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Ten Things We Learned About Brentford’s Stadium Redesign at the Fans’ Forum

Ten Things We Learned About Brentford’s Stadium Redesign at the Fans’ Forum

 

Last Saturday, 100 Brentford fans gathered at a church hall in Brentford to discuss the changes on the new stadium with club execs. The fans’ forum – hosted by Beesotted, BIAS, Bees Unites and The Griffin Park Grapevine – gave the opportunity for Brentford Chairman Cliff Crown, CEO Mark Devlin, Director Nity Raj and Bees United Chairman Dave Merritt to explain the club’s reasonings for the change in design of the Lionel Road stadium.

At the same time, it gave fans an opportunity to ask questions and express their concerns to the club about the move. 

All in all, it was a beneficial meeting – with the club getting a feeling from the fans face to face how much this move means to them – with possibly the biggest ‘win’ of the day was the club’s promise to re-engage the fans in the next phases of the stadium development. 

Below are ten things that we learned from the Lionel Road Stadium Fans’ forum.

  1. Internal Stadium Features Have Been Removed Due To Costs

The main internal changes to the stadium were the removal of seven-day-a-week hospitality suites (see No 4 below), supporters bar and club shop. In addition, the community trust has been moved to an adjacent building and the club offices will be housed elsewhere tbd. These will be replaced by a huge broadcast unit which will be Premier League-ready – ensuring that Brentford don’t have to upgrade their media operation once again if were ever to be promoted (Brighton recently had to spend £5m upgrading their ground – 5 years after it opened .. including it is noticed in this article – click here – upgrading their media facilities and an increase in the number of hospitality suites).

The club has made a commercial decision not to get involved in areas they feel they are not experts in. Seven-day-a-week hospitality they feel has a huge up-front fixed cost implication as well as substantial running costs. The club felt are unwilling to take the risk on running such an operation in a crowded marketplace (they said they felt that the raft of hotels in the Heathrow corridor provided heavy competition).

Chris Gammons – who ran the stadium project for a number of years – commented that he felt that the hospitality operation could have been subbed out to experts in the field who would take the risk on in return for giving Brentford a percentage of the turnover. How much of the risk is actually covered by these outsourced companies in reality is a matter for the business heads to thrash out. 

The current club shop loses money and Cliff Crown made it very clear that the club is unwilling to fund an operation that is staffed six days a week but makes the bulk of its turnover every other Saturday.

The pub was also dropped from the plans. Not much was mentioned of the profit and loss from The Hive and whether the failed Princess Royal project (which Brentford Football Club used to own) had anything to do with the decision.

However, the club did mention competition from local drinking establishments and felt confident that external parties would more than likely set up a pub in one of the adjacent buildings if they felt it was commercially viable.

  1. Wilmott Dixon are Taking The Financial Risk But The Original 20k Seater Design Was Deemed Too Difficult To Build

Cliff Crown indicated that the financial risk in the stadium build was Wilmott Dixon Residential’s (now known as BE Living). However, we were also told any delays in the build would affect Brentford Football Club. We presume this meant financially.

What does that mean in reality? According to our sources in the building game, Cliff Crown’s statement implies that Wilmott Dixon are funding the stadium build – recouping their outlay with the sale of the houses at Lionel Road and presumably also sale of houses at Griffin Park.

The norm is to raise funds for the build. These funds can come from a number of areas. One area of raising funds recently is the buy-to-rent subsidy (which closed in 2016) which provided loans for up to 50% of development costs. If this subsidy gets pulled (and I have no idea if this is a source of funding …  just pontificating), this would result in a huge black hole in the development costs and subsequent delays.

In comparison, AFC Wimbledon are taking on the responsibility (and risk) of financing their stadium. From what we have been told by sources close to their project, their stadium will be erected with one finished main stand and three temporary ‘Fulham away end-type’ stands as they wait for the cash flow to come through to fund the project.

Although they received free land to build the new stadium and got decent money from Chelsea for the sale of their Kingsmeadow ground, the club are still short of the money needed to make it an ‘all singing all dancing’ stadium so they will be erecting it in stages.

This excerpt from this article in Construction News website (click here) (yes I need to get out more often) I thought was interesting:

“Although the ROI on developments with high levels of hospitality is good, rising construction costs and increasingly complex designs for many stadiums and stands have led to another trend: a phased approach to construction.

“With construction costs as they are, it’s very difficult to justify [a full new build],” Mace’s Mr Dabasia says. “I know Liverpool spent a lot of time looking at building an entirely new stadium on Stanley Park, but there’s no sense in doing it when a new stand costs £90m which will pay back in, say, seven years, compared with spending £400m-plus on a new stadium. The numbers just don’t stack up. More and more, refurbishing or adding to stands is probably the way things are going to go.”

These kinds of concerns have led to one project stalling, with the proposed redevelopment of Fulham’s Riverside Stand being put on hold last summer despite having funding, planning permission and a contracting team in place, with Buckingham Group set to act as principal contractor. “The chairman wanted to review the whole of the design, and went to a different designer,” 

Brentford have obviously decided to avoid any phased construction.

