Athletics project limbers up as a new Dome fiasco

Plans for a national athletics stadium are in place but no funding, so sponsorship is being touted as a way to secure extra cash. It’s a bad idea, says Tom O’Sullivan

Despite the shambles of the Dome, politicians still love sponsorship. Or to be more precise, they love the word “sponsorship” and its perceived ability to dig them out of a financial hole. It has a fatal attraction it seems, for those seeking to stretch the public purse that little bit further than it can go.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of sport. Take for example Picketts Lock – the controversial site for an athletics centre and venue for the 2005 World Athletics Championship – in north London. The project was born out of the refusal of English football to accommodate athletics at the new Wembley Stadium and as such the Government seems to believe that it has a moral obligation to it.

Last week, Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, unveiled designs for the new national home of UK athletics. Just 12 months ago the cost to build the Picketts Lock stadium stood at &£57m – today the cost stands somewhere between &£83m and &£87m.

The consensus, which Smith did nothing to disavow last week, is that Sport England will contribute &£60m of lottery funding. This is despite the fact that it has yet to be asked for any money and has not agreed to any funding for the project. A further &£5m has been earmarked to come from the Lee Valley Forum – comprising the local authority and community interests around the stadium – plus another &£7m from the World Class Performance Plan to build some of the facilities.

That would leave the scheme short of &£10m to &£15m. But have no fear: Smith and sports minister Kate Hoey have the answer. Sell the naming rights of the new athletics stadium.

Leaving aside the fact that Lottery funding was supposed to banish the “old days” of when top class venues were dependent on the whims and changing marketing budgets of commercial sponsors – Lottery money is not to provide support for commercial interests – a more pressing issue is who would want to attach their brand name to the stadium.

Smith described the first &£10m to &£15m as an achievable target and others rushed forward to mention sponsored stadiums such as the Reebok Stadium, home to Bolton Wanderers FC, and the McAlpine Stadium, home of Huddersfield Town FC. They might have added that a number of other football clubs, including Coventry City and Leeds United, are also investigating naming rights for their stadiums. Leeds has gone so far as to place a &£30m price tag on the naming rights for their Elland Road ground.

But while Whitehall’s mandarins have been quick to stress precedents for such deals, they have failed to make the obvious point that all those stadiums are in constant use for nine months of every year and receive wide national exposure.

Picketts Lock, by contrast, is likely to have ten days in the glare of publicity during 2005 followed by a lifetime on the fringes popping up on TV for the occasional athletics meeting in the summer. UK athletics will not be able to move every meeting to Picketts Lock as that would cause uproar in athletics heartlands such as the North-east and the Midlands. Plus, its capacity of 43,000 will not be enough to underpin a bid for the Olympics. The organisers of a London Olympic bid in 2012 have already decided that any proposal should be based in Stratford, East London.

No sponsor will want to be involved in a project that is surrounded by such uncertainty. A feasibility study by Sport England – responsible for distributing Lottery funding to sport – will not be completed until May, and until then the supporters of the scheme cannot apply for planning permission. An earlier study, conducted by Ernst & Young last summer but never published, reveals that the stadium would need an “ongoing annual subsidy” because of operating deficits.

Twenty-four hours before the unveiling of the Picketts Lock design, Chris Smith gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. He underlined government support for Picketts Lock, talked of it providing a legacy and left the impression that Sport England had already agree to fund the project.

But, the Sport England chairman Trevor Brooking – possibly the most difficult person in the world to irritate – wrote to the commission’s chairman Gerald Kaufman at the weekend “to clarify” and explain that no funding had yet been agreed.

“We have long made it clear that no such money [the &£60m] has been committed to the [Picketts Lock] project,” he wrote. “We could not commit – and have not committed – Lottery money to a project that has yet to come forward with an application for funding.

“We have made this clear at every possible opportunity and it is almost exactly a year since I wrote to the Secretary of State to express my concern at statements which suggested unconditionally that we had &£60m to devote to an athletics facility.”

Nobody has yet written to Kaufman to suggest that the chances of raising between &£10m and &£15m in a naming rights deal have even less foundation. But the truth is that sponsorship has again come in handy to offset an embarrassing question about the shortfall in funding a capital project.

Tom O’Sullivan is sports page editor of the Financial Times

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