After 112 years West Ham United will be leaving behind this Summer their Boleyn Ground (or still called Upton Park by many) home and taking up residence in the stadium used for the 2012 London Olympics. With a Rugby League International taking place at the stadium between England and New Zealand and with a ticket costing a reasonable £20, I decided to pay a visit to this iconic venue to see what lies in store for visiting fans next season.
Now much has been made as to whether the move will be a good one for the Club. Well financially it is to me a 'no-brainer'. West Ham move to a new state of the art stadium for very little money (as tenants the Club before they move in, are paying a mere £15m towards the £272m total conversion costs, to make the stadium suitable for football) and sell the site of their old Boleyn Ground to make enough money to clear their existing debts, plus a bit more in the bank. Sounds great business to me!
West Ham will also benefit from having a larger capacity stadium, as the Olympic Stadium with a capacity of 54,000 has around 19,000 more seats that the Boleyn Ground, which should generate more income. But will the Club fill the extra capacity? Well I think for the majority of games they will. Considering that currently the Boleyn Ground has for the last three seasons, has averaged a fill rate of around 97.5% of capacity, then that would suggest to me that there is additional demand for tickets out there. This coupled with West Ham offering attractive season ticket prices starting at £289 for an Adult ticket and £99 for children, then it would be no surprise if the Club sell around 45,000 season tickets. Add on the number of away fans to this total, then the Club will only have around 10% of seats available to walk up customers. Considering that most tourists visiting London now see attending a Premier League fixture as almost a 'must do if you can' tourist attraction, then I feel that the Club won't have difficulties in putting 'bums on seats'. But will those visiting fans enjoy their visits and want to comeback?
The Olympic Stadium lies in East London in Stratford, which is around four miles away from the Boleyn Ground. It is well served by public transport, with good Tube and Train links to Stratfotd station. I travelled from Euston firstly by London Underground and then Overground train to nearby Hackney Wick, before taking a ten minute walk up to the stadium. Overall the journey took about 40 minutes from 'door to door', which is not bad at all.
It Simply Looks Stunning
The first thing that strikes you about the stadium, as you approach it, is how much clear space there is around it. Okay there are some building legacies of the Olympics nearby such as the interestingly designed Aquatics Centre, but generally you get a clear view of the stadium. Externally the stadium is not the most attractive, being almost reminiscent of a large gas holder, but I believe that West Ham are looking to improve this by creating some sort of new 'wrap around' covering for it. Nearby a 'Fan Zone' had been set-up with pre-match entertainment available and I am sure that this is something that West Ham will continue with.
After passing through the electronic turnstiles, you notice that the concourse is quite roomy. More importantly there is quite a number of eating and drinking outlets, which operate from a number of permanent kiosks. These are supplemented by even more 'pop up' areas selling everything from real ale to sweets. The sheer number of outlets meant that queues were not particularly long or even non-existent, which considering that the attendance was around 44,000 for this game, was quite impressive.
Spectators enter the stadium at the back of the lower tier, whilst there are stairs (and in some parts escalators) to take fans up to the upper levels. My first impressions of the stadium were that it was modern, bright and one of quality. It is also a little different in its design compared to other new stadiums, that have been recently been built. You can also see in the facilities that this has generally not been built on the cheap (apparently the stadium will have cost over £700m), although fans of MK Dons can still pride themselves that they can sit on large padded seats unlike the standard plastic seats on offer here.
I was seated near to the front of the North Stand. Looking around I couldn't help but be impressed with the large translucent roof, which was installed as part of the stadium conversion and apparently is the largest of its kind in the World. The leg room was fine, the PA loud and crisp and at the opposite end there was one of the largest screens that I have ever seen at a stadium. So far so good? Well not really.....
Much was made beforehand of the fact that as part of the deal to become tenants, West Ham would have to agree to retain the ability for the stadium to host athletics events, with a track and the use of retractable seating. There were concerns that fans would be seated too far way from the playing action, to feel part of the event. Well I can honestly can say that I echo those concerns. Now I was seated in Row 9 to the front of the lower tier in a block of retractable seats and I still felt that I was indeed far away from the action taking place in front of me. In fact in many parts of the game, my eyes kept drifting away towards the large video screen, that was showing the match live. If this is what happens when you are near to the front, what would it be like to be seated near the back of the upper tier? Well I went for a stroll and found that (and to no surprise) a set of binoculars would have come in handy. The situation is not helped by the stadium design as the angle of the stands is quite shallow. This means that fans are already located quite far away from the pitch, before you even get to the issue of the additional space, especially behind the goals, that is needed for athletics.
Notice the distance from the pitch and shallowness of the stand
The other main concern for me was that there wasn't much in the way of atmosphere. Okay it was a Rugby League game and the match itself was a bit flat, but even so there was a good crowd in attendance. I just wondered if like me a lot of other spectators felt a bit disengaged from it all. Again the stadium design with the roofs located high above the spectators is not conducive to amplifying the crowd noise and I think this is an area that West Ham, will need to try really hard to focus on.
The stadium is only a few minutes walk away from the Westfields Shopping Centre, which is great if your other half is not into football. The Centre contains a number of eating establishments and a few bars, including 'The Tap' which brews its own beers. On my visit these venues were all very busy with shoppers and I just wonder how they will cope with 54,000 fans descending on them, my guess is they won't. There are two small brew pubs located by the canal at Hackney Wick, which were both my type of places, but alas rather rammed with fans. I am not aware of much else on the drinking front in the local area, but I can see away fans having to a pre-match tipple in Central London beforehand.
In summary I felt that it is a modern functional stadium, that was worth visiting, but I am not sure in terms of the overall fans experience that I would be rushing back. Of course for the purposes of this Guide I will visit again when West Ham move in to watch a game and I will reserve final judgment on the stadium until then.