To begin the final countdown to Euro 2020, Uefa projected Bono’s face on Wembley stadium. The U2 singer provides vocals for the tournament’s anthem, We Are the People, and his beaming mug, alongside that of the Edge and the Dutch DJ Martin Garrix, could be seen on the big screen alongside the slogan “get #eurohyped”.
The national stadium looked good and will probably be a star of this delayed tournament. It is hosting more games – eight – than any of the other 10 venues and it will stage 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 one distinctive location in the tournament that is directly linked to football. You are likely to see a lot of it.
But Wembley is in trouble. The last set of published accounts for Wembley National Stadium Ltd (WNSL), a company owned wholly by the Football Association, showed an operating loss of £27.7m in the 12 months to 31 July 2020. This was up from a loss of £2.5m the previous year. Turnover fell from £100.7m to £35.5m. According to the accounts, operating loss and turnover are “the two main key performance indicators of WNSL”.
Few industries have not been punched in the gut by Covid-19, but live events have been hurt as bad as any. Wembley’s accounts show the impact of the first five months of the pandemic, but the stadium went a year without any business until fans were allowed to return for the League Cup final in April. Even then the crowd of 7,771 occupied less than one-tenth of capacity.
The events industry, of which Wembley is part, needs people back. Which is why the prospect of 22,500 people heading down Wembley Way on Sunday will be a welcome sight. But its importance will be largely symbolic. “Wembley at 22,000 is an unsustainable model,” says Martin Fullard, the editorial director at Mash Media, which covers the live events industry.
“This discussion is nothing new, but the threat no less real. If capacity caps remain for much longer, the venues and their deep-rooted supply chain will simply collapse.”
Businesses need caps to be lifted now but there is growing uncertainty over whether the government will go ahead with its planned stage 4 of reopening on 21 June. A decision is expected early nexton Monday, but even if the light is green, complications remain over issues such as testing and vaccine certification. It would not be a return to normality.
“Don’t forget,” says Fullard, “Wembley may only hold a dozen or so football matches or concerts every year, but as a venue it is active every other day of the week hiring out its event spaces. This is a serious revenue stream. If these events cannot run it would put the stadium at serious risk – and many others, too.”
The former FA CEO Martin Glenn does not believe Wembley is facing an imminent crisis. “It won’t be a drama to keep it going,” he says.
But Glenn, who backed a £600m plan to sell Wembley to the Fulham owner, Shahid Khan, before it collapsed in 2018, says the money that will be needed to staunch Wembley’s losses could be put to better use. Even in good times Wembley is a cash drain on the FA, Glenn says. English football’s governing body does not see most of the money from the big gigs and other external events such as the NFL, while many of its own matches are offered at a discount.
“If you own the rights to an event, like an England match, all the income is yours,” he says. “But the FA has to sell tickets for a lot of qualifying matches against small teams where you want to have a full stadium, so you discount everything in order to fill it.”
Without the regular income a club side would provide, and with an estimated £15m in annual costs that come with keeping a landmark building top of the range – from maintaining the roof to upgrading the wifi – the stadium is never going to be an earner for the governing body.
“The FA is a well-run organisation,” says Glenn, who is now chair of the Football Foundation. “It’s struggled with Covid, but it’s rich by the standards of governing bodies, it can afford to keep Wembley going. It’s more an opportunity cost, what that money could be spent on instead.
“You could put £15m into building community hubs in the National League or spend more money on world-class staff for the England team. For a rich country our full-size pitches and the number of 3G pitches are not at a level comparable to, say, Germany or Holland. Those are the things the FA should be doing, rather than maintaining a stadium, which is iconic but not a core part of what the FA is there to do.”
Glenn maintains that the proposed sale to Khan, which collapsed in a storm of jingoistic headlines, was the right thing to do. The opportunity may yet come around again. “If I was advising Khan I would say: ‘It made sense then it makes sense now. But you might be lowering your price.’”