Ground-sharing: Should it be a taboo?

There is something of a buzz walking into your rival team’s stadium. Being in a small minority of a group of away supporters is surely part of it; you’re outnumbered, but you’re hungrier and louder as a response. Everywhere around you is enemy territory. It’s not home; it’s unfamiliar, it’s foreign, it doesn’t belong to your club.

Except when it does. Some teams around the world, of course, share their stadium with one of their biggest rivals: we see this in Milan, in Rio, in Rome, in Munich and in Los Angeles. But historically, such ground-sharing has been taboo in England. The odd desperation or ground redevelopment case aside, the entire concept of ground-sharing has been vociferously opposed by most supporters whenever it’s been raised as a threat to the identity of their clubs.

But the momentum towards ground-sharing at both the top and the bottom of the sport seems to be gaining pace fast in England. Is the argument for it compelling?

The Economic Benefit

On his blog, economist John Beech argued the taboo against ground-sharing needs to be broken down as its existence was hurting English clubs economically.

I love stadiums, Victorian (Archie Leitch – what a hero!) or ultra-modern. I love them as buildings, as examples of grand architecture. But I am unsentimental about them otherwise – I do not share the typical British view that they can and must only be associated with one club. As someone who who works in a Business School that is not surprising – their utilisation rate is ludicrously low if they only earn serious money once a fortnight.

In Italy shared stadiums are far from unknown, and there are examples in Germany and Austria too. In Britain they have generally been restricted either to clubs playing different sports (football and rugby seem to pair up more often than other sports) or to lower League clubs sharing their stadium with a reserve team from a higher division. The proposal that Liverpool and Everton share a new stadium has been greeted with derision by their respective fans.

If you haven’t heard yet, you perhaps need to sit down: Oldham (League 1) and Rochdale (League 2) have held initial and informal talks about the possibility of sharing Oldham’s Boundary Park (1). Their grounds are less than seven miles apart, so any inconvenience to Rochdale fans would not be enormous. Stockport County is also mentioned in this particular context.

No doubt there will howls of protest from Outraged of Milnrow. Let the voice of protest just think about the big savings on costs, a vital issue in these times with so many clubs facing the possibility of insolvency. If it meant the difference between survival of the club or liquidation, would they still see a shared stadium as unthinkable?  If it works at the San Siro, why couldn’t it be made to work here?

The economic argument is compelling on the face of it, and has been made many times in official reports on English football, including the Chester Report in 1965 and the Taylor Report following Hillsborough.  The occasion of Beech’s post is the proposed ground-share between Rochdale and Oldham. Rochdale’s managing director, Simon Corney, explained the rationale:

If the opportunity arose for two clubs who are struggling in the lower divisions to get a brand new facility, why not explore it. I don’t think it is just us. I think it is several clubs in the lower leagues and they were talking to their neighbours to see if it would make sense to move in together.

A similar debate on ground-sharing is raging at the top of English football, where the economic argument is even more compelling in some ways: would it make sense for two new stadiums running into hundreds of millions in cost to be built in Liverpool, for example?  The dubious rationale that one super-stadium is needed to guarantee Liverpool a World Cup game in 2018 (for a bid England hasn’t even won yet) aside, the issue is a complex one, with Everton’s other option seemingly to be to move to Kirkby, outside Liverpool city limits. But fan opposition has already been considerable. Should they bow to the economic imperative?

Ground-sharing Elsewhere

Those in favour of the idea often argue that ground-sharing has been a big success abroad. But a closer look at some of the examples cited in Italy, the U.S. and Scotland suggests all is not as straight-forward as it seems.

Milan’s San Siro, shared by Internazionale and AC Milan, is frequently brought up as an example of a stadium where ground-sharing has been a success the Liverpool clubs could emulate at the highest level. Yet there is actually a counter-argument against this: not owning your own stadium can hurt your identity for marketing and sponsorship purposes quite considerably.

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A recent piece on Milan’s failures in the Champions League in World Soccer magazine (unfortunately not available online) laid some of the blame at the income shortfall from not owning outright their own home: it means lost value in constantly switching advertising within the stadium for each team and a weaker brand for the club tied to their stadium as it’s diluted by the shared presence with a rival.  Milan’s brass has long complained about the difficulties of sharing with Inter. They have for a few years been looking at constructing a new stadium for themselves alone, with Fly Emirates said to be interested in being the marquee sponsor, as they are at Arsenal. If it were to be another shared situation with Inter, it’s unlikely the same branding appeal would be apparent to a sponsor.

It’s also likely in most ground-sharing situations that one club comes to have the upper hand in the stadium, due to more success on the field or greater financial backing, and that can lead to an unequal relationship. In L.A., Chivas USA have struggled to carve out their identity whilst sharing with the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center, and are seemingly always looking ahead to move to their own home.

In Germany, the facade of the Allianz Arena might change colour to reflect whether it’s Bayern or 1860 Munich playing, yet the latter is now very much the junior partner. Both clubs initially owned the stadium built for the 2006 World Cup, but after relegation, 1860 were bought out and now have to pay rent just to play at what was once their stadium, but is now very much Bayern’s. This eased their short-term cashflow, but leaves them hamstrung in the long-term until their build their own home, stuck paying rent in a stadium far too big for their average crowd.

And even at the lower level, the financial gain from ground-sharing is not always clear-cut due to the wear and tear on the pitch, particularly in Northern Europe. The Scottish Premier League considered banning ground-sharing outright in 2008, after a spate of fixture cancellations due to the state of the pitch at stadiums hosting two clubs, costing clubs thousands of pounds.

Ground-Sharing and Club Identity

Scotland’s bid for the 2012 European Championships included a plan for a new stadium in Dundee to be shared by Dundee United and Dundee — currently, they literally play a spitting distance from each other. Yet having a separate stadium remains crucial to keeping the club’s identities apart for many fans who opposed the idea.

Dundee United's Tannadice Park, a strone's throw from Dundee's Dens Park

In May this year, it was remarkably revealed that a former director of Dundee United (and one about to return to United as a director), John Bennett, now owned Dundee’s ground, Dens Park. Though it looks like Bennett will sell his share in the stadium, for a while fears that a merger was planned played on the minds of supporters of both clubs.

The attempts to promote the building of new stadia for a city with two clubs also often come, tellingly, with such grander plans for a merger of the completely, which of course also makes sense at a base economic level: this was the plan of Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer in 1990, as he attempted to create ‘Edinburgh United’ by merging Hibernian and Hearts together to play at a new super stadium.  Robert Maxwell’s failed effort at creating Thames Valley Royals — merging Oxford United and Reading — around the same time was a similar scheme. It took fierce fan opposition to derail both plans.

Beech might be right that sharing a ground with a rival is better than going out of business — though if it’s not viable for clubs to support themselves at their own stadium, there’s something larger wrong with the economics of the game and the way clubs are being run.  Stadiums can have multi-use beyond an extra game every two weeks, which may not even bring in much extra revenue.

If ground-sharing was so obviously economically advantageous, one suspects that it would be the exception and not the rule worldwide for clubs to share their grounds. The example of 1860 Munich’s loss of ownership at the Allianz Arena, the problems ground-sharing has caused for Scottish clubs and the difficulties the two Milan clubs have in attracting sponsorship deals on the level of the rest of the European elite who have their own stadiums suggests even the economic argument is not clear-cut.

It may be a taboo, but as long as fans feel it’s important to have a place they and they alone call home, one suspects it’ll take a much more compelling economic imperative to overcome a cornerstone of English footballing tradition.

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