West Ham’s Stadia Olympico – a coup or backwards step?


Simon Smith looks at West Ham’s move to the Olympic Stadium, and asks whether it will prove a watershed moment in English football…

Everyone seems to have something to say about West Ham’s acquisition of the Olympic Stadium as their ground, and not a lot of it positive. The huge flaws in the plan, ranging from the enormous amount of work needed before the new ground is fit for purpose to the difficulty the club is likely to have in filling the seats, are still not quite daunting enough to have convinced Karen Brady and co that it isn’t a brilliant idea and for that I think West Ham deserve a little credit for their ambition. What’s really interesting about the move is that it bucks the English trend a little for stadia ownership. West Ham own the much loved Boleyn Ground, and here they are moving to a lease bought from the government.

In Italy, this is probably a move that would be met with disbelief. Serie A is a league full of large but unsuitable grounds not purpose built that teams want rid of. Juventus’ move out of the Stadio delle Alpi, built to 69 000 capacity for Italia 1990, to the much smaller Juventus Stadium in 2011 was a landmark moment for Italian Football. Having shared the old ground, and then the Stadio Olympico during its demolition, with local rivals Torino, Juventus became the only top flight club to own their own ground. This has been lauded as a model for other clubs, a big step in the right direction for Italian football. The parallels with West Ham’s move, effectively in the opposite, are startling.

The East London club has averaged a little under 35,000 attendance this season, with the official capacity only a little higher. Nonetheless questions remain about whether they will be able to expand that higher to fill the significantly bigger new stadium. Juventus on the other hand have significantly reduced their capacity to 41,000 in the ground switch, but in light of similar attendances at the larger delle Alpi have managed to give the same number of supporters a much better match experience. The closeness to the pitch makes a mockery of teams who have to make do with a running track and the atmosphere on matchday is excellent as a result, something Arsenal should really have taken into account when building the Emirates.

The bottom line is that the Juventus Stadium has been built for the fans, and not for revenue per se. The ground is state of the art and a million miles away from the crumbling, much neglected Upton Park but the style of both is strikingly similar: small, tight, in the heart of the community, atmospheric, square. And the similarities between the multi-purpose Olympic Stadium and Stadio delle Alpi should be apparent (as are the even more obvious parallels between the Olympic Stadium and Stadio Olympico).

Ownership of the ground is seldom seen as important in English football, with ownership of the club as a whole considered the bigger issue, but in Italy there would be alarm bells over the abandonment of an owned ground for a lease regardless of the amount of work needed for it. Cagliari have had another season of woes resulting from non-ownership of a ground: years of frustration at local authorities refusal to renovate the decrepit communally owned Stadio Sant’Elia resulted in the construction of a temporary stadium effectively made out of scaffolding, the Is Arenas. However safety concerns have resulted in a cap on attendance at 5,000 and, on several occasions, closed door matches with the fans listening to radios outside and cheering support. As a result some “home games” have been played 400 miles away in Parma in a bid to allow the fans to see the team, even if they need to traverse the entire country to do so.


OK it’s a little excessive to claim this will be the fate of West Ham. Oh the fools! Leaving their owned but run down ground for one they do not own outright, what will be their fate?In reality it’s more a question of ideal. Ownership is something Italian clubs want to do for the sake of doing it – a matter of pride – rather than a means to the end of security. It has become a part of Italian football culture in a way it hasn’t in England, where the increasingly consumerist Premier League has turned the once loved grounds into commodities we pay to visit. Yes the SkySportsLeague TM is an easy target, but the difference in fan outlook is striking: Juventus celebrated their new ground with an unbeaten season and then continued the unbeaten home run into the current season, while Arsenal have yet to complete the “Arsenalizaiton” of the Emirates. That’s a term the club has genuinely used on it’s website, and the process has involved building a shop, museum, clock and commemorative paving. It has not involved an improvement in atmosphere.

Are Gooners proud of the Emirates? I’m not so sure, perhaps a little but in a begrudging way and in far from the manner in which they loved Highbury. If they had no ground and then had a brand new second-largest-in-the-league stadium, it would be seen as the best thing the club had achieved in the last decade; but given that they have moved in a grass-is-greener type way from a historic ground they owned (and turned into flats) it doesn’t have that feeling. It has pride, but not the same Italian pride. The current Major of Udine was elected on the back of a campaign in which he made clear his intention to help Udinese to secure ownership of their own ground. In Udine the improvements on the stadium are a matter of pride for the fans even amid a decline in the team’s fortunes this season.

Meanwhile in the Premier League the vast majority of the teams own their own ground already and take it for granted, so it has no meaning or significance. Perhaps the biggest tell of this complacency is in the biggest English Clubs: Manchester City is the only Champions League qualifier since the competition’s creation not to own their own ground, with the possible exception of Leeds resulting from the ambiguity surrounding the Teak Trading Corporation owning Elland Road. Meanwhile both Milanese clubs are desperate to have a stadium of their own, even if it means leaving the historic San Siro, with Internazionale in ongoing talks with multiple Chinese Engineering firms over the possibility of constructing a new stadium. Whether it will happen remains to be seen, but to even think of leaving the San Siro surely points to the importance given to ground ownership.

