By J Hutcherson (Mar 13, 2018) US Soccer Players - On a clear day, it's easy to play count the stadiums as you fly in or out of London's Heathrow airport. There are a lot of them in that city, all built with territory in mind. Even the rugby stadiums and the cricket ovals mark space. Twickenham is rugby. St John's Wood and Kennington are cricket. Yet, it's soccer that divides up the capital. A dozen teams in the pro leagues with five playing in the Premier League, and all of them turning their part of London into home territory. Well, except for West Ham United.
West Ham's 3-0 loss at home to Burnley on Saturday is now a line in the sand for large sections of their fanbase. London Stadium isn't working, something that might become even more of an issue after multiple pitch invasions and confrontations with the club's ownership during that game. There are rumors that the Football Association's response might include playing behind closed doors. As it stands, it's an easy point that plenty of West Ham supporters already feel like the club closed the doors.
Moving from the Boleyn Ground to London Stadium was packaged as a major win. West Ham saw off Spurs to turn the Olympic Stadium into their new home. Now, Spurs are building a new stadium at White Hart Lane while playing at Wembley. West Ham is well into the reality that staging games at a converted track and field facility might not be as much of a win as it seemed at the time.
English soccer club might in part sell history around the world, but a team moving stadiums isn't rare. It's a long list in the pro ranks, a result of legislation forcing stadium redevelopment in the 90s and the value of the land some of those stadiums occupied. The British-English term identikit is the shorthand for yet another modern stadium built somewhere that isn't as easily accessible from the center of a city. After awhile, those tend to look a lot alike.
If this sounds familiar to American sports fans, there are obvious parallels. A team sticking with a stadium in North America is now a rarity. Wrigley Field and Fenway Park standout in part because they're the only old Major League Baseball fields left. Older teams might market nostalgia, but it's not going to replace luxury boxes and state of the art facilities. The retro stadium craze in baseball was a way to make a new stadium feel old while making sure it had plenty of premium seating and suites to sell.
Pick a big league city in the United States or Canada, and there were very good reasons for a team moving on. The old stadiums and arenas end up being just that, old. Once that connection is broken, it's easier to move somewhere else.
West Ham had good reasons for wanting something new. Their old stadium was the classic British design of four separate stands. The most recent rebuild happened in 2001 with the main stand. West Ham rebuilt the North Bank in 1995, two years after the rebuild of the South Bank. With the oldest and smallest part of the existing stadium dating to 1969, this wasn't a century-old venue in need of complete rebuilding. Instead, their issue was scale. Their stadium wasn't big enough to compete with the bigger venues in London. It put them at a soccer business disadvantage. Again, in a move familiar to American pro sports fans, West Ham demolished their old stadium after moving somewhere new.
That somewhere brought with it issues. Throughout the bidding process for the Olympic Stadium, West Ham stressed the short distance from their part of London. Just under four miles, leaving out a few things. Their new stadium sits inside Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park next to a major shopping mall. That mall is what most people will see first using public transportation. It doesn't exactly create the game day atmosphere most associate with the Premier League.
Plenty of West Ham fans have no problem stressing that point midway through their second season at London Stadium. It's a continuation of issues that started with the first game at their new home. In exchange for a new stadium with almost 22,000 additional seats, the club got interesting sight lines, lots of complaints, and now dissent in the stands and on the field during a Premier League game. Add to that sitting three points above the relegation zone, and the problems mount.
It's not lost on anybody that there's no undoing this move. London Stadium is now West Ham United's home. Their old stadium is gone. Their choice was and is all in.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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