Times change and the idea of an overseas billionaire taking over is now being seen as a workable solution to the FA’s money problems
The Football Association’s proposed sale of Wembley stadium to the US car parts billionaire Shahid Khan was not greeted by a widespread shriek of patriotic indignation, perhaps illustrating how accustomed British people are now to crown jewels being sold overseas. Liverpool, thrillingly reconnecting with their European Cup-winning heritage and rampaging towards the Champions League final, are owned by US sports franchise billionaires, as are Manchester United, Arsenal and other grand clubs including Fulham, which Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team, bought from Mohamed Al Fayed in 2013.
Fayed sold his other London landmark, Harrods, to Qatari state funds, which also owns the Shard and many prestigious chunks of the West End. The Premier League champions and large tracts of east Manchester are owned by the Abu Dhabi ruling family after decades in which no British investors could be found to arrest economic decline.
At the same time, government investment in its own public responsibilities has been relentlessly cut, with sports facilities, swimming pools, public parks and playing fields inevitably falling victim. Before the 2010 general election, the then shadow Conservative sports minister, Hugh Robertson, expressed displeasure at a Guardian article in which the Labour sports minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, proudly presented his government’s record of investment in school and public sports facilities and warned that the Tories would initiate cuts. Eight years on, as Sutcliffe predicted, hundreds of millions of pounds have been scythed from local authority budgets now struggling to maintain existing sports facilities, let alone modernise or build new ones.
This is the context to the FA’s acknowledgement that it is considering a £500m-plus proposal from Khan to buy Wembley, and presenting it as a positive plan because it would spend the money on improving grassroots facilities. The new Wembley was built for £757m after serious financial difficulties, after the FA took ownership because its England matches and FA Cup semi-finals and finals provide the bulk of the income, and it has been a financial and administrative burden. Eleven years since the stadium finally reopened, with its new arch, 90,000 seats, Bobby Moore statue and girth of Club Wembley Club Wembley corporate feasting, the FA still owes £140m and Wembley makes a loss after paying the interest.
The FA’s own history since it took charge of the Wembley project in 1999 has been turbulent, working through a series of chairmen and chief executives and repeatedly coming off worse in battles for governance authority with the Premier League’s chief executive, Richard Scudamore. Gradually, however, the FA has focused more on the abject conditions in which the public has to play football and begun to explore the potential for improving things.
Hence this proposed deal to sell Wembley and the FA’s careful presentation of it as an opportunity to release substantial, transformational money for public facilities.
The argument is that having sweated for years to pay off the enormous debt on the new stadium, the FA has a prime asset in north London, still sucking in time and effort and whose value could be put to better use. If Khan, who has nursed a long-term project to bring the NFL and his Jaguars franchise more regularly to Wembley, were to buy it, the £500m-plus would be released for good works. This commitment at the outset of negotiations, that the bulk of the millions will go towards upgrading facilities, is the promise to which the FA must be held and against which it should be judged.
The FA is making it clear it will still look to earn valuable money from playing matches at Wembley, retaining the Club Wembley receipts. In its most recently published accounts, for the year to 31 July 2016, the FA recorded £56.5m revenue from Club Wembley, 10-year packages having been sold to City firms and other corporate clients from the stadium’s opening. Last year Club Wembley packages were revamped to provide more luxury, reduce tenures to three seasons, and prices are now running from £2,148 for a seat per season to £11,064 in the One Twenty club and £37,200 – per person, per seat – in a private box.
The FA is saying it will retain all this income and revert to playing matches on the basis it used to and on which most national teams do: pay rent to use the stadium and keep the money from the tickets. Khan will buy out the stadium itself, take the food and beverage revenue from the rest of it, and take on the burden of its upkeep.
The public money provided for Wembley’s rebuilding and the infrastructure around it: £79m from Sport England, £18m from the government, £17m from the London Development Agency and further smaller amounts making a total of £119m, will have to be repaid or an accommodation reached.
For Khan, the attraction appears to be expanding the NFL into London and ensuring the Jaguars have pre-eminent rights to be the team who play there. While the NFL season is on, from September to January, the FA has accepted that England matches will not be played at Wembley and move around major club grounds instead, a prospect many fans are likely to welcome.
During those months, traditionalists might avert their gaze from the goings-on within England’s national football stadium. But it is a sign of the times that the FA’s proposal itself is being entertained as a potentially workable idea to husband scarce resources, rather than dismissed with a cry of betrayal.