There has been a real feeling of anger from football fans in England after the announcement that the Football Association is considering the sale of the iconic Wembley Stadium to an American NFL team.
Shahid Khan, the billionaire owner of American football ‘franchise’ the Jacksonville Jaguars and English Championship side Fulham, is prepared to pay more than £500m in cash for Wembley but will allow the FA to keep its hospitality business, Club Wembley, valued at a further £300m.
The FA, who are around £100m in debt and due to pay it off in 2024, has said the money received could be pumped into grassroots football. However, the thought of the national stadium being privately owned and potentially renamed under a sponsorship agreement doesn’t sit well with many who love the beautiful game. Can you imagine if Wembley was named after famous US firms and became the ‘Budweiser’ Stadium or the Wembley ‘Taco Bell’ Arena.
Mr Khan, who is reportedly worth just over £5billion, has tabled a formal offer for Wembley that the FA are discussing. If they did choose to sell the most famous stadium in the world, it would open the door to the first NFL franchise to be set-up outside the United States, an unprecedented move.
Khan already has an agreement in place for Wembley to host one Jacksonville Jaguars game every season, but are his motives more aligned with NFL expansion in the UK?
Tottenham, who have NFL games as a key part of their business strategy have designed their new ground to incorporate a separate American football pitch and have NFL branding at their new stadium. They agreed a deal with the NFL to stage two games each year between 2018 and 2027, but the sale of Wembley to Khan will impact on this massively. Chelsea were also considering a move to Wembley for four years while Stamford Bridge is being redeveloped, but Khan will surely block this.
There is also concern about the money that was spent to help redevelop the new Wembley stadium. What will happen to the £40m of taxpayers’ money that was pumped into the development of the new stadium, or the £120m of National Lottery funding that was provided to help with the project?
Will the England national football team be forced to make way for NFL games during their season and play home fixtures at other stadiums around the country?
Despite all these fears, you have to ask, is the sale of Wembley really such a bad idea? The offer could be too good to turn down, especially if the FA are able to pump most of the £500m back into the game and invest it at grassroots level.
It wouldn’t be until 2024 that the FA would finally finish paying for Wembley, 17 years after the new 90,000-seater stadium was completed and opened at a cost of £757m. Khan’s money would clear that debt overnight and release the FA from a significant financial commitment to maintain and modernise the stadium in the coming years.
Surely forcing the national team to play more important games at different grounds around the country would open up the opportunity for more fans who don’t live south of Watford to be able to watch the Three Lions.
In fairness, the FA are in a fairly unique position among national governing bodies by actually owning their own stadium. For instance, Germany don’t own their own stadium, nor do Italy who share theirs with Roma and Lazio.
In fact, it was only in 1999 that the FA came to own Wembley from Wembley PLC. They clinched a £103m deal to purchase the outdated stadium, made famous by the Twin Towers, which were beginning to crumble.
It maybe a sign of the times, but maybe Wembley and the FA have to move with the times too.