Leeds United’s chief executive Angus Kinnear made a pre-season appearance on The Square Ball Podcast this week, talking transfers, kits, pre-season results, Marcelo Bielsa’s contract (he will sign before Saturday, he will he will he will), turning down bids, and redeveloping Elland Road.
And other stuff. You really should listen to it! It’s on all the podcast apps if you search for ‘The Square Ball’, or this player will do the job.
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Some of the vital information in there is about how Elland Road will look for the Everton game on 21st August 2021, which leads into how it might look for an Everton game in August 2031, assuming we haven’t all been subsumed into a blockchain by then. Let’s look at some of what Kinnear says about that.
There’s a bit of anxiety among fans about what attending the Everton game will be like, given the various levels of different Covid-19 protocols at different sport and entertainment venues, and after more than an entire season of football grounds being completely shut down. Will it be a staged return, will people have to show proof-of-vaccination, or what?
“At the moment,” says Kinnear, “we’re hoping from a supporters perspective that it’s a return to normal. I was at Fortress Kenilworth Road on Saturday, and the experience for Luton Town fans was exactly the same as it was pre-Covid. No checks, no surveys, no masks. So I think from a supporters’ perspective, it shouldn’t impact them too significantly.”
There will be changes in the West Stand, though, due to the Premier League still needing players to socially distance. The solution at Elland Road last season was to use spaces throughout the West Stand, with the banqueting suite turned into away dressing rooms, and referees dressing in the President’s Suite. With fans back in the stadium, that has to change.
“Supporters will see that we will be building an away dressing room complex in the car park behind the West Stand. It’s going to involve some different movements of supporters. There are going to be some ‘seat kills’ [seats kept empty] that we have to to put in place for protecting the gap around the benches [dugouts], and there’ll be some screens put in place as well. Some screens around some of the media facilities.”
One area left conspicuously empty of seats on all the summer photos from inside Elland Road, at the front of the West Stand near the north-west tunnel, will have seats put back in before the first game. But others, including the ones mentioned above near the dugouts, won’t be in use. And those dugouts won’t be getting the hotly-anticipated racing seats, as that work is being “held off for Covid reasons, and the work that needs to be done around the dugouts.”
“All the supporters who are going to be impacted by that will be hearing it across the next few days,” says Kinner. “We apologise that it’s so late, but these rules are evolving day by day. Our vision has always been that every fan gets to sit in their seat, with an experience which isn’t impacted, but it looks like there will be several hundred supporters in different areas whose matchday experience might change.”
Other changes are coming at the back of the Kop. Rail seating will be introduced this season as a trial, with the first 1,000 or 2,000 going into the Gelderd End, starting from the back, moving forward down the stand if the trial is successful. Our Dan Moylan asked if this was a response to “getting it in the ear from the safety authorities”; Kinnear’s take was more diplomatic.
“If it works out, then we’ll be looking to roll it out across more of the areas where persistent standing is is an issue.
“We’re not getting it in the ear [laughing, fortunately], we’re having constructive dialogue. But yeah, Elland Road has been highlighted as one of the stadia with the highest risk of what’s called a progressive crowd collapse, which is people falling over the seats. I think the supporters refer to it as ‘limbs’.
“So it’s to avoid that issue. Ultimately, [rail seating] is not safe standing, and you’re still not allowed to have safe standing or advertise it as safe standing. But it means that if a supporter were to persistently stand and they would push forward, they’d be falling on to the rail rather than into the person before them. So it’s just about making it safer.
“Our long term objective is to allow supporters to enjoy the game the way they want to. If they want to stand, we’re fully supportive of [safe] standing. And we think ultimately, and certainly in the new stadium, we would have a stadium which is a combination of seated and standing so that supporters can enjoy the game in the way they want to.”
That takes us from the coming few weeks, to the coming few years, and redevelopment of Elland Road. Details are being kept publicly vague, Kinnear says, to avoid distracting from what’s happening on the pitch with glossy 3D views of a future that might not happen. First, the team has stay in the Premier League again this season.
“If we stay up this year, then construction wouldn’t start next year, but the process would,” says Kinnear. “And that process is planning, full designs. And actually the financial commitment you need before you start construction is tens of millions of pounds. So the first gate that you need to go through is we [stay] up again, and therefore that’s tens of millions of pounds [of Premier League revenue] to take us to the point where you can put a shovel in the ground.”
Kinnear did add some details. Construction would avoid impact on attendances; the West will be redeveloped first and that might or might not be at the same time as the North; longer term the East Stand will be refurbished; the South Stand, if it gets touched, will need taking down and rebuilding; the ultimate aim is a bowl; and 60,000 capacity, not the 50,000 being discussed a year ago, or the 55,000 talked about when the Parklife plans were relocated in June.
