It's never too late to stay at home!

Last updated : 01 May 2003 By Lar Kirwan

Costs at that stage had increased to an estimated £250-£300M but the benefits still seemed to me to outweigh the risks. Tradition would be lost but progress was dictating this.

I have now however changed my mind.

There are several factors which have contributed to this:

Football's financial bubble has burst. The ITV Digital debacle, the collapse of Kirch, the changed transfer environment and reduced value of TV rights have all been strong factors that have shown that the seemingly logarithmic increases in football club's revenues have not only ceased but that revenues may now in fact decline. Seeing some of the difficulties that clubs like Leeds and to a lesser extent Chelsea have got themselves into is also instructive.

Despite this there still seems to be huge inflation in construction costs and /or the costs in ancillary matters relating to the AG project which have pushed costs first up to £400M and this week we have heard £450M mentioned for the first time. There is hardly ever a construction project that didn't end up costing ca 10% more than the original budget so we could this rising to £500M before completion.

This has rendered the AG project much more difficult to fund, and whilst it is likely that ultimately some syndicate of institutions/investors will fund it, the greater risk involved will result in the interest costs being higher than might otherwise have been expected in more optimistic/less risky times. Whatever the current Bank rate is, assuming there is a marginal cost of an extra 1% on the interest rate here then on debt of £400M there is an extra £4M per annum(!) to fund the interest alone (at least initially). Which is roughly equivalent to the wage costs of 2 high earners currently.

Ticket prices have increased at Highbury by 30 - 40% over the last two seasons. As a result we have seen more tickets go on general sale this season than any other recent season. And this was a season when we were double champions with probably the best squad ever assembled at the club. This is a far greater indicator of demand for tickets imho than length of ST waiting lists, TRS membership or TRS waiting lists. The others cost little or nothing in reality, but when asked to part with cash for matches against lowly opposition in winter, the crowds are not doing it now. The matches sell out but some have only done so in the last days before the game. Hardly indicative of massive pent-up demand. More indicative (in my view) of the club having reached some sort of economic equilibrium regarding ticket prices.

If Highbury only just sells out 38,500 tickets at current prices then AG cannot possibly hope to sell out 60,000 seats at the same prices, not every game anyway. Result - have 10,000 plus empty seats for some games or reduce ticket prices. In either case the justification for moving from Highbury (i.e. greater gate revenue) is reduced and this will be another factor in causing the City to worry about the funding for the project.

For some of the above reasons it is worth re-examining some of the previously released statements regarding the re-development of Highbury. You will find that we can add 12,000 - 14,000 more seats to the stadium by re-developing the South Stand/Clock End and the West Stand (despite it also being a protected structure) with limited closing in of the corners. The difficulty with this was originally stated to be (a) that just over 50,000 wasn't perceived to be enough seats and (b) this would not give that much more availability of corporate seats than already exists, as well as (c) costing more per extra seat than AG. It seems unlikely that anyone is examining this closely again, but with AG costs rising as fast as footy revenues are falling, we are left wondering whether point (c) is of the same significance now as it was three or four years ago. The question of whether 50,000 plus seats will be enough for the club has been dealt in the previous paragraph which means that the only justification against redevelopment that might be left is that corporate hospitality would not be as big at Highbury as it would be at AG. Hardly justification for the spending of £450 - £500M though is it?

Of course the club has spent a LOT of money on the AG project to date, which would be dead money if it abandons the project. But the cost/benefit of proceeding compared to not proceeding should be looked at and losing £50M or so of sunk costs is better than being saddled with massive debts and a stadium that may not be full for every game.

So all in all, it seems that revisiting the plans to re-develop Highbury is a better idea than continuing with Ashburton Grove. This analysis has been undertaken without any reference to the fans presumed preference to remain at Arsenal's traditional home, so factors like that are only attractive ancillary benefits not reasons in themselves. The AHAH campaign starts here (Arsenal's Home's At Highbury!).