Manchester United and Chelsea share a problem they cannot hope to run away from. Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge might be able to narrate storied chapters of the Premier League’s history, but neither can project a compelling future.
At least not in their current states. The famous homes of Manchester United and Chelsea have become weights that threaten to hold back their owners. They are not fit for an elite long-term purpose.
The day the first bulldozers come rumbling over the horizon might not be imminent, but it has become inevitable. There is an acceptance of that reality, even from those with the onerous task of funding it all.
The Premier League’s landscape will soon be modernising elsewhere, too.
Plans are afoot for Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Crystal Palace and Manchester City to increase capacities with new or extended stands in the next five years, a road that Liverpool and Fulham are already walking.
Everton are in the final 12 months of a build that will soon see them call Bramley-Moore Dock their 53,000-capacity home and upsizing is also on the mind of Luton Town and Bournemouth. Newcastle United, too, are considering all options for the future of St James’ Park.
Stadium improvements are becoming more a necessity than a choice as clubs keep pace with the moves of competitors, but these grand plans are increasingly reliant on huge financial commitments.
Neither Manchester United nor Chelsea can realistically hope to transform Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge and have change left from £1billion ($1.26b), a figure that is in line with what it cost Tottenham Hotspur to deliver their new home in 2019 and also what was needed to complete a rebuild of Real Madrid’s 85,000-capacity Santiago Bernabeu stadium this year.
Everton’s stadium should come in well short of that mark, with their project forecast to cost anywhere between £550million and £760million, but that is equal to at least twice the club’s annual turnover.
Not an investment for the faint of heart, nor are any of those being undertaken by Premier League rivals. Fulham’s rebuilt Riverside Stand, housing 8,650 fans when eventually complete, has already cost more than £120million, while Crystal Palace’s new 13,500-capacity Main Stand has been forecast to cost £150million.
Much has changed from the stadium construction boom around the turn of the century when teams such as Sunderland, Southampton, Leicester City and Derby County could build sizable new homes from scratch for less than £35million. Old Trafford’s North Stand, subsequently renamed after Sir Alex Ferguson, was said to have cost less than £19million when knocked up in the 1990s.
Even Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, completed in 2006 to great acclaim, cost roughly 40 per cent of what north London rivals Tottenham needed to fund their stadium 13 years later. Brighton & Hove Albion’s slick home, meanwhile, cost less to build in 2011 than they made when selling Moises Caicedo to Chelsea for £100million this summer.
So why are these modern construction projects so much more expensive?
Inflation can account for plenty, including the sharp rises in the cost of raw materials and labour, but it is a change in expectation that sees football’s newest structures demanding huge investment.
“It’s increasingly about how much it’s going to cost and also how much revenue it can make,” says Christopher Lee, a managing director at Populous, the architecture firm with 40 years of experience in designing sports stadiums and arenas across the world, including Wembley and the Lusail Stadium, host of the 2022 World Cup final in Qatar.
“Historically, it would have been: ‘A club has £100milion, let’s go for it’. Now it’s very much about a return on the investment. If I spend X, how can I return Y?
“They are huge investments in time and money and there’s the idea now that it should be an amazing experience for supporters. It’s not just about ground capacity or how many bodies you can squeeze in. Now clubs are asking how they can genuinely compete with the high street.”
The changes driving the rising costs are clear.
“It’s the level of quality, the level of expectation,” adds Lee. “There’s inflation and, at the moment, there’s a huge peak in construction costs. But the level of aspiration and the level of finish are so different.
“The level of expectation from a general admission concourse has changed so much. Look at a build like Bolton Wanderers (finished in 1997). It’s concrete floors, breeze block walls, roller shutters from an industrial site and a couple of beer taps. Then you look at Spurs and it’s like any bar you’d find in London.
“A lot of it is aspiration and also what clubs can create. Spurs want it to be a seven-day-a-week stadium, multi-sport, multi-event where the investment is worth it.”
No longer are stadiums and stands designed as basic, empty shells just for Saturday afternoons. Now a football club’s home needs to be a driving force for revenue.
