F.C. Barcelona is spending $711m on stadium upgrades, and it’s probably actually not crazy

I don’t usually try to cover all of European soccer stadium news, both because there’s so much of it and because the stadium swindles that typify North American sports are largely unheard of there, for varied reasons having to do with government attitudes toward corporate subsidies, team ownership structure, and the way the leagues themselves are organized. (Real oversimplified version: It’s hard to shake down your city for stadium money by threatening to leave if your city can just start a new minor-league team and have it play its way up to the majors in a few seasons.) But I’m going to make an exception for F.C. Barcelona‘s $711 million stadium expansion plans, not just because we’re a Barça household here, but also it reveals some interesting things about how stadium finance works these days.

The renovation plan, which has been in the works a couple of years, would expand the already 100,000-seat Camp Nou by 5,000 seats, something that SB Nation latched onto as an excuse for talking about just how decadent this is. (That’s $142,243.29 per seat! Which is … a lot!) The changes to the seating bowl, though, are relatively minor (a roof will be extended over all the seats, and the lower and upper decks will get rejiggered somewhat, ostensibly for better sightlines). Much of the expense, it looks like, will go into creating this on the outer side of the stadium:

FOTO_C_-_Detall_Fa_ana-Optimized.v1457473248Aside from providing exciting new ways for Barça fans to fall to their deaths, apparently, that’s a whole lot of room for new places to sell stuff to fans. And indeed, a “new zone of restaurants” is one of the things the club has planned as a revenue generator for the redone space, as well as doubling the number of VIP seats to almost 8,000, and selling “partial” naming rights to the building, which probably means something like MetLife Stadium’s corporate sponsored entrances, though without the corporate stadium name since that wouldn’t fly well with Barça fans.

It’s all a lot like the $1 billion in upgrades that the owners of the New York Knicks and Rangers undertook to Madison Square Garden a few years back: A fabulously wealthy franchise spending a bunch of money in the hopes of making more money in the future. The parallel even goes as far as F.C. Barcelona (along with three other Spanish clubs) getting special tax breaks like MSG, something the European Union keeps threatening to rule on the legality of — though also like MSG, they get the tax breaks regardless of what they spend on stadium upgrades, so this expansion really is coming out of the team’s own pocket, even if that pocket has been previously bulged a bit with cash at public expense.

The other difference, of course, is that those Barça fans are the team’s owners — it’s that ownership structure, in fact, that is getting them (plus Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, and Osasuna, who despite the extra cash are mired down in the second division) the special tax treatment. And the fan-owners actually voted on the Camp Nou renovation (vs. another proposal of building a whole new stadium), so arguably you could say that this is an example of fans just wanting a snazzier place to watch the game (and buy things), and tapping the team’s deep pockets to pay for it.

So what does this — along with other new team-funded stadiums like Chelsea‘s, which recently got the ultimate in vaportecture videos, a series of renderings created by a season ticket holder who responded to a team request for design proposals — say about how stadiums should be built, renovated, and funded in North America? That if you’re popular enough, obviously, there are certain cases where spending hundreds of millions of dollars in team money on upgrades can make sense, both financially and (one hopes, if the Barça voters were smart) in terms of actual fan enjoyment. For the vast majority of teams, though, in a saner world it would be more about smaller, incremental upgrades as the fan base grows — like, for example, the expansion that newly first-division Eibar is undertaking to expand its teeny 6,000-seat stadium (better photos here).

That’s also pretty much how the U.S. stadium and arena world worked for the first half of the 20th century, before the threat of moving teams and mayors who thought their job was to throw “development incentives” at private companies and professional economic impact studies changed the world and made it necessary for Joanna Cagan and I to write a book and start this website. We might get back there again someday, maybe, but in the meantime I think I’ll be renewing the fieldofschemes.com domain name just the same.

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7 comments on “F.C. Barcelona is spending $711m on stadium upgrades, and it’s probably actually not crazy

  1. Eibar has to upgrade their stadium. La Liga has minimum requirements and they were like less than half that for capacity (the town is only like ~25K people). I believe they got some sort of waiver for the time being and sure more people probably want to go to games now that they are in the first division, but it wasn’t fan-demand driven so much as rules driven (although, sure, some of both).

    As for the Nou Camp. It’s not that great of a stadium. But I’m not Ben Miller and don’t demand palatial amenities for watching sports. I don’t care; just pointing out that, for one of the 3-4 best teams in the world (with a huge global following), their stadium isn’t very impressive. Now when I was there I absolutely noticed that the concourses were shit. Almost dungeon-like. And with a dearth of restrooms and concessions, so yeah, that’s probably the first place to upgrade. As for buying schwag, FCB compensates by having official stores all around Barcelona, but they are probably leaving money on the table by underserving fans at the game.

  2. The MSG concourses were godawful pre-renovation, too, and now they’re more attractive, I guess, though the lack of space to expand out means they’re still pretty cramped. I’m not a fan of what MSG did to the seating bowl (far more corporate-suite-focused), but as renovations I didn’t have to pay for go, it’s pretty decent lipstick on a pig.

    It would actually be kind of fun to run a website talking about ideal stadium design and how to best balance the needs of the bulk of fans with the requirement for revenue-generating items like suites, instead of just debating subsidies all day long. After the revolution, I suppose.

  3. Anyone who wants to see the opposite of “fan amenities” should spend a Saturday afternoon at White Hart Lane Stadium, home of Tottenham Hotspur, a threat this year to win the English league. To describe it in a phrase, take a 1950s Minor League Ballpark built for 8,000 people and have 37,000 people file into it. It is basically built for the sole purpose of watching a soccer game, which I actually kind of liked.

    “Happily,” change is on the way next door as vaportecture transitions to reality. I’m hoping they keep the yard-wide entry corridors and the common latrines.

    On Barcelona, I’m sure such happy expansions are made even more possible by the more-or-less official backing of the club’s enormous debt ($500 million), though to be fair opinions differ on how serious this situation really is.

  4. From a daily reader and a big fan, a language note: “…made it necessary for Joanna Cagan and *me* to write a book and start this website.”

  5. @Michael – It should be noted that the big teams in Europe can get more bang for the buck by trying to expand their market world-wide to sell more apparel and TV rights than spending money on the stadium, so most stadiums are sort of spartan. Barcelona probably is close to as far as they can go so now it’s to the point of trying to maximize the stadium revenue.

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