Stadia developments during the pandemic


Almost all current stadium development projects suffered some delay in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a few have even been postponed until clubs’ financial struggles are dealt with. However, nowadays several developments have resumed, some projects have been completed, or have just started.

In a previous article, we looked at the stadium industry touching upon the financial implications of COVID-19; this week, we are focusing on some key current venue developments & expansions.

Most projects in the pipeline are stadium expansions or reconstructions, with their plans already prepared before the COVID outbreak. Many reasons can justify stadium redevelopment plans: increase of capacity and improvement of venue experience through additional/enhanced facilities, like a greater focus on VIP sectors and hospitality, or high-tech digital solutions, eventually to improve profitability, are some of the most common ones.

The pandemic posed a new challenge: to implement immediate solutions for a virus-safe environment in the stadia. That instant need, interestingly, became a driver for accelerating stadia's overall digital transformation, which originally was envisioned as the holy grail in enhancing in-venue experience.

Digitalization of many features in stadia, from safe and seamless operational procedures to engaging visual solutions, had already been taking place over the past years but at a slower pace. The pandemic has now sped up the process, as digitalization not only improves guest experience but also helps these facilities comply with health measures by reducing human contact. Online ticketing, contactless entry, crowd control apps showing the fans the quickest route to their seats, pre-ordering food and beverages to your seat, among others, are here to stay in the long run.

Being cashless is also a key feature of post-COVID stadia: it decreases queuing time, makes transactions safer and quicker and provides useful customer data for the stadium operator. For example, Chelsea, despite postponing plans to build a new venue, have completed the conversion of their stadium to a completely cashless venue for the start of the current season.

As a priority, stadium operators (and architects of future venues) need to focus on hygiene and safety. Manchester United, for instance, have announced a strategic partnership with food safety company Ecolab, which provides solutions to enhance safety, cleanliness and operational standards at the club’s venue. Furthermore, Tottenham Hotspur have started to use cleaning robots in certain areas of their stadium, while human personnel continue to focus on sanitising and deep cleaning critical areas, such as toilets.

While all these steps mark a sensible development route, amid the financial restraints caused by the pandemic clubs need to think twice about how and when they proceed with their stadia projects. The relatively large number of current (re)developments, nevertheless, reflects optimism that clubs’ financial situation will improve, allowing them to proceed with their plans. The EURO 2020 and the start of the new season in most European leagues have also demonstrated that the pandemic is not going to change the way fans visit live sport events: as soon as regulations were lifted, people flocked to stadia to watch their favourites playing in person.

Major current developments 

The health crisis has delayed the development projects of several prominent European clubs, including Barcelona and Manchester City planning to expand the Camp Nou and the Etihad, respectively, or Chelsea’s vision to build a new stadium. In addition to these ones, there are several projects in the pipeline across the Big 5 leagues, primarily in the UK and Italy. 

The UK is about to see some major developments, as the UK and Republic of Ireland are expected to make a joint bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup, which will involve 48 teams and 16 stadiums. Under FIFA’s rules, each stadium would need to hold at least 40,000 fans, with 60,000-seater venues for the semi-finals and an 80,000-seater arena to host the final. Currently, there are nine stadium redevelopment/expansion projects and a new stadium construction in the pipeline in the English Premier League (EPL), along with a further six in the Championship, all boosting the chance of a bid being accepted. Clubs like Liverpool, Leeds United, Leicester City or Wolverhampton are planning or have already started to increase the capacity of their stadia. The biggest sign of recent progress in the top tier was seen by Evertonwho managed to move forward with their new 53,000-seater stadium development on Liverpool’s Bramley Moore Dock. The project has experienced some delay due to the health crisis and regulation issues regarding new developments in the city’s historic port, but the club have recently been given a green light to proceed and have successfully broken ground on the project in July.

Italy also boasts several ambitious redevelopment plans, however, having several old stadia with low utilization figures, the key motivating factor for future developments is mainly the current state of those venues. The average age of the stadiums in the Serie A is 69 years, the second highest after the EPL (77) - which in many cases, on the other hand, have in the meantime been extensively modernised -  meaning a lot of venues need major reconstruction and modernization. However, Italy’ strict regulations in relation to preservation of architectural heritage, combined with the economic hardships caused by the pandemic, may significantly postpone the realization of projects being planned. For example, Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (MiBACT) recently ruled that Fiorentina’s Stadio Artemio Franchi could not be demolished or undergo a major redevelopment due to its historic status.

Currently, there are eight stadium projects in the pipeline in the Serie A, including one of the largest developments across the big 5 leagues: a new stadium on the historic site of San Siro, home of cross-city rivals AC Milan and Inter Milan. Plans for a New San Siro have been given a “conditional yes” from the city council in 2019, and the two teams are reported to have received the support of global finance groups JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs to develop a new 60,000-seater stadium. The project, however, suffered major delays in March when the mayor of Milan requested clarification on Inter’s financial situation, as their owner, Suning Holdings, was reportedly interested in selling majority shares of the club due to financial difficulties caused by the pandemic. In addition, the imminent elections in the Municipality of Milan have also caused delays in crucial decision-making, putting the process on hold. The project, including certain redevelopment works around the area, is expected to cost in excess of EUR 1b, split equally between the two clubs. A definitive go-ahead for construction of the new stadium could arrive between October and November 2021.

During the pandemic, Spanish giants Real Madrid managed to make a virtue out of necessity – since games had to be played behind closed doors in the past season, Los Blancos moved to their training ground to play their home games and sped up redevelopment works in the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. The massive refurbishment is reported to include a different theme attraction in each of the four corners of the stadium, a world class restaurant, a new club museum and a casino, space for tours, integrated shops and 360 screens. The total cost of the renovation is said to be in the region of EUR 575m. Despite the ongoing construction work, last weekend 30,000 supporters were welcomed back to the stadium for the first match at the Bernabeu in 560 days.

The new season of the Big 5 leagues will welcome fans in two new stadia. German Bundesliga side SC Freiburg had originally planned to move to their new 34,000-seater home during the 2020/21 season. The project, however, has accrued major delays due to the pandemic which pushed back the delivery date. Freiburg were hoping to move into their new stadium in time for the 2021/22 season, but recently confirmed that the squad would play its first three Bundesliga home games in their old venue. The new opening date of the SC-Stadion is now set for mid-October.

Newly-promoted Premier League side Brentford are to face their opponents in their recently developed 17,250-seater stadium, which is the smallest venue in the EPL. Although construction work on the arena was subject to some delays due to COVID in 2020, the Bees’ eventually were able to move to their new home in September last year, thus making Brentford Community Stadium the first new venue in the Big 5 leagues that was inaugurated during the pandemic.