Tottenham, a club without a major trophy in 15 years, are now breathing down the necks of Manchester United as the English club with the greatest matchday turnover thanks, primarily, to the design of their 62,000-capacity stadium. As well as hosting NFL matches and major concerts by using a retractable pitch, the vast stands give fans a reason to arrive for games early and leave late.
Money made through the turnstiles has more than doubled since Spurs left White Hart Lane in 2017, with the annual gate receipts climbing from £48million to £108million. An off-field advantage given to Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea has now been taken back.
A new stadium, perhaps the Premier League’s best, has been as transformative for Spurs as Arsenal’s move was for them in 2006. Matchday revenue jumped from £44million in the club’s last season at Highbury to £90.6m when making a new home at the Emirates. A big outlay — reported to be just under £400million in total — but handsome dividends.
Chelsea do not hide away from the fact their turn is coming, either at a rebuilt Stamford Bridge or a site nearby. And though Old Trafford’s 74,000 capacity might still give Manchester United a head-start on rivals, the stadium’s diminishing reputation, tight seating and an infamous leaking roof ensure a rebuild must come sooner rather than later.
Populous’ architects, who were behind both the Emirates and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, were appointed as master planners for the redevelopment of Old Trafford alongside Legends International last year. The plans drawn up are “on hold” as billionaire businessman Sir Jim Ratcliffe finalises a deal that will see him take a 25 per cent stake in Manchester United.
“We’ve done the work with Legends to look at all the feasibility options, multiple different versions of renovations of Old Trafford and also what a new build could potentially look like,” adds Lee. “All of it focused on how we can create an amazing fan experience. Manchester United are very focused on that.”
As are every club at the drawing board. For all the criticisms it has drawn for its £3,000 season tickets, Fulham’s Riverside Stand will be finished off with a hotel, health club and rooftop pool included to maximise opportunities. Palace’s rebuilt Main Stand, proposed to open in time for the 2026-27 season, is also set to include a museum, as well as an additional 8,000 seats.
“You can make money on player transfers or commercial deals, but everything else is relatively fixed,” explains Lee. “The one big variable is how much you can make from your stadium. That’s what differentiates you as a business, to be able to go buy better players.
“The figure we always quote is at the old White Hart Lane where the spend per head was about £1.75. In the new stadium, it’s about £16. So multiply that by 50,000 general admissions and they’re pulling several million a game. It makes a big difference.”
As Manchester United, Chelsea and Newcastle United are demonstrating, these can never be considered short-term projects. Feasibility studies can take 12 months and, typically, it will take between two and three years before the design and approval process ends with a major contractor appointed. Only then can the construction begin.
Costs from that point can be shaped by all sorts of factors, including inflation, the scope of groundwork and location. Flexibility is a must, but any club embarking on a major capital project will have loosely considered the eventual price of every seat.
“There used to be a reasonable assessment on what you could build a stadium for,” says Nick Marshall, co-owner and director at KSS, the London-based architecture firm whose designs include Brighton’s Amex Stadium, Liverpool’s redeveloped Main Stand at Anfield and proposed expansions for Leicester City and Crystal Palace.
“Around 10 to 15 years ago, the aspirations of the most discerning customer were slightly lower.
“A watershed moment would probably be Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium when the expectations of the typical stadium visitor or spectator started to increase. It set a new benchmark.
“At the time, without taking inflation into account, it would cost between £2,500 and £4,000 per seat and everybody thought that was a good benchmark.
“That’s clearly not the case now. Anybody who’s aspiring to Tottenham levels of corporate hospitality in matchday usage and aspiring to be the best stadium in the world is looking at a cost of at least £10,000 a seat.”
And the higher you build, the greater the cost. The roof spans on the biggest builds can stretch up to 40 metres. Severfield, the Yorkshire-based steel company, has supplied 12,200 tonnes of structural steelwork that now forms the bones of Everton’s new stadium. Trusses used in the north and south stands measure 170 meters alone.
The cost of steel and concrete, in particular, has fluctuated dramatically in recent times. Steel is roughly 50 per cent more expensive than it was 10 years ago and another factor in the climbing costs.
“Certain materials have disproportionately risen because of availability and market pressures,” explains Marshall. “Historically, big countries were buying up steel and concrete and most of the concrete we pour has a big proportion of steel in it. So if steel goes up, the cost of concrete goes up because you’re producing reinforced slabs.