As West Ham secure their long term future in the Olympic Stadium, Cagliari’s future looks uncertain and unlikely to be swiftly resolved. With ground soon to be broken in Udine, actually the day after the final home game, it will be interesting to see not only if any other Italian clubs can realize the dream of ground ownership in the coming years, but also if the trend is further reversed in the Premier League. With large clubs Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea all looking at ways to increase capacity, will we see a top six in the next few years full of new built Emirates Stadiums or council owned Etihads? Only one thing is certain: I can’t take the idea of more Middle Eastern airline names venues. Daallo Ailines Arena anyone?

@smiffysi; @The_False_Nine

9 thoughts on “West Ham’s Stadia Olympico – a coup or backwards step?

  1. As a loyal West Ham fan I still am uncertain about The Olympic Stadium, The Boleyn Ground has such history, but the important factor is with such a low capacity will it ever allow us to develop as a club. I feel every Premiership club should own it’s own ground that is then an asset to it’s future, owners of football clubs come and go as do managers and players, not owning a ground what do they leave?

    You can’t fault the commitment of Vice Chair of West Ham Karen Brady the video she released last week to all fans was so professional and went on to answer many other serious questions, but Karen what legacy will West Ham have with no ground of their own?

    • West Ham tried to buy it on several occasions, including back in 2006 before even a brick was laid (on condition plans included Retractable Seating) but between them Seb Coe, Tottenham & Leyton Orient have blocked it.

      Now Retractable Seating is being added retrospectively at huge additional cost!

  2. The big difference is that I believe that the track will be covered up by seats so fans are not watching football over a running track.

    • Yes if you are one of the lucky 20,000 to get a Lower Tier ticket.

      The Oval-shaped Upper Tier remains fixed, so will still be a long, long way from the pitch..

  3. you are right, there is a much higher degree of planning in transforming the Olympic Stadium into a football ground with retractable seating over the track. The problem is, the seating has to be retractable so it can be retained as a multi-purpose ground for athletics and other events; so to what extent is it really West Ham’s?

    • West Ham are the Anchor Tenant, with rights to make extensive branding of the Stadium. Already confirmed is the naming of 2 stands: Bobby Moore Stand and Sir Trevor Brooking Stand.

      It’s also planned that Season Ticket holders & Members will get special deals / discounts for Athletics, Cricket, Concets, etc, held in the OS and for other facilities in the Olympic Park and Westfield Shopping Centre.

  4. I am for the move personally. I can see where a lot of people that are against the move are coming from, their family have history with the club and so on. It is not the same for me, I had a season ticket for about 5 seasons when I was younger, and my nan used to take me. She is also interested in the move to the Olympic Stadium, so history is of no concern to me…..on a selfish level.

    The thing about us moving into the stadium is the fact that Boris Johnson and the OPLC were dying for us to move in there as we were the only viable option. This allowed for our owners and Brady to push a hard bargain.

    I could be wrong to do so, but I actually believe in both Sullivan and Gold. I also believe that Gold was against the move when he first heard about it, but when he saw what the stadium is capable of, his mind changed.

    We might be without a stadium, but seeing as how we have a 99-year lease….a lot of things can change in that time. With the premier league getting flooded with even more money, in 20 years or so building a stadium might not be such a big thing. Of course this is in a worse case scenario situation.

    Moving onto the atmosphere. Every time I go back to the The Boleyn Ground, I always leave disappointed in the atmosphere. I went to both the Liverpool and Manchester United matches and the stand that I was sitting in was silence for about 85 minutes of the match. When I was younger we was singing pretty much throughout the whole match. So things have changed in that sense anyway. Of course there are certain stands in the ground that are more vocal than the others, but that’s not the point.

    In the article you have said that the Boleyn Ground is located in the middle of it’s community. I don’t think this is true. Stratford is a better place for it, community wise. A lot of fans come from Essex and East London. A majority of them would find it a lot easier to get to Stratford than Upton Park.

    So overall I trust in the owners. I am sure they have done as much as possible for the stadium to have a ‘West Ham’ feel when we go there. The pictures that we have seen so far have been breathtaking. If they could replicate them, it would be amazing in my opinion.

    • I take your point about the heart of the community – maybe it would be more accurate to say that it WAS in the heart of the community, but with the fanbase changing it no longer is, much like you point out how it used to have a big nostalgic sentiment for an older generation of fans but not for the teens and twenty-somethings they need to win over if they are to sustain ticket sales.

      To use Udine as an example, the manager said the club can’t afford to stand still and expect to keep the fans. In the modern world of football each new generation has to be persuaded to support a local club, and while they are renovating the stadium in a bid to do this, West Ham’s move to a more accessible ground makes sense for attracting fans from the home counties that will likely be the core of the support in years to come.

      I’m certainly not saying a 99 year lease is infinitely more risky than owning the ground, but it’s interesting that ground ownership is something we associate with financial security and not just pride. The crux as I see it is this: if the fans can create the right atmosphere and the club can transform the ground, it will feel like West Ham owns the stadium, but if not it will feel like a rented home…

      • Yeah they are good points. If all does go wrong, it will as you said feel like a rented home. But seeing as how we are moving there, regardless if we like it or not…we just have to put faith in the owners and that they will deliver.

        I do admit that I am not falling for all this ‘UEFA category 4 stadium’ malarkey. From what I have read, it more to do with the press than the actual fans.

        I suppose we can all have our opinion on the matter, but only time will tell. I hope the owners are still going to stick with what they said a few years ago about wanting to play Real Madrid or Barcelona in a friendly when we first move in.

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