London's Olympic Stadium set for a future in soccer
LONDON - London's Olympic Stadium looks set to become home to Premier League soccer club West Ham United, ensuring the venue retains a prominent role in British sport once the memories of a golden Games begin to fade.
Mayor Boris Johnson last week took charge of the body that will decide in the coming weeks on the future of the 430-million-pound ($693 million) stadium. Having staged an acclaimed Games, London is desperate to find a tenant with the commercial clout to support efforts to revive a once rundown part of the capital.
Newly restored to the English Premier League, West Ham are the best known of four bidders competing to move into a stadium built for the Games, and appear to have the strongest business credentials.
A deal for the club to take over the stadium following the Games collapsed after a legal challenge last year. Under the new plan, the freehold of the stadium would remain in public ownership and the new tenant would take a long-term lease.
Bidders also include third tier English soccer club Leyton Orient, who are open to sharing with West Ham. The others are a group who want to stage a Formula One motor racing grand prix and a college offering degrees in soccer business.
"What you need in order to make a stadium work are recurring quality events which attract large crowds," said Richard Cheesman, Director Business Development and Funding at industry experts International Stadia Group.
Cheesman said the U.S. city of Atlanta, widely criticised for a poorly organised Games in 1996, was one of the few cities to have put an Olympic stadium to good use. Reconfigured and renamed Turner Field, it has been home to Major League Baseball team Atlanta Braves for 15 years.
"They looked at it in Atlanta and decided it was baseball that was going to fill the stadium. In London it's Premier League football and concerts," added Cheesman.
Billions of pounds have been spent transforming Stratford, the former industrial area where the Olympic Park is located.
One of the poorest parts of London, the area is now home to Europe's largest urban shopping mall, built by Australian property developer Westfield.
The apartments which this summer housed the world's top athletes are now being converted into 2,800 homes to be leased next year by developers. Premier League soccer would ensure the area retained a high profile.
"West Ham seems logical," said a real estate source close to the Olympic Park. "It was the preferred bidder and has a comprehensive plan in place ready to go."
"You need that level of throughput and investment in the stadium that a top football team will provide. It needs to create revenue and not sit empty for 340 days a year," he added.
West Ham have played at Upton Park, close to the Olympic Stadium, since 1904 and not all of their fans want to move.
Their ground holds around 35,000 and is one of the most atmospheric in the Premier League. However, the club is ambitious to move to a new home that would have a higher capacity and better facilities for both regular supporters and money-spinning corporate guests.
Eighty thousand fans packed the stadium during the Olympics but the capacity is expected to fall to around 60,000 once it is converted for regular use.
The running track will remain at the stadium which will host the World Athletics Championships in 2017.
West Ham are believed to be exploring the possibility of installing retractable seats that would go over the track and allow fans to remain close to the action.
Michael Payne, former marketing chief of the International Olympic Committee, said the opening and closing ceremonies showed the venue worked for entertainment as well as sports.
Payne also noted how well connected the site was to central London via series of rail routes.
"I was astonished at how easy it was in terms of transportation access," he said. "Rule number one for a venue is ease of access. Clearly the Games proved it."