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West Ham set to cash in on ‘property deal of the century’ at London Stadium

After 115 years at Upton Park, the Hammers play Bournemouth in their first Premier League home match at their new ground

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 August, 2016, 7:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 12:53am

Expect the claret to flow, the bubbles to fizz and the spirits to shake and most definitely stir when West Ham United throw the mother of all house-warming parties on Sunday night (Hong Kong time).

The Hammers will play their first Premier League home match at their new ground, the London Stadium, aka the 2012 Olympic Stadium, a 60,000-capacity arena built on industrial wasteland, which four years ago to the month saw Team Great Britain triumph just as it does now in Rio.

Treble Olympic legacies all round, then. No lumbering white elephants or unstable turf here, no need to hide the expensive, unused and unwanted follies behind a forest of weeds, hoardings or lame theme parks. This is a hybrid stadium built for weekly sports use for years to come. Pledges and promises have been met.

Slaven Bilic’s side take on Bournemouth whose travelling fans from the miniature 11,000-capacity Dean Court will look on in envy, though the hoped-for landmark sell-out has been curtailed to 57,000 because of a health and safety wrangle over standing supporters.

Never mind. Little can spoil the crossing of this threshold. Fears that the Hammers would struggle to fill the place have been allayed as the first two – one a sell-out for the Europa League match against NK Domzale and the other against Juventus – demonstrated. Some 52,000 season tickets have been sold with more seats to come.

The London Stadium is a far cry from the working man’s Upton Park where for 115 years, supporters packed on to the utilitarian concrete and wooden (and later plastic) benches and terracing, breathing down the necks of their players and hissing in the ears of the opposition. It was a rough and ready, fearsome, noisy and intimidating fortress.

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Given the plush design of their new premises – all hipster steel tubing and low-carbon concreted tiers, corporate emblazoned space-tech polyester wrapped around an elliptical bowl and nine-lane 400-metre athletics track, the fans will have to work hard to create the same bristle.

Four years ago, it was the likes of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill that sent hearts racing. Now it’s the turn of Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini to make the place shimmer and rasp vocal chords.

More work is needed on the conversion project because the eco-credentials and budget-constrained original design have construction limitations.

There is dry moat behind the retractable seating and some of the views might have fans in two minds as to whether to a pack a zip line, opera glasses or compact bullhorn for match days.

Such is the perceived distance from the higher tiers, a pitch invasion might require the stamina of a horseman navigating the Mongolian grasslands, while Bilic might consider a Segway to traverse the 30 metres between his dugout pew and the touchline.

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Atmosphere is a paramount requirement in modern football stadiums. The London Stadium was, of course, initially created for athletics, so the acoustics and vantage points are different. It will take this season to bed down and for the engineers to tweak the atmospherics and modify some of the viewing points.

But the London Stadium will work because of the passion of the supporters who are uninhibited by the ground’s structural quirks and limitations.

These mild inconveniences do not detract from the property deal of the century.

West Ham have contributed only £15 million (HK$152.9 million) to the conversion costs of the £701 million stadium and will hand over £2.5 million rent annually.

That’s chump change for a club guaranteed £99 million in television revenue – easy-peasy income from the Premier League’s £10.1 billion media deal set to cover the next three years.

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Compare the Hammers’ deal to their London neighbours Arsenal, who poured £390 million into the Emirates stadium at a time when Premier League TV rights went for a paltry £1.7 billion.

The Gunners were severely hamstrung by the process of paying off their vast investment, leading to several seasons of transfer austerity. All that for 22,000 extra seats.

West Ham, on the other hand, have seen their capacity increased by 25,000 and with no debts to service or building work to finance.

This means the rewards will be reaped not in five or 10 years – but now, starting tomorrow.

With money coming in, more supporters to cheer them on and the eyes of the world watching, the ambition has gone from mid-table muddle-through to achievable Champions League contention.

West Ham were handed the chocolate bar with the golden ticket when they sealed their complex stadium deal for their new home in April.

The rest should be rich gravy – so long as the players keep to the hymn sheet of supporters and the Olympic legacy bubble machine keeps the effervescence fizzing through the air.