Wembley Stadium sale to NFL team owner Shahid Khan makes sense
Of all the football venues in the world, the most famous is probably London's Wembley Stadium. It has been the home of English football for the better part of a century, the place where every budding young English footballer has dreamed of scoring in the FA Cup final and where Geoff Hurst scored the hat trick that won England's only World Cup.
There is something about Wembley that speaks from the depths of English football's heart. Yet the guardian of the national game, The Football Association, has been in discussions for the past six months over the sale of its Wembley National Stadium (WNSL) subsidiary to the American billionaire Shahid Khan, who also owns Fulham FC and the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.
Reaction to the news has been mixed. Some say it is lunacy to sell the crown jewel of English football and, with it, the fixed assets that anchor The FA's balance sheet. Others lament the impending loss of a treasured emotional asset. Yet, whatever the detractors might say, it is undoubtedly the right decision.
The looming glass structure of the vast, 90,000-seat Wembley National Stadium, with its imposing arch that dominates the suburban North London skyline, rose in 2007 from the rubble of the crumbling Empire Stadium. And beautiful football venue though it is, Wembley has become as much of an anachronism as the notions of old empire that its predecessor had been built to celebrate.
Few nations around the world maintain a national stadium of their own, the reason being that, with only four home international games each year on average, too few fixtures can be played there to make such an extravagance economically viable.
And building a 90,000-seat stadium really is an extravagant expense. Although the headline cost for Wembley was £757 million, cost overruns and the litigation that followed the troubled construction process meant the final expenditure from all parties was closer to £1 billion. In order to build it, The FA took out almost £600m of debt, a sum it committed to in the teeth of the deepest recession for generations; it was a macroeconomic climate that hurt both Wembley and The FA.
As planned, it refinanced its debt a year after moving into the stadium, but in an uncertain environment, lenders were not prepared to offer it attractive terms. The extra 1.5-2 percent in annual interest payments it was forced to accept would go on to strain the business plan.
That business plan had already seen The FA gerrymander the fixtures calendar a little to ensure more games would be played in the new stadium than before. The two FA Cup semifinals joined the final, the Community Shield, the EFL Cup final and the four England games as its core fixtures. But this was still only nine 90-minute matches per season compared to 19 home games in a Premier League stadium.
That has changed this year, with Tottenham Hotspur taking up temporary residence during the rebuilding of their White Hart Lane Stadium, but even that hasn't met targets. Having targeted net profits of £12m on rental revenue of £20m from the Premier League club, The FA has in the event received £4m from a £12m rental.
The FA, therefore, turned to the NFL to fill in the gaps. The Jacksonville Jaguars have been the most frequent tenant, and it is no surprise that Khan, the Jags' owner, is the man behind what is reportedly a £500m offer to buy the ground.
Indeed, ESPN FC can reveal that an option has been in place for him to take up a stake in Wembley since September 2015, when he signed a deal to come back and play every year. That contract will have provided a guide for The FA's chief executive, Martin Glenn, as he has negotiated preliminary terms. Yet it has taken two-and-a-half years for this to come about.
Why now? Because, although 75 percent of the initial debt has now been repaid, Wembley risks becoming a greater financial burden for The FA than ever. It is conspicuous that WNSL's accounts for 2017 will become overdue Monday; such a lack of financial transparency seldom projects a picture of a thriving corporate entity.
Indeed, in 2016 the organisation's accounts revealed that "Club Wembley box and premium seats ... are primarily due for renewal in 2016-17 or 2017-18. Their renewal over the long term remains the principal risk facing the business."
Sources say that the mission-critical sales process around those seats, which contributed £56.5m of WNSL's total £104.4m revenue in 2016, was "not looking too pretty." The FA stood behind its subsidiary in 2015, refinancing the Wembley loan, but with the £285.7m outstanding, WNSL debt burden weighing heavily, in the following two years it made debt repayments of £109.6m and interest payments of another £17.1m. That £126.7m total sum was equivalent to all the investments in the game The FA had made in each of the previous two years.
The FA, whose stated principal activity is "to promote and develop the game of Association Football" had, to a large degree, become a property company. Its biggest asset had also become its biggest headache.
Khan has, therefore, become a deus ex machina to lift The FA out of a sticky spot. His £500m offer -- it has been reported as such, although The FA refused to comment on any of the financial aspects of this article, saying only, "We can confirm that The FA has received an offer to buy Wembley Stadium" -- would permit the £139.4m that was still outstanding on the bank loan in July of 2017 to be repaid.
It would also provide The FA with an enormous cash windfall to invest in long-overdue new grassroots pitches and release the organisation's focus from stadium operation and event management to its core responsibility of growing the game of football. It is said that under the offer, the FA would even be allowed to continue playing its major fixtures at the famous ground while still drawing the tens of millions of pounds they generate from Club Wembley premium-seat and executive-box ticketing.
Such a deal will not happen overnight, of course; there are a number of other stakeholders involved. Before construction, WNSL received £120m of grant funding from the government-funded Sport England body. Its terms dictate that if more than 49 percent of the stadium is sold before 2022, the money would all have to be repaid, and there are restrictions over naming rights that Khan might find onerous. But none of these issues should be barriers to the deal reaching satisfactory conclusion.
If and when it does, it will release the FA from a financial straitjacket, permitting more England games to be played around the country and giving Khan an historic, global trophy asset to dwarf even his 308-foot superyacht, Kismet. That is a deal to suit all parties and one that, in time, even the most sentimental and traditional English football fans will surely come to celebrate.