sports stadia

sports stadia
   The design and location of sports stadia has been an active political, sporting and planning issue in Britain since the late 1980s, since when the landscape of stadia has changed beyond all recognition. The catalyst was the Hillsborough disaster of April 1989, in which ninety-six Liverpool football fans died. Following Lord Justice Taylor’s Reports into Hillsborough in 1990, the government banned terraces at football in the top two English divisions, starting a process of redevelopment that continues today across a range of sports. Many football grounds have been completely redesigned, with Blackburn Rovers rebuilding all four sides of Ewood Park, Manchester United making Old Trafford a 55,000 all-seater venue and Liverpool demolishing their world famous Kop terrace. Other clubs relocated rather than redevelop existing facilities, like Northampton Town, Middlesbrough, Millwall, and Huddersfield, while Newcastle, Sunderland, Bolton and Southampton all intend moving before the year 2000.
   These events also highlighted the state of the ‘national stadium’, Wembley. Used for football, rugby league and pop concerts, it has long needed substantial work, and this coincided with the plan to build another national stadium. Financed by the National Lottery and supervised by the Sports Council, this new venue will host both domestic sports and international events (bids for the Olympics, World Cup or Commonwealth Games need new facilities to stand any chance of success). Manchester was expected to get the vote over Wembley (Birmingham, Bradford and Sheffield also bid), but Wembley ultimately won the backing of the Football Association and so is almost sure to win, after announcing reconstruction plans costing £120m. This involves turning the stadium round, installing undulating seats (to create ‘Mexican waves’ without spectators having to stand up), placing video screens on the armrests of most of the seats, and building retractable seats over the track to give both football and athletics fans a better view.
   Football has seen most of this redevelopment, but cricket and rugby have been affected too. Hampshire County Cricket Club will move to a new site around 2000, and Lord’s, home of English cricket, recently built an impressive new structure, the Mound Stand. The most successful British rugby league side, Wigan, hope to share a site with local football club Wigan Athletic, while new stadia are planned by a number of rugby union clubs near London.
   The idea of sharing is also increasingly common, though not as Taylor envisaged: he wanted rival clubs to start sharing a new site, but that has not happened. Instead, sharing a stadium between sports became a cheap alternative to building a new ground: Wasps rugby club was bought by the owner of QPR football club in 1996 and now share QPR’s ground, while Huddersfield’s award-winning Kirklees stadium also features rugby league (and hosts pop concerts to pay for itself). Both football and rugby union are played at Bristol rugby club and at Cardiff Arms Park, while Murrayfield in Edinburgh is used for rugby union and American football. There was never much chance of local rivals sharing a ground, since each stadium carries too much emotional importance for fans: the directors of Liverpool might have been happy to discuss sharing a proposed £50m ground near Aintree with local rivals Everton, but the two sets of fans opposed the plan. This hostility often also extended to the concept of all-seater stadia, which has caused higher prices and a loss of atmosphere at football matches. While most commentators praise the new stadia, there has of course been a price to pay: redevelopment at football alone has cost around £500m, and the need to rebuild stadia jeopardized the existence of some clubs. The future of Brighton football club, for one, will hang in the balance until they can get permission for a new ground, which appears some way off (the issue led to Brighton fans invading the pitch during home games in 1996). Inevitably, obtaining planning permission has proved hard, since clubs often wanted to move to green belt sites. Financial and planning help from local authorities has been slow in coming, and has been ultimately limited in most cases.
   British stadia are now seen as amongst the safest in Europe; to host world and European competitions regularly, new facilities were required, and it is even thought that the improved stadia in British sport in the 1990s are helping attract more female and black people to grounds. Certainly the concrete fenced boxes common from the 1960s to the 1980s needed redesign: in those decades, the political and public emphasis was on controlling the fans, with the police, the State, the football authorities and the clubs locked into a mindset that saw all supporters as hooligans. This led to the construction of the perimeter fences and pens in the mid-1960s that proved so lethal at Hillsborough. Most clubs were not very interested in providing safe facilities, and standards were often neglected. The 1985 Bradford disaster showed how failures to address basic safety issues could prove fatal, when uncleared litter beneath a wooden stand was accidentally set alight, causing an inferno that killed fifty-six people.
   But whether all the changes that followed Taylor were actually necessary is debatable, and the report has clearly been used by many clubs to charge more for admission, increasingly affecting who can afford to attend sports and how regularly. Certainly much of the old individuality of stadia has gone, replaced by uniform and unimaginative designs (with notable exceptions, like Huddersfield). Some of the cultural aspects of all-seater stadia are undoubtedly negative, with much of the interaction between fans and their sports increasingly lost, and the element of participation reduced. Nonetheless, stadia remain a significant issue in British sport, and the changes are not over yet, for better or worse.
   Further reading
    Inglis, S. (1996) The Football Grounds of Britain, London: CollinsWillow.
    Taylor, Lord Justice (1990) Final Report into the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster 15th April 1989, London: HMSO.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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