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Special report: Should Saints expand St Mary's Stadium?
WITH Saints having all but secured Premier League football for another year, talk is quickly turning to how to best spend the millions that the club will receive from the bumper TV deal which kicks in next season.
Many fans have reignited the long debated topic of whether the club should press ahead and expand their St Mary’s home beyond its current capacity of just over 32,000 seats.
But Saints will need to carefully assess the risk to reward ratio if they are to go ahead with a rumoured £50m plus expansion.
There has long been talk of upping the capacity of St Mary’s, in fact it dates back to just a couple of seasons after it first opened in 2001.
Saints dropped a tantalising teaser themselves when they included images of what appeared to be an extended St Mary’s stadium on a DVD they sent out to season ticket holders before the start of the campaign. The artist’s impression came under the broad headline ‘Our future?’ Before getting too carried away, it is important to stress that at this stage planning applications have not been lodged with Southampton City Council, and there are major stumbling blocks to making it happen.
An extension to 50,000 seats has been mooted but that would not only mean a major reconstruction of the stadium, with all the upheaval that would bring, but also a huge infrastructure project.
When St Mary’s was constructed, it had initially been planned to build a 25,000-seat stadium.
However, the numbers added up in such a way that just over 32,000 seats made more sense.
That came in at a total cost for the project of about £1,000 per seat, with the stadium constructed for around £32m.
It is a relatively simple task to extend by 5,000 seats.
The stadium has been constructed in such a way that the only stand that cannot currently be extended upwards is the Itchen.
However, to go up by potentially 18,000 would require massive outlay.
The last time this was being publically discussed, as Saints sold around 22,000 season tickets on the back of the FA Cup final appearance of 2003, the figures involved were already huge.
Then chairman Rupert Lowe confirmed to the Daily Echo that the cost per seat of a 5,000 extension was likely to be in the region of £3,000-£3,500 per seat – or put another way around £15m-£17.5m.
Generously assuming for a moment that those costs were still the same, it would price an 18,000 extension at around £54m-£63m – but while a 5,000 expansion would be relatively easy to secure and develop, 18,000 is another problem all together and those initial costs could well be very conservative.
Because of the awkward location of St Mary’s and the lack of direct access to it, it would certainly require a major, and hugely costly, infrastructure project.
For starters Saints would have to fund the building and opening of a train station at the ground, and the track work that would also mean.
Add to that the nightmare it can be is to travel to the ground on matchdays by car, with pretty small roads also bearing shopping traffic and parking at a premium.
With an additional 18,000 people heading to games it is likely to be an essential part of the planning requirement that the road access was hugely improved, and that comes at a massive cost.
Saints are also likely to want to try and offset some costs by developing features that other modern grounds have incorporated, such as a hotel, and maybe even a retail and leisure complex.
That would require the purchase of land around St Mary’s, much of which is currently used by industry and certainly wouldn’t come cheap.
With that in mind Saints are sure to have considered the option of moving grounds altogether – which sounds outlandish after little over a decade at St Mary’s but in practical terms could be easier.
One downside would be finding and securing land. People have spoken about the club’s land at Jackson’s Farm, but that currently doesn’t have any planning permission.
Then there is the fact that the resale value of St Mary’s, as estimated during administration, is relatively tiny. Due to its location its uses are pretty limited.
Funding would obviously be a key element.
At the time they were discussing it previously, Lowe set a target of 25,000 season ticket holders for possible expansion.
Saints are still boasting a great many season ticket holders but have also moved towards trying to attract people on a game-by-game basis.
It has worked thanks to the success that has been delivered on the pitch.
This season’s average attendance is 30,696. When it was last being discussed it was around 31,716.
For such a major project there would need to be a huge upfront injection of capital from somewhere.
The obvious source is of course the Liebherr family, but that is a lot of money for anybody.
Otherwise Saints need to look to the banks and the markets.
Maybe a venture capital group would get involved, or a hedge fund.
But it is a big risk, even secured against future earnings from the extended stadium and a stay in the Premier League, with a bumper TV deal set to kick in next season.
Lowe’s words at the time he considered a far less ambitious project will surely echo many of those counting the beans at St Mary’s these days.
“I agree it is, in an ideal world, something we should be looking to do at the appropriate time,” he said.
“But we don’t want to damage the club, so it has to be done in an extremely well-planned and structured way.”
What we are speculating over now is another level altogether.
It would make Saints major players on the domestic, and potentially the world footballing scene.
But the reward must surely have to outstrip the risk for “Our Future?” to be answered in the affirmative.