Old Trafford upgrade key to Man United's future as rivals redevelop
Manchester United have had enough reminders on the pitch that they are no longer the kings of the Premier League in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, but Sunday's 2-1 defeat against Tottenham in the final game at White Hart Lane should have served as a warning that some ground is being lost off it too.
While Mauricio Pochettino's young team extended their unbeaten run at home to United to five years, the impressive new stadium being built around Tottenham's old ground emphasised the accelerating growth of the North London giants.
In less than 18 months, Spurs will be playing in front of sold-out crowds of 61,000 in their new stadium and the revenue generated from those attendances, as well as the eventual naming rights, will ensure a rapid increase in their financial earnings.
Spurs will become yet another rival to eat away at United's commercial supremacy, with Chelsea also preparing to redevelop Stamford Bridge and turn it into a state-of-the-art 60,000-seater arena.
Neither Spurs, Chelsea or Arsenal, who moved into the 60,000-seater Emirates Stadium in 2006, can come close to eclipsing United in terms of owning the biggest stadium in the Premier League. Even when United reduce Old Trafford's capacity from its current 75,635 to 73,300 by 2020, due to work required to accommodate more disabled supporters, they will still boast the biggest club ground in England.
But turn back the clock to 2006, just before Arsenal swapped Highbury for the Emirates, and the difference between then and now in terms of United's supremacy should be a warning sign for the Old Trafford hierarchy.
By the end of the 2005-06 season, Old Trafford had grown to its current capacity following work to add 8,000 seats by filling in the north-west and north-east quadrants at the stadium. The construction affected attendances that season, leaving United with an average figure of 68,765 -- still way ahead of second-placed Newcastle, the only club other than United at the time to break the 50,000 barrier with an average crowd of 52,032.
The stadiums of United's major rivals, however, were all dwarfed by Old Trafford.
Liverpool (44,236), Manchester City (42,856), Chelsea (41,902), Arsenal (38,184) and Tottenham (36,074) were all straining to keep pace with the United money-making machine and it required the billions of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea to give the Blues any hope of competing with Ferguson's team.
Financially, United have been out on their own when it comes to earning money through the turnstiles and from corporate hospitality, but their rivals are now beginning to close the gap. During the 2015-16 season, United earned £107m from matchday revenues at Old Trafford -- just £7m more than Arsenal. Tottenham only generated £41m on matchdays last season, but their move to the new ground will enable them to compete like never before.
While United, who have over 70 global partners, have seen incredible commercial growth in other areas, since 2006, the club have stood still in their stadium development while their competitors have moved to close the gap.
City, bankrolled by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, have extended the Etihad Stadium's capacity to 55,000 with plans for further expansion, while Liverpool are now up to 54,000, with the club's owners investigating the feasibility of making Anfield bigger still in the coming seasons.
Even West Ham, never previously regarded as a club capable of challenging the elite, now boast the second-largest club ground in England having moved into the 66,000 capacity London Stadium (currently capped at 57,000 due to licensing regulations) at the start of the 2016-17 season.
The expansions at City, Spurs, Liverpool and Chelsea all have to be paid for, so the financial boost from the extra capacity is not an instant hit. But from having a stadium which held 30,000 more fans than their nearest big rival in 2006, United have now been reined back towards the pack and they have lost a significant financial advantage in the process.
So what can United do to re-establish their stadium superiority and move clear of their rivals once again?
There are no plans to leave Old Trafford, so any changes must be made on the current site and, in this, United have a free rein due to the location of the stadium and vast swathes of space around it.
United have no active plans to redevelop their stadium, with sources telling ESPN FC that the stadium remains the biggest in the Premier League by some distance. But the one area most obviously in need of an upgrade and extension is the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand, which dates back to the 1960s.
As it straddles a railway line, building up and over the tracks is a problem that has prevented significant work in the past, but modern technology suggests that it could now been done without too great a financial burden.
But if that stand was to be extended to the point where Old Trafford could house 90,000 supporters, would United fill it and make it financially viable?
Finding another 16,000 supporters on a weekly basis would be a tall order, even for a club of United's stature, but there are some within the club's hierarchy who believe that an American design could be the way forward.
When United played a preseason friendly against Barcelona at the Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara in July 2015, senior figures at the club were struck by the layout of the stadium, particularly the main stand, which is a three-tier construction topped off by a top tier solely housing executive suites.
Replicating the Levi's design at Old Trafford would perhaps take the stadium's capacity to just over 80,000, but the financial benefits of a four-storey executive level would be worth more to United than an additional 10,000 seats. Levi's Stadium does not have a roof, with the climate in California somewhat different to the wetter, colder conditions in Manchester, so it is certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution.
It would be a novel approach for an English stadium, but with their domestic rivals beginning to close the gap, United need to find a way to re-assert their previously-held dominance in order to stay ahead of the competition.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_