On top of Wilmott Dixon’s huge building costs, Brentford will have also have some upfront costs. These costs should have been relatively small compared to the cost of building the stadium. However, we can only assume that these costs will increase as the overall cost of the project increases.

It is also assumed that Brentford will have negotiated a share of the housing profit once it is sold (so once Wilmott Dixon recoup their money for the stadium and flat build, Brentford recoups their costs and takes a share of the remaining profit .. if any) – with the money going to recoup any costs spent on the stadium as well as money ploughed into the team over the past few years.

The stadium design was simplified we were told – Cliff Crown said it was a joint decision – to reduce first and foremost Wilmott Dixon’s risk. The risk of prolonged development times will then result in escalated costs for both parties.

One can only presume from this that Brentford’s potential financial input was greater than initially expected to have downgraded a stadium that was – in effect – being paid for by a third party.

The re-design involved the removal of one tier of seating – reducing the capacity to 17,250 fans from 20,000 – and moving the stadium south to accommodate the building of an access road to the North of the stadium.

The road build was to facilitate the building of the stadium and residential properties at the same time whilst making the stadium build easier with the original design deemed too complicated and risky.

With the building of the stadium having huge cash flow implications, Wilmott Dixon would need to be able to fund the development by selling the flats earlier in the development process.

The club felt that original design would create huge cash-flow problems that could possibly (this was a judgement call) incur huge delays in the build. Cliff Crown stipulated that the club was not willing to risk a situation where the stadium build could get into difficulties – hence the design simplification.

  1. Stadium Design Has Not Been Finalised. Fans Will Get a Say In The Future Design of the Stadium

This is true … but only to an extent. The key stadium design elements have actually been completed (broadcast suite, one tier stand etc) and these will not be changed.

However a design process takes place in four tiers and the Lionel Road stadium design is currently in it’s 2nd tier.

The interior of the stadium (pitch side, corridors etc) has still to be finalised. One feature that was pressed for by fans on the day was for the club to increase the safe-standing allocation from 1200 fans. The club said it would now look to up that number to 2000 plus fans.

The concourse is one area that the club has said that they want to look and feel good – particularly because there is no pub – as they want to encourage fans into the stadium early to spend money. This could be a key area where fans’ are able to put their input into the stadium so as not to get a soul-less corridor area that is an identikit of most new stadia around the country.

The club has said it will welcome fan input in the future internal design of the stadium. What elements are up for change – other than the standing arrangement – is still unclear. What can fans suggest to inject a bit of personality into the stadium? We expect with the now promised increased fan liaison, to have a clearer idea over the forthcoming months.

4. Premium Seating Is Codeword for Matchday Hospitality – Brentford’s Key To Having A More Sustainable Stadium

Premium seating numbers have been upped from 1k in the old design to 3k.

The club feels that this relatively risk-free way of raising income – dedicating 1/5th of the stadium to higher-priced seating and corporate packages – is much more in keeping with their risk-free approach to running a football club than relying on non-match-day hospitality and non-match day merchandise income.

These seats will not be discounted for Brentford fans.

Most modern football clubs benefit from the hospitality route with the majority of their matchday income coming from here.

“Wembley holds 90,000 spectators. Only 15 per cent of those are premium spectators, but they generate over 80 per cent of the revenue,”

Construction News Focus Blog

What was still slightly unclear from the meeting – but has now been clarified now – is the perceived difference between Premium Seating and Hospitality. From what can gather, Premium Seating is a rebranded term for match-day hospitality. Whereas ‘hospitality’ is now seen as conferences and weddings that take place on non-match days – something that Brentford has decided to steer clear of.

When asked what would happen if we sold less premium seats than expected, we were told that selling 1500 premium seats at Lionel Rd was better than selling 80 at Griffin Park but would result in less than expected income for the club.

But they felt that was still a good position to be in.

However, what wasn’t explained was how that decrease in income affects the overall financial picture.

Saying that, if the ultimate aim is getting to the Premier League and staying there forever then in reality, it doesn’t matter how many Premium Seats we sell. Or, if you want to be flippant, whether you have Premium Seats at all as their income will be miniscule compared to the Premier League income.

5. Regular seats will be priced ‘reasonably’ for Brentford fans

The club were very quick to point out that, whereas the premium seats would have a premium price, the regular seats would be priced affordably for Brentford fans.

How affordable? Would we be paying more than our current seat or standing place at Griffin Park. Personally, I hope not. 

What wasn’t made clear was whether there were any other benefits for Brentford fans in the future. And whether the price would remain affordable with a sold out 17,250 stadium in the Premier League or would Brentford bow down to the dreaded ‘supply and demand’ tactics.

With Brentford’s ‘Affordable Football’ mantra, it is presumed that the prices will remain affordable regardless but this is something that needs to be clarified.

6. If The Council Reject The New Design, Brentford Will Remain At Griffin Park

OK we’ve made a bit of an assumption here. That Brentford would stay put if the new design was rejected by the council. But realistically what are the other options? Ground share with Fulham?