“We had to make some projections around what we thought demand would be like in the Premier League, and they were too pessimistic by quite a factor. When we’ve seen the demand for tickets, when we’ve seen the demand for shirts, we’ve seen how quickly the fan base is growing, I think the upper end of that is more likely. But ultimately it will depend on on the construction costs and the value we get from it. And it might be that it’s done in in a number of phases.”
The West Stand comes first, based on the potential for corporate income.
“The West Stand would be the first stand that we develop because it’s the oldest and has the most upside potential. Those discussions are in place with the council. The deal on the land [behind the West Stand] will be announced very shortly. Plans are continuing to move forward.
“If you look at the revenues that the bigger clubs are generating, Spurs are generating £5m a game, that’s £100m across the course of the season. We’re just over £20m. So before you get into sponsorship, there’s really a significant gap in ticketing revenue. And there’s very few clubs in the country that could justify a 60,000 seat stadium, but Leeds United is one of them. And I know that’s part of Andrea Radrizzani’s vision, and part of the 49ers’.”
But, Kinnear says, that shouldn’t be to the detriment of ordinary fans, who in theory won’t be priced out by corporates:
“The strategy, and I’ve seen it done very successfully at Arsenal and West Ham, is that it’s the corporate seats that drive the revenue going forward. And in both Arsenal and West Ham, there was no increase in [price of] general admission seats as part of a stadium development or stadium move.
“So I think while there’s always some reluctance from supporters to welcome more premium tickets into the ground, it’s actually the fact which enables general admission tickets to be pinned and not have to increase. I think from a mix perspective, there would be more premium seats, but there would also be significantly more general admission seats and it would allow those seats to be sold at the same prices or similar prices to they are now.
“When you look at the demand profile, there is a demand for more corporate seats, but there’s as big a demand for more general admission seats. And ultimately, you need to deliver against both. So it will be significant increases in both.”
Here’s the part about phasing and a bowl:
“The idea would be, for atmosphere purposes, to ensure that it’s a bowl rather than four separate stands. The phasing is open to debate. But you can either do the West and North at the same time, or you can do them separately. And you protect the attendance for the season that you’re doing it. The way that works is you build over the existing stand, so supporters can still sit in their seats, and then the next season they move upstairs and then you build the tier below it. So ideally you don’t lose significant capacity during the construction process. West and North could be done together [or] they can be done sequentially.
“And then it’s about probably joining it up to the East Stand, and it’s more of a redevelopment of the East Stand than knocking it down and starting again. And then the South Stand is the most challenging because you’ve got Elland Road behind it, so you don’t have the footprint behind to expand. So that would probably limit the expansion on that side … that stand would need to be taken down and started again. It just doesn’t have the depth of the other three.” [Could they use a cantilever design? asks Dan.] “There’s still a lot you can do with that stand, yes. You can go back over the road.”
The redeveloped stadium is, in Kinnear’s words, the “ultimate solution” to demand for tickets, a situation that has changed dramatically in his four seasons at Leeds:
“I think when I joined the club four years ago, we didn’t open the the upper tier of the East Stand because we didn’t have enough supporters to put in. And it was done as a cost saving. And now we’re in a position where we could sell the ground out three times over. I mean, the increase in interest has been absolutely phenomenal. And I know this creates some tension between the supporters who feel they’ve been more loyal, or attended more regularly through some of the more challenging years, versus some of the newer supporters who are becoming either re-engaged in the club or supporting us for the first time. And so for the club, we’re trying to create a balance between rewarding the loyalty of the of the supporters who’ve stuck through this, because they’ve seen some challenging times, and the support has been phenomenal. But also we have a responsibility, if we’re going to keep Leeds operating at the highest level, to engage new supporters and to grow the fan base, and to diversify the fan base, and to become more international.”
In the meantime, there seems to be a gap in current perception of the MyLeeds and MyLeeds+ membership schemes, with Kinnear not convinced that memberships are mainly bought by people wanting a chance of buying tickets, while many fans see them purely as a means to a ticketed end. He says that’s up for review, though:
“People do have a value in the affiliation [of a membership], they have a value in LUTV. They find a value in the pack that they’ve received historically. I mean, [he’s joking here] what price do you put on a musical bottle opener? But clearly it comes down to ticketing, and we’re going to have to continue to evaluate what the demand is going to be for tickets. You know, when we had a membership scheme at Arsenal, the majority of members didn’t apply for tickets. I think that will be different at Leeds.
“We’ll see what the the take up on our membership is. And then [see] how many people apply for every game. I think there is a perception that members are only interested in the tickets. It is a bit broader than that. But I think it will be up for review. And if we’ve ended up putting out a product which doesn’t have any value because people can’t get the tickets, it’ll obviously need to evolve and change.”
For the rest of what’s discussed, and to hear the jokes being told without them being spelled out in square brackets, listen to the full TSB Podcast episode with Angus by finding ‘The Square Ball’ in a podcast app, or using the player below.
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