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The Jimmy Cooney Column

What is the most successful Olympic Stadium & where does our version stand in history?

FloridaHammer stands in for our regular Wednesday columnist, Jimmy Cooney

In my last guest-post I wrote about the London Stadium and its suitability for our beloved football club. There is a strong element either way and not much in between for West Ham supporters. But the London stadium itself was primarily built for the 30th edition of the Summer Olympic Games, land preparation started in 2007 with completion in time for the 2012 Olympics. We know the sordid history on the tenancy battle, the money that’s been wasted on the retractable seating and the many other issues that continue to plague the London Stadium. But what does constitute a viable Olympic Stadium? How do we measure success? Is it longevity, design or economic impact? I recently came across a white paper written by a Harvard Business School professor on the viability of Olympic Stadiums after the actual games have concluded and the piece raised some significant points on how to prevent these mostly publicly owned stadiums from becoming white elephants.

Arguably the most successful Olympic Stadium of all time is the Los Angeles (LA) Memorial Coliseum, original capacity 93,607 commissioned in 1921 initially as a memorial for the veterans of World War I (completed in 1923). It has since hosted the Olympic Games in 1932, 1984 and in 2028 will become the first stadium to host three Summer Olympic Games. In 1984 just before the Olympic Games the venue was declared a National Historic Landmark, while the Coliseum is owned jointly by the State of California, City & County of Los Angeles. The primary success of the stadium comes from the various anchor tenants over the years that continue to use the LA Coliseum. The University of Southern California must be considered the primary tenant as it has been the home to the University Football team since 1923, the University Auxiliary Services Department also operates & manages the LA Coliseum. The amazing number of tenants at this stadium has included the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams (1946 to 1979) and then again (2016-2019) while their new stadium was under construction. The team also played in St. Louis from 1995 to 2015. Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers also briefly called the LA Coliseum home from 1958 to 1961, the stadium hosted World Series games in 1959. Other teams to have briefly called the LA Coliseum home include the Los Angeles Chargers & Los Angeles Raiders of the NFL, and of course crosstown rivals for the University of Southern California the UCLA Bruins. The Coliseum has also seen its fair share of FIFA International friendlies and World Cup qualification matches. The United States men’s team have played there 29 times, whereas Mexico has played there a whopping 61 times. A $315 million renovation of the stadium was completed in 2019 which added luxury box suites but reduced seating capacity to 77,500. The Coliseum will also become home to a Major League Rugby team the LA Galtinis later this month as the season starts on March 20, 2021. In the criteria for success the LA Coliseum ticks all the categories in terms of longevity and design to allow continued use for such a long time. But where the LA Coliseum totally wins is the frequent use throughout the year and profitability over the years since it was completed. You just don’t get better than the LA Coliseum in overall value.

On a slightly mediocre level we have one of the more recent stadiums with the Bird’s Nest in China constructed for the 2008 Olympic Games. An iconic design of intricate latticed steel frames the initial capacity was 91,000 but has since been reduced to 80,000. The Bird’s Nest has hosted various events after their Olympic Games in 2008, it regularly attracts thousands of domestic tourists throughout the year and produces much of its revenue from stadium tours. In the winter the venue is transformed into a snow themed park to attract visitors and in the summer months they host a night-time sound show which also attracts many visitors. The stadium has hosted various football matches for the Chinese National team along with Manchester City, Arsenal and Birmingham City having all played there for friendlies and pre-season games. Other activities at the Bird’s Nest include concerts (the first one was by Jackie Chan), Formula E championship racing, monster jam and trucks and pageant events. There’s clearly a wide variety of activity at this stadium and the owners have done a good job of keeping it available for visitors, however it still loses approximately $11 million per year in operating costs. The stadium was built for longevity and the design is of course iconic, however in terms of economic impact the jury is still out on this one. In 2022 the Bird’s Nest is scheduled to host the Winter Olympic Games, that will make it the only one of its kind Stadiums to host the Summer and Winter versions of the Olympic Games.

