support Champions League match requirements. They will likewise play at Wembley full time during 2017/18 whilst the new stadium is completed.
- Chelsea have been looking for a new stadium site for a number of years, failing to secure the Battersea Power Station in 2012. The current plan is to redevelop Stamford Bridge, which was approved just earlier this year.
Hopefully these clubs have learned from Arsenal’s experience over the past 10 years to know that just because they have a nice, shiny new stadium it doesn’t necessarily mean things will be better.
First is the fact that when you double the capacity of your audience, there is a good possibility the larger area required will actually quarter the ambience of the stadium. Arsenal fans have claimed for years that Emirates is subdued compared to Highbury. Some say the attendees are less vocal, some say most don’t even bother to show up, and some say that generally poor acoustics is responsible.
Whatever the reason, there’s just vastly more space that crowd noise has to travel making it easier to deaden. West Ham had a terrible time adjusting to the environment in London Stadium this year and some would say they never quite did: Having won only 7, drawn 4, and lost 8 at home.
It will be very interesting to see how Tottenham get on in Wembley next season, where they’ve not fared well at all this year. Daniel Levy claims that their new stadium will be built with fan acoustics in mind, yet it remains to be seen how that will work in practice.
Secondly is the impact on the fans and their ability to accept change. Most Arsenal fans wax nostalgic when they talk about Highbury and for good reason. That emotion changes quickly to anything from indifference to disdain when they talk about Emirates as if it hasn’t gained anyone’s respect.
That eventually rubs off on how a fan feels about their club. If they’re not comfortable in the stadium environment for 2 hours, it’s only natural they’re not going to be comfortable about the club. This too has an effect on ambience.
Third is the impact of stadium funding on club business. West Ham got a sweetheart of a deal renting an existing stadium on a 99-year lease, so this really doesn’t apply to them.
Tottenham may have been operating on a shoestring to begin with. Yet, they may find they still need to sell players like Kane and Alli for Bale-like fees and significantly raise ticket prices if they are to support the build and maintenance of their shiny new 60k+ seater.
They were unable to make it past the Champions League group stages given their current talent. Imagine attempting to progress in Europe year after year with lesser, even more unrefined talent as they sell off existing stars to fund their new stadium.
Lastly is the apparent need to supplement stadium funding with corporate, or other, naming rights. It makes the building more of a continual advert for an unrelated product than something to enhance a team’s identity.
Highbury was as unique and synonymous with Arsenal as much as Boleyn Ground was for West Ham. Neither Emirates nor London/Olympic Stadium have any direct relevance for a football club. Though too soon to know what these new arenas will be called, naming rights could similarly be sold to whomever Spurs and Chelsea’s latest shirt sponsor.
As these Emirates and Etihads help to offset certain costs, they also cheapen the team’s brand identity: Are Arsenal an airline or a football club? I’m reminded of this every time I go to a store in an Arsenal training pullover and the checker tells me how they love that airline… as I repeatedly point to the badge and say, “it’s more this, than this…”.
For me, all of these changes take away from the pure, uncommercialised quality that originally drew me to British Football in the first place. Certainly all of the naming and sponsorships erode the warm connection you have with a football club, making it something cold and mechanical.
Something corporate – and, that’s not what sport is all about.
Other clubs have had 10 years to learn from Arsenal’s new stadium successes and failures. Yet all indications are they really haven’t learned, as witnessed in the hype and hoopla surrounding the closing of White Hart Lane this past week.
There is talk of how Pochettino will forge Spurs ahead to succeed in the ‘last level’ of European Football. And, with Kane and Alli leading the charge in their new home – as if Kane and Alli will still be there in two years time.
All of the same talk of future glory was said about Arsenal 10 years ago.
But surely, as George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”