TTo start the final countdown to Euro 2020, UEFA projected Bono’s face onto Wembley Stadium. The U2 singer provides the voice for the tournament anthem, We Are the People, and his radiant mug, alongside that of Edge and Dutch DJ Martin Garrix, could be seen on the big screen alongside the slogan “get #eurohyped ”.
The national stadium looked good and will likely be a star in this delayed tournament. It hosts more games – eight – than any of the other 10 venues, and it will host the semi-finals as well as the final. The stadium and its arch, which flashed blue, green and purple for Bono’s promo, is perhaps the only distinctive location in the tournament that is directly tied to football. You are likely to see a lot of it.
But Wembley is in trouble. The latest set of accounts released for Wembley National Stadium Ltd (WNSL), a 100% Football Association-owned company, showed an operating loss of £ 27.7million in the 12 months leading up to July 31 2020. This represented a loss of £ 2.5. m the previous year. Turnover increased from £ 100.7m to £ 35.5m. According to the accounts, operating loss and revenue are “the two main key performance indicators for WNSL”.
Few industries have not been hit in the guts by Covid-19, but the live events have been hurt as much as any. Wembley accounts show the impact of the first five months of the pandemic, but the stadium went a year without any activity until fans were allowed to return for the League Cup final in April. Even then, the crowd of 7,771 people occupied less than a tenth of the capacity.
The events industry, of which Wembley is a part, needs a comeback. That’s why the prospect of 22,500 people heading to Wembley Way on Sunday will be welcome. But its importance will be largely symbolic. “Wembley at 22,000 is an unsustainable model,” says Martin Fullard, editorial director of Mash Media, which covers the live events industry.
“This discussion is nothing new, but the threat is no less real. If capacity caps remain longer, sites and their deeply rooted supply chains will simply collapse.
Businesses need to lift the caps now, but uncertainty is growing over whether the government will move forward with its Phase 4 reopening slated for June 21. A decision is expected early next Monday, but even if the light is green, complications remain over issues such as vaccine testing and certification. It would not be a return to normality.
“Remember,” Fullard says, “Wembley only hosts a dozen football matches or concerts each year, but as a venue it is active every other day of the week by renting its event spaces. This is an important source of income. If these events cannot unfold, it would put the stadium in jeopardy – and many others as well. “
Former FA CEO Martin Glenn doesn’t think Wembley faces a looming crisis. “It won’t be a drama for this to continue,” he said.
But Glenn, who backed a £ 600million plan to sell Wembley to Fulham owner Shahid Khan before it collapsed in 2018, says the money that will be needed to cushion Wembley’s losses could be better used. Even in good times, Wembley is a waste of money for the FA, Glenn says. England’s football governing body does not collect most of the money from major concerts and other external events such as the NFL, while many of its own games are offered at a discount.
“If you own the rights to an event, like an England game, all the income is yours,” he says. “But the FA has to sell tickets for a lot of qualifying games against small teams where you want to have a full stadium, so you discount everything to fill it. “
Without the regular income a club would provide, and with an estimated £ 15million annual costs of maintaining a high-end historic building -om roof maintenance to upgrading wifi – the stadium will never be a source of income for the governing body.
“The FA is a well-run organization,” says Glenn, who is now president of the Football Foundation. “He’s struggled with Covid, but he’s rich by governing body standards, he can afford to keep Wembley. It’s more of an opportunity cost, which that money could be spent on instead.
“You could invest £ 15million in building community centers in the National League or spend more money on world-class staff for the England team. For a wealthy country, our full-size locations and the number of 3G locations are not on a par with, say, Germany or Holland. These are the things the FA should be doing, rather than maintaining a stadium, which is iconic but not integral to what the FA is there to do. “
Glenn maintains that the proposed sale to Khan, which collapsed in a storm of chauvinistic headlines, was the right thing to do. The opportunity may still present itself. “If I were to advise Khan, I would say, ‘It made sense, so it makes sense now. But you could lower your price.