Now on to the somewhat bad, and in my opinion, it must be the Centennial Olympic Stadium built for the 1996 Summer Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia. From personal memory I know this stadium quite well because I watched Allen Johnson break the Olympic Record in the 110 meter hurdles & Michael Johnson break the 200 meter World Record during the Olympic Games at Centennial Park, which was constructed initially with an 85,000 seated capacity. I’ve also visited this stadium many times for baseball games and it always left me feeling bland because there wasn’t much retail or restaurant wise around the stadium (parking was also a drag in this area). The games itself by and large as most Summer Olympics had varying degrees of success however it also had significant controversy with the bombing of Centennial Park by Eric Rudolph, an anti-government, anti-abortion, anti just about everything nutjob. Even before the Olympic Games there were established plans for the Atlanta Braves Major League Baseball team to take tenancy of the Centennial Olympic Stadium after the games, and as such the venue was built with conversions in mind and paid for by the Olympic Committee. Later renamed Turner Field (after CNN founder Ted Turner) instead of the popular choice of nearby residents that preferred Hank Aaron Stadium after the former home run king. With a capacity of 49,586 the Braves played here from 1997 to 2016 and enjoyed Division winning seasons for much of their stay at Turner Field. This stadium was built with so much foresight and planning it should have been a lasting success. However due to a lack of commitment and investment over the years by the local authority the Atlanta Braves declined to extend their 20-year lease and worked on building a new stadium in Cobb County, with luxury box suites and modern updated seating. The stadium area has a thriving retail and restaurant district that also supports the team’s overall revenue. As for Turner field it was once again reduced in size down to 30,000 and renamed Center Parc Stadium as a multi-use facility for Georgia State University. This stadium was always built in a poor area with very little around it for an extended visit, not much in the way of retail shops or restaurants to make the visit after the game even more worthwhile.

So, in the grand scheme of things where does the London Stadium, former home of the 2012 Olympic Games stand amongst its brethren? Well beyond the Athletics we of course have West Ham United, supporter opinions are quite varied from good value to soulless bowl. Pre-covid there were concerts, rugby, athletics and major league baseball for continued activity. But clearly, it’s not making money and even pre-covid the financial losses were in the multi-million-pound range per the accounts that were published by E20 LLP a joint venture of Newham Council and the London Legacy Development Corporation. I’ve just used three examples above but if you categorize Olympic Stadiums as success or failure then consider Athens and Atlanta very soon will have white elephants of Olympic venues as their planned anchor tenants have both left the building. The economic impact to these cities is significant and quite damaging. Whereas Los Angeles, Seoul, Montreal, Sydney and Munich have thriving stadiums with valued anchor tenants to continue the solid economic impact to its individual cities. So far, the London Stadium/Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park venue is considered efficient but not necessarily at the success level it had anticipated. One factor that could hurt the viability of the London Stadium is the newly renovated White Hart Lane which has already become the preferred venue of the NFL and other major events such as European Champions Cup Rugby, various concerts and boxing events.

Despite my personal distaste for the current ownership group of West Ham United it would be unfair of me to categorize the Stadium as a failure, it has room for growth and has most definitely revitalized Stratford in conjunction with the Westfield Shopping Mall, Stratford International and the various new boutique hotels nearby the Stadium. However, I also get the notion from many longtime residents of the area (many of my family still live in East London) that the area has simply been gentrified to suit a wealthier demographic. In fact, one family friend constantly reminds me that he prefers the pie & mash near the Boleyn rather than the £7 pints of beer in Hackney Wick.

Thank you again to Jimmy C for allowing me the opportunity to provide some relief on the Wednesday column. Looking forward to the subsequent contributions this week and my new favorite fan led feature on Friday evenings; brought to us by the amazing BSB – Dagenham Island Discs. Let me get you started mate with a classic from Aerosmith – Dream On.

Best Wishes everyone!

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