Stadium public funding scandals are rarer in Europe than in North America, but there are a handful, and the tale of London’s Olympic Stadium is an especially scandalous one. The story so far: The government spent £429 million (or maybe £701 million) to build the stadium for the 2012 Olympics, then London Mayor Boris Johnson promised to spend £190 million to convert it to use for soccer by West Ham United, but it ended up costing £323 million. And now current London Mayor Sadiq Khan has taken over management of the stadium, in an attempt to rein in not just the soaring capital costs but also the deal that Johnson signed that forces taxpayers to fund everything from security to goalposts and corner flags. Of which deal West Ham’s owners say, sorry, no backsies:
“The concession agreement is a watertight, legally binding contract signed in 2013 in good faith by West Ham United, who remain absolutely committed to its terms for the entire 99-year duration.”
Let’s see, what could make this even worse? How about that everyone involved seems to hate the Olympic Stadium as a home for soccer? Or maybe that if things continue to stand as they do currently in the English Premier League, West Ham will get relegated to the second division next year, meaning London will effectively be paying through the nose to provide a 60,000-seat stadium for a minor-league team? I sure hope London taxpayers are big fans of corner flags.
And finally this morning, former English soccer star and stadium consultant Paul Fletcher had this to say about West Ham‘s new home in London’s Olympic Stadium:
“Either we go on as we are for the next 30 or 40 years or we knock it down and start again,” Fletcher told the BBC.
“Something has to give. If you want to satisfy spectators the only way to get those spectators near that pitch is to knock it down and start again,” added the former Burnley striker turned chief executive.
Which, given all the complaints about the crappy views at the stadium, plus scenes of West Ham fans throwing coins and bottles at opposing fans and even fighting among themselves, isn’t an entirely unreasonable response from a guy who figures he could have done it better. Still, calling for a four-year-old stadium to be torn down and rebuilt has to be some kind of record, no?
(You could actually make an even better case for knocking down West Ham’s roster and starting again, but pointing that out would be cruel. So I’ll only do it in parentheses.)
Here in the U.S., we’re used to sports team owners justifying public stadium subsidies as a boon to taxpayers because they will create umpteen billion dollars in economic activity or whatnot, usually backed up by studies of dubious parentage. In the case of West Ham United owner David Gold, though, stung by criticism that his lease on London’s former Olympic stadium will cost the public so much in maintenance and operations that it could eat up any rent he’ll pay, he has a somewhat different argument:
“We built a stadium that was built by a number of very arrogant people that had no foresight for the future. They built a ridiculous stadium but we have made the best of it.
“It’s just ill-informed judgments and opinions. I get that. Sometimes a newspaper will pick out and its headline will be: ‘Taxpayer paying for the flags and the goalposts.’ What a fantastic headline. It gives everybody a misinformation. It sends out the wrong information that they believe the taxpayer is paying for everything and they get nothing in exchange.
“That’s ridiculous. The taxpayer is going to make a profit. It wouldn’t make a profit if you tore down the stadium and put it into a 25,000-seater, would it? Come on, how many people are going to watch the world championship hop, skip and jump?”
What Gold seems to be saying here is that London was dumb enough to spend £701 million (a little over $1 billion) on a stadium that would only be used for three weeks, so hey, at least West Ham is letting them earn something back on it. As lessons in sunk costs go, I still prefer this one — but apparently the kids today need all the help with this that they can get.
I don’t follow English Premier League finances as closely as those on this side of the pond, so I honestly couldn’t tell you whether the £2.5 million a year in rent that West Ham will pay for use of the 2012 London Olympic stadium as its home pitch is a huge sweetheart deal or not. I’m leaning yes, though, if only from this extraordinary statement put out by the London Legacy Development Corporation, the team’s new landlord:
“We were concerned that the publication of this contract and the precedent it may set for future agreements could make it harder to do this. However, we have decided not to seek leave to appeal, and have today made the contract available on our website.”
That sure sounds like, “No, don’t let it out that we gave West Ham such a great deal, now everyone will want one!”
The big giveaway here, as with many modern stadium leases, is the degree to which taxpayers will be on the hook for stadium operations: The public body will have to pay for all policing, stadium heating, lights, goalposts and even corner flags, which could easily eat up the entire £2.5 million. Nice negotiating, London Legacy Development Corporation!