Backlash against corporate boxes a warning for sports stadium redevelopment

Australian sports stadiums have been warned against devoting too much space to corporate boxes as fans claw back prime seats in European football grounds.

FC Barcelona, one of the world’s wealthiest sports team, is considering bringing its members – known as “Socios” – back into the middle tier of its home ground “Camp Nou” when it renovates its 99,000-seat stadium, according to Tristram Carfrae, the London-based vice chairman of global engineering and design group Arup.

“They want to reserve it for the die-hard fans,” Mr Carfrae said. “What they have been doing to date is inserting the business people into the middle… but the middle is now getting so big that it’s disturbing the balance.”

A backlash is emerging against stadiums that devote too much space to VIP seats and boxes, such as the Arsenal Football Club’s home stadium in London, Mr Carfrae said.

“There is a tension between how to make a bowl atmospheric for the fans, a place where they will chant and sing and go mad, and getting revenue from the business people,” he said.

“If you slice the right in the middle of the bowl like is done [at Arsenal’s stadium], you will get the nickname ‘The Library.'”

Mr Carfrae, a structural engineer, has designed some of the world’s leading sports stadiums, including China’s national aquatic centre in Beijing (known as the “Water Cube”) and the City of Manchester Stadium.

Corporate seating

While the UK’s Premier League football stadiums typically have around one-third of seats in 60,000-seat stadiums allocated to VIPs, Australian stadiums still favour fans over business people.

But allocations of corporate seating and the quality of facilities provided to corporate sponsors at Sydney’s stadiums are under review as the NSW Government prepares to spend some $600 million redeveloping the city’s stadiums.

Currently, some 5000 of the 80,000 seats at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney’s Olympic Park, which has 110 private suites, are allocated to corporate sponsors.

Sydney rugby league teams the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs had dedicated seating at the ANZ Stadium during last year’s grand final with “The Burrow” at one end of the stadium and “The Kennel” at the other, helping create a better atmosphere.

‘Better blend’ in Australia

The Sydney Cricket Ground, which seats 48,000, has 113 outdoor corporate boxes as well as 73 suites and 10 function rooms, while nearby Allianz Stadium, which seats 44,000, has 106 outdoor corporate boxes, 57 suites and six function rooms.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground, which has a capacity of about 100,000, has 2500 seats dedicated to VIP suites, although sports teams that hire the ground can allocate other seats to sponsors.

Mr Carfrae said that Australia currently had “a better blend” between corporate and fan seating than many stadiums in the US or Europe. “The MCG has very good corporate facilities but it still has a great atmosphere.”

But he cautioned a backlash against technology was emerging in Europe as some football fans complain about the prevalence of wifi, which has encouraged people to look at their phones rather than at the players on the ground.