Coventry counts on big deals for stadium

The job at hand for Stephen Pearson is to sell commercial packages, worth up to &£40m, for the most technologically-advanced stadium in the UK. The Arena 2000 stadium in Coventry will have a sliding roof and a retractable pitch, as well as a range of shops and a cinema, by the time of its completion in the summer of 2001. If the project keeps to its budget, it will cost &£145m. It is part of a &£1.25bn regeneration project for the city, through a mixture of Government and European Union grants and private money. In short the stadium, whose foundations were laid in the north of the city last month, is a big deal in the Midlands. And that’s what Stephen Pearson, former commercial director of the Premier League, likes – big deals. Philip Carling, Football Association commercial director, says: “Pearson is inventive and he is essentially a deal maker. That is what he did best at the Premier League.” Another senior football figure says Pearson will do his best work outside the structure of the Premier League. He says: “Stephen had 20 bosses – the football league chairmen. Any deal he made could at any time be held up or rejected by any one of them.” In this project Pearson has only one boss – chairman of Coventry City Football Holdings Bryan Richardson, who heads the project. By any measure the scope of the project is impressive. The site, which is 2.5 miles away from the club’s old Highfield Road ground, covers 80 acres within the city limits. Apart from the centre piece stadium, the area holds two 100-square-feet retail units, and a 220,000-square-feet leisure complex. There will be parking for 6,000 cars. Richardson, who came up with the idea two-and-a-half years ago, says: “We could not expand the old Highfield Road site for various reasons, so we had to move. The plan is to run a seven-day-a-week operation which will make profits that we can plough back into the club.” He continues: “When I was at the Amsterdam arena where Ajax play, there was a Backstreet Boys concert on the Friday and a Celine Dion concert on the Saturday evening, for which the stadium’s seating was expanded. Our stadium will work in a similar way.” Pearson is keen to emphasise the multipurpose nature of the stadium. “The arena is a stadium where Coventry City happen to play their home games. There will be a lot of other things going on during the rest of the week.” Although Richardson is understood to have offered Pearson an attractive package, the move from Premier League to Arena 2000 is seen at best as a sidewards step. One observer says: “It is not a great move forward. Pearson is not as in the centre of football as he was at the Premier League.” Pearson denies this, saying the project gives him a chance to stay in touch with football as well as put together big deals. He adds: “I like working with a major commercial proposition. And this falls under that category. Because this is a new project, it gives me the chance to work with a blank sheet. This sort of deal offers you the opportunity to leave your mark.” Pearson’s role will be to sell a range of sponsorships for the new stadium, and to examine other commercial possibilities through the site. He will look for a title sponsor for the stadium, which he says will suit a technology or entertainment brand because of the advanced nature of the ground and its obvious leisure connection. The name sponsor will be asked to sign a ten-year deal. There will then be up to eight other major sponsors with advertising and hospitality rights to the sites. Pearson has a team from Mark McCormack’s sports agency International Management Group to help him. He says they are putting the finishing touches to their packages, and will be out selling them within a month. Over the past five years, a host of new stadiums have been built in the UK, as sport’s – and particularly football’s – finances and popularity continue to grow. Derby’s &£35m Reebok stadium, Middlesbrough’s Cellnet Riverside stadium and the &£121m Millennium Stadium in Cardiff opening this year, are all examples of this. Pearson is charged with raising &£40m in 18 months for the Arena 2000 stadium. At the Premier League he raised about the same amount in roughly the same time. There he had the richest football league in the world to draw sponsors in. This time he only has Coventry City Football Club. One feels that Pearson will have to roll up his sleeves to reach his target.

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