By Sam Mathius
It’s nearly two years since FSG and principal owner John W. Henry took control of Liverpool’s fortunes after a dreadful period of stagnation from the previous owners. You know who they are. I choose not to type out their names.
One of the most contentious areas of stalled development was the duo’s misleading dialogue regarding a new stadium at Stanley Park. A brash promise of having a spade in the ground within sixty days became a marked quotation that Liverpool fans used to highlight the distrust they had with the ownership group.
Fast-forward to the present and a sense of restlessness is once again growing among the Anfield faithful. A lingering question remains: will a new shiny stadium at Stanley Park become a reality or will historic Anfield remain as the club’s home? It’s safe to say that many Liverpool fans would favor the latter. And so does FSG. After John W. Henry’s comments to The Anfield Wrap it appears that a potential plan to refurbish Anfield may be on the horizon. Adding more credence to that sentiment is Liverpool City Council’s desire to promote several projects to revitalize the Anfield area.
The parallels to FSG’s widespread renovations of the Fenway Park area in Boston over the last decade show that this could be the owner’s lasting legacy. Upon purchasing the Red Sox in 2002, John Henry found himself in an eerily similar situation. Plans were in place for a “New Fenway Park.” It was never an overly popular plan among locals who thought it a sacrilege to demolish one of America’s oldest sporting venues. Still, renovation and increased capacity seemed impossible in such a tight space. The Red Sox previous owner had even labeled it too costly and unpractical.
It’s no secret that Fenway Park is small when compared to other Major League Baseball grounds. In fact it’s the smallest. Still, the lore and legend of Fenway is arguably unrivaled when compared to other parks. In 2005, the ownership group said they were committed to Fenway Park for the long-term. This came in the wake of clever expansions and renovations. From seats atop the landmark Green Monster, expanded concourses in the stadium, increased standing-room areas, and refurbished suites in which glass partitions were removed; the Fenway fan experience became a marketable aspect in itself.
More importantly, the Red Sox became a major player in the nearby community while respecting the wishes of residents in the neighborhood and increasing revenue at the same time. Many of the nearby properties owned by the franchise were leased to business owners whom opened restaurants, night clubs, and other establishments. The benefit was three-fold. It helped the Red Sox make money, it helped local businesses make money, and it helped the Fenway area maintain and increase its unique atmosphere. Working with city officials and local Fenway residential groups was paramount for the owners. Yawkey Way (seen in this video), which borders Fenway Park, is a paradigm of FSG’s community first approach. Several years ago, the road was integrated beautifully into the Fenway game-day experience. Prior to games, the road is closed off allowing fans to enjoy food and outside seating in a naturally urban environment. By closely communicating with residents and the city, they were able to reach an agreement that allowed the street to be closed off during the games.
In a 2002 article, The Boston Globe said that Janet Marie Smith, an architectural consultant the owners hired, was focuses on “urban authenticity in her designs, the kind that exists naturally along Yawkey Way.” Indeed, the 20+ months that FSG has been at the helm of Liverpool has been frustrating on the stadium front. However, from the Fenway model, it’s clear that they do their homework. And that’s the only way I’d have it.
This transcends ticket prices. It transcends how many people you can fit into a stadium. The real barometer in which FSG’s ownership will be judged is how they handle the interests of the community to promote revitalization.
Astutely, Henry noted that pricing seats at Anfield to a similar average Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United charge would increase revenue about £30m. The revenue boost would be the same if a new 60,000 seat stadium was built with seats priced as they currently are at Anfield. Drastically increasing ticket prices wouldn’t be ideal. Henry was blunt in his e-mail to TAW regarding this issue: “Can Liverpool as a community afford Chelsea or Arsenal prices? No.” Although the economic fortunes of Liverpool have been turning since the early 2000’s, it can’t be compared to the economic climate of London or Boston. A significant increase in ticket prices would be hard to justify and would certainly be necessary if a new stadium was built when debts from the construction are considered. The metro-areas of London and Boston are about 16x and 5x that of Liverpool respectively. Where as the other two cities increase in population, Liverpool decreased in population at roughly 6,000 inhabitants a year.
This doesn’t mean that Liverpool Football Club can’t sell-out a 60,000 seat stadium. On the contrary, there would be a massive demand for tickets to the new ground. However, this is about the long-term fortunes of the football club. Efficiently using capital has to be the paramount concern of the owners, as it has been in their Moneyball past. They’ve wandered from the model in recent years with both the Red Sox and with Liverpool dropping an extraordinary sum on players that have underperformed on the field. That is the demand of the day, however. Talent comes at a premium and the efficient Moneyball model is outdated when it comes to crafting a pool of talented players, be it in baseball or football. Still, the shrewd use of investing funds efficiently shouldn’t be totally thrown out.
Fenway Park is one of the most profitable grounds in the MLB while being the smallest. A steep average ticket prices is part of that but it’s the most misleading of statistics. It’s equally as possible for a corporate big whig to enjoy a game at Fenway as it is for a college student. Embracing the gambit of fans has made that possible. Just as expensive suites provide a great source of revenue at Fenway Park, cheap standing area tickets populated by die-hard fans provide a lively atmosphere. The dichotomy is what makes Fenway a beloved place. Anybody can enjoy it and the revamped restaurants and businesses in the neighborhood.
It may be difficult to duplicate that trick at Anfield for FSG as the ground offers little in terms of expansion. Even so, improvements are already under way. Corporate hospitality areas are being renovated this summer, as is the Main Stand. It may be slow, it may not be dramatic but it will make a difference. And if Fenway is the model we analyze the improvements on, Anfield is more or less on par. The biggest task for the owners will be how the address the Anfield area. Particularly the derelict houses along Lothair Road that the city wants to demolish. The Echo estimates that recently renovated houses on nearby Tancred Road “lost up to £50,000 in value because of the dereliction they lived amongst.” Let’s hope Mr. Henry interacts with the community sensitively around Anfield as he did around Fenway. Most promising was the report that came out at the end of May that Ian Ayre attended a meeting with Anfield and Rockfield residents in which he presented a plan to demolish houses on streets around the stadium (including Lothair Road) in order to expand.
It’s possible to bridge history and modernity. It’s been done before to an exceptional level at Fenway Park. It still maintains a sense of old-time tradition while feeling up-to-date and cared for.
As a bartender in Boston I’m often asked how to get to Fenway Park. Whenever I oblige any tourists with directions I always make sure to advise them to get to the game a few hours early. Not because or traffic, not because it’s far away, but because it’s an experience that’s great to soak in. Grab a drink at the Bleacher Bar under center field and peek through the widow that looks out to Fenway Park’s famous green grass. Or stop by Yawkey Way and grab a delicious Fenway Frank in the shadow of Fenway’s third base façade. It’s an experience more than it’s a place that hosts baseball. Anfield is the same. Hopefully a decade from now Liverpool fans can enjoy an even more top-class game-day experience than they do today. Red Sox fans were crossing their fingers for just that in 2002 when John W. Henry bought the team.