“The things you use most in the stadium are concrete and steel — if those go up in price, the cost of a stadium is increasing.
“Some of those costs have stabilised recently. There was limited availability of things like glass and aluminium, which are still a little bit on the expensive side. Typically, material costs have caused the price rises but that has been across the board.
“They disproportionately affect a stadium because of the amount that some of them use. Imagine trying to buy 600 or 700 tonnes of steel for a big roof. A small increase in the cost of a tonne of steel is spread very rapidly over a very large area. They can be affected by fluctuations in the market quite dramatically.”
A quarter of the budget will typically be spent on structural engineering work, but it is what can be found within that sets the modern stadiums apart.
There is an expectation on the level of finish, from hospitality lounges down to concourses. The technology and mechanical and electrical (M&E) systems can account for as much as a third of building costs. Piping, wiring, lighting, ventilation… all the things that were given minimal consideration a generation ago. There are also industry-driven upgrades to toilets, kiosks, turnstile software and disabled facilities.
“Services are quite high and there are big kitchens doing very large matchday preparation and they usually work for the week preceding the match,” adds Marshall.
“There is demand on the stadium pre-game from all the M&E kit. That is probably slightly disproportionate to what it would be in any other type of building other than, for example, hospitals or laboratories.
“The structures, M&E and foundations and all of the live safety systems are quite onerous in stadiums. Put all of that together and it’s about 60 to 70 per cent of it tied up in the things standing up and working before you put glazing on the front like the facade.”
A financial director will likely be sweating by this point. And that is before consideration is given to borrowing the money to make it all possible. A newly built stand or stadium will cost one figure, but the interest paid on debts to fund it can cause the expenditure to spiral upward.
The days when Tottenham could refinance its £637million stadium debt at 2.6 per cent are unlikely to return any time soon. Not when the Bank of England’s rate stands unmoved at 5.25 per cent, its highest mark since the 2008 financial crisis. There have certainly been better times to fund a major capital project.
The precise numbers behind these projects will never be known, but there is no denying where the most expensive stadium builds are still consistently found. Bigger has been better in the United States, with costs regularly soaring beyond the $1billion mark.
None have been more ambitious — or expensive — than the SoFi Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers NFL teams. That reportedly cost $5.5billion when completed in 2020 and, with a 70,000 capacity, hosted the Super Bowl in 2022.
Then there is the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, the MetLife Stadium, which houses the New York Jets and the New York Giants, and the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. All were enormous investments north of $1billion — but with an embedded commercial strategy.
“The U.S. has had a huge impact,” explains Lee of Populous, which includes Yankee Stadium in New York among its portfolio of projects.
“There’s sniffiness, but thinking about your fans as customers when you’re designing and operating a stadium is probably the biggest change.
“We’ve been very guilty of thinking fans will be there for life coming through the turnstiles and drinking the same crap beer.
“In America, it’s a different dynamic because professional sport offers more choice. A franchise can up and move from one side of the country to another, so there’s a level of fickleness and a need to attract a customer. A stadium has to respond to that. They’ve been driven down a route of creating the best possible experience for people coming to the stadium.
“Tottenham could never turn Arsenal fans, but their competition is now the high street. That’s what they’re up against.”
And that ultimately leads Manchester United and Chelsea back to the projects they will eventually have to sanction before their homes become handicaps.
Stadiums remain the focal point of any club, the places that will bring thousands to its doors in all weathers. But they now need to be more, a platform for growth and expansion. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus have all grasped the nettle, no matter the outlays needed.
“It’s not just about creating some bowl that’s cladded in something shiny anymore,” says Lee. “Those mid-1990s stadiums, a lot of them could be anywhere in the world. You’d have no idea.
“That’s an evolution of these buildings. They’ve gone from an industrial, civic approach to a cultural one.
“They’re buildings that have genuine relevance to their communities. Stadiums are like town halls, the hearts of communities. A club wants to create amazing experiences but revenue is increasingly important in the modern game.”
Additional reporting: Matt Woosnam
(Top photos: Getty Images)