Cliff Crown said unequivocally that if the design was rejected by the council, there would be no stadium.

Lets see how that pans out at the council planning meeting.

7. Stadium Expansion is Possible But Unlikely

Put it quite simply, Brentford do not have the right foundations for them to build a new stand in the future without extensive (some may say prohibitive) building works.

As was quoted above in section 1, many clubs are finding it less risky to expand their stadia then build a new one. Brentford will pretty much always be saddled with a 17,250 stadium.

Looking at both sides of the argument here, as Cliff Crown put it, doing the mathematics below:

There are 2930 premium seats at Lionel Road. An assumption that 1k season ticket holders take up premium seating.

Away fans are between 1400 to 2500 which leaves 11,820 and 12,920 seats for Brentford fans in the new stadium.

If 1k current Bees fans take up premium seats, 10,350 (current average gate) minus 1,600 away fans minus 1,000 premium seats gives 7,700 regular current fans to migrate to the new stadium/

There are 12k to 12.5k seats available leaving 5,500 places for fresh faces at the new stadium … the club feels that this is more than enough ….

Also there is an argument to say that a tighter stadium full of hard core Brentford fans will create a better atmosphere than a larger stadium filled with all manner of characters. 

Gemma from BIAS had a different opinion – feeling that the new stadium plans could see potential future fans shut out from supporting Brentford with no opportunity to bring future friends and family. 5,500 fans might suit Brentford in the short term but if we were ever to have a prolonged period of success, we were limiting the amount of people who were able to access watching the team in the future – reducing the ability for current fans to bring friends and family to future matches.

The club’s response to that was they (or was it they and Wilmott Dixon we’re not sure?) were not prepared to risk upfront money to pay for potential future fans who may or may not exist in 10 or 15 years time. 

8. Griffin Park Will Remain Terraced Until We Move To Lionel Road

Mark Devlin explained Brentford have to apply yearly to SGSA (Sports Ground Safety Authority) for a license to continue with terracing on Ealing Road (as opposed to converting it to seating).

He sees no reason why SGSA would refuse terracing between now and when we move to Lionel Road. Saying that, he did not clarify if this were still to be the case if Brentford were to attain Premier League status before August 2019.

9. There Are No Guarantees on Atmosphere

The club felt the atmosphere would be excellent at the new stadium. But the reality is this is a bit hit-and-hope unless some work is actually put into creating a stadium where the fans can create some noise. This will come via stadium design as well as (very importantly) fan management.

Mark Devlin acknowledged that the 1600 away fans often sound louder at Griffin Park than the home fans as the sound often gets lost from the Ealing Road end of Griffin Park because of the way the stadium is designed. With that, he said that the new stadium was more like Rotherham’s new ground – with it’s low roof and capacity to keep the noise inside the stadium.

Devlin emphasized that the club was adamant that the 3,000 Premium Seats would not create a ‘atmosphere vacuum’ like it does at Wembley (with large swathes of fans either side of the half way line not returning to their seats until well into the 2nd half). One way they were looking to guarantee that the Premium Seating area remained relatively lively was their aim to sell 1,000 premium seats to current Brentford fans who they feel will carry the passion to the half-way line.

He also acknowledged that much of the atmosphere is generated from the standing areas of the stadium which gives even more credence for the call to extend the ‘safe standing’ section to as big as possible.

10. Football Without Fans Is Nothing

Chris Gammons made a very good point. Everyone wants this new stadium to work. So there is a vested interested in the club getting all parties engaged in moving forward with the new stadium.

There is flat feeling surrounding the new stadium at the moment with many fans feeling totally disengaged from the process of moving to their ‘new home’. And to start generating some excitement as we move towards our new home, it is imperative that the club starts to engage all the stakeholders as we move forward. Staff. Fans. Corporates. They all need to be energised and excited and engaged as we plan the move to Lionel Road. 

As Gemma from BIAS said “Football Without Fans is Nothing”. It may be an obvious phrase. But the fact is … the reason why all this premium seating .. and hospitality .. and TV studios … and other stuff becomes relevant is because of the football on the pitch (which may be awful at times .. so you can’t guarantee bums on seats) AND what the average fan brings to the game – which is a vibe and an atmosphere and credibility.

TV companies are paying through their nose for a game that is as exciting off the pitch as it is on. And it is no secret that TV companies have asked the football authorities to address the lack of atmosphere generated at matches as it does not reflect well when they broadcast pictures of mute stadia across the world.  

The value that the average fan brings to the game – you can’t put money on. 

And that value should never EVER be underestimated. 

 

Billy Grant
@BillyTheBee99

 

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About The Author

BillytheBee Grant

Following Brentford for 30 years plus now .. write .. blog .. videoblog .. podcast ... photograph ...eat .. sleep .. Brentford .. am known to attend the occasional England match too (12 tournaments now) so am hardened to failure ... On the board and national council of the Football Supporters Federation. ... organised husky dog racing for a living back in the day ... as you do .. You don't wanna go up!!

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