London Soccer Club Gets Rich While Losing, Fans Revolt
(Bloomberg) -- Longtime Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger once described West Ham United’s recent move to London’s former Olympic stadium as the equivalent of “winning the lottery,” an unfair financial advantage that put the team on the cusp of the Premier League’s elite.
It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. With eight games to go in the season, the Hammers are in 17th place, two points away from losing their spot in the Premier League. A loss to Southampton this Saturday would put West Ham at risk of being reassigned to England’s second-tier professional league.
A season-and-a-half of simmering discontent boiled over during their last match, a 3-0 loss to Burnley, and the fans stormed the field, interrupting play four times. Twenty fans were given lifetime bans by the club after the demonstrations, with still more under investigation. The disruptions are unprecedented during the Premier League’s 25-year history and a reminder of much more frequent supporter misbehavior in English soccer in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Premier League and English soccer’s parent organization, the Football Association, released anxious statements, asking the team for an explanation. West Ham, together with the stadium operator, plans to increase security at the next game.
Fans are always unhappy when their team is struggling, as West Ham is. But the fancy new venue -- currently the second-largest in London -- puts their discontent into sharp relief. The club’s former home, Upton Park, was a bit old-fashioned but compact, making it one of the most intimidating stadiums in the league for opposing teams and their fans.
Now West Ham supporters complain that the 57,000-seat stadium has poor sight lines and puts them too far from the action, a result of the stadium’s Olympic heritage and the running track that separates the field from the stands.
Meanwhile, the team’s owners seem to be doing better than ever. West Ham declared a £43 million ($60.2 million) profit in the 2016-17 season, according to the club’s published accounts, up from a £4.9 million loss the year before. It’s now the eighth-best performing team in the 20-team Premier League in terms of revenue and among the top 20 across Europe, according to the most recent Deloitte Money League report.
Much of the improvement is a result of the last rich Premier League broadcast contract, but the windfall is enhanced by the team’s sweetheart deal with the arena. The London Legacy Development Corp., a public agency, owns the venue and covers most of the costs that teams usually incur, including turf maintenance, security, even the corner flags.
The money hasn’t translated to success on the field. West Ham’s poor season is a far cry from what fans say they expected when they left their old home. Before the move, Deputy Chairman Karren Brady promised the club would be a “world class team in a world class stadium.” The fans now feel they have neither.
Owners David Gold and David Sullivan, longtime business partners who made an early fortune in pornography, say they haven’t skimped on players. They haven’t broken the bank, either. They spent £39 million in the August transfer window before the current season, according to the Guardian. Manchester City and Manchester United, in first and second place respectively, spent £226 million and £146 million.
If West Ham gets relegated, the financial boon of the new stadium dissipates. Broadcast income alone would fall by 94 percent to around £6 million, after two-year parachute payments expire. It also threatens ticket sales -- as it is, many of the 52,000 season tickets were discounted after the move to ensure the new venue would attract families and sell out.
Brady has tried to calm tensions with the fans. In a newspaper column, she wrote that the board “takes full responsibility” for the club’s current struggles. And the prospect of relegation -- and the threat of more lifetime bans -- may also keep fans upbeat during Saturday’s match, said West Ham fan and sports journalist Matthew Jones.
“Most fans will now get behind the team and realize that staying up is a priority,” he said. “Nevertheless, that could very much change if we go 1-0 down again and the fans’ blood begins to boil all over again.”
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