Relocating St James' Park in the future is highly unlikely - Here's why
Updated: Mar 12
Theres a popular view amongst fans that the only way for Newcastle United to compete at the highest level and to satisfy an increasing demand in season tickets is to build a new 'super' stadium, with a capacity of 70-80K. This is mainly due to the complexity and uniqueness of St James' Park city centre location, which causes expansion conundrums.
At first glance it seems like a reasonable assumption. Many fans believe that we're the richest club in the world, we have the most passionate and loyal fans in the world, it would be fitting to our future status, it would attract world class players and the cost of expanding St James' Park would be roughly the same as building a new stadium anyway. Seen through black and white eyes, it's a no brainer, right?
In fact I fell into exactly the same trap in May last year when I released a video about a new stadium and a potential location at Benton Park. This is due to HMRC staff being relocated from Benton to Pilgrims Quarter, land owned by the Reuben Brothers, hence the link with NUFC. I'd been seduced by the reasons I've presented above and three days later I released an apology video when our owners asserted that we wouldn't be moving from St James' Park. Since then I've looked at this situation through a much wider lens.
Allow me to change this lens and context so as to understand this complex situation in its wider context, as I see things very completely differently now. In fact, it makes no sense at all to relocate to a new stadium, for several obvious reasons. To do this I will demonstrate in this article that there are elements to these common beliefs that are simply not true, but also it is a common trap to view this situation using isolated viewpoints.
The Premier League is seen as the richest and most competitive league in the world and the purchase of clubs in this league is seen as an opportunity to take advantage of lucrative commercial opportunities.
It took a long time for the sale of Newcastle United to go through. Initially, Amanda Staveley and her consortium partners wanted to purchase Liverpool FC. Liverpool are already a global brand, they are one of the most successful clubs in the world and it would immediately fulfil Saudi Arabia's economic strategy as part of their 'Vision 2030'.
Unfortunately, buying Liverpool would have cost an awful lot of money, not to mention the competition if it were ever a feasible option. What other club could Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (P.I.F.) buy that could help stimulate a growing football infrastructure in Saudi Arabia? Amanda Staveley turned her attention to Newcastle United.
Our club has a large and vociferous fan base that immediately attracted her, it also has the potential to be a very big and successful club in the future and most importantly, it was up for sale 'at a snip' for around £305m.
This article isn't about the complications in buying the club, which I cover a little more in my previous blog. Needless to say, piracy issues involving BeIn Sport and an issue as to who would actually control Newcastle United were concerns for the Premier League and their Owners and Directors test. In October 2021, the sale was sanctioned and the rest is history.
Why did the Saudi Arabian PIF purchase a Premier League Club?
It should be understood that even though the PIF own 80% of Newcastle United, this purchase was driven by Amanda Staveley and her company PCP Capital Partners. Her company have experience with middle east investors and football in particular when she brokered a deal when she acted for Thaksin Shinawatra when Man City were taken over by Sheikh Mansour in 2008.
Amanda clearly has business experiences and contacts with middle eastern influences but also in the real estate world, hence the collaboration with Jamie Reuben and his business RB Sports and Media. They also own Newcastle Racecourse. Amanda has stated recently in a conference that her company is poor but Jamie's is very rich!
So, when the opportunity came to purchase Newcastle United, she put a business plan together to convince the PIF to invest in the club. But what's in it for the PIF? Investing in a football club is a high risk strategy and it's unlikely that sufficient returns will be made in itself over the long term to make it worth while, unless the owners have an ulterior (political) agenda.
To briefly explain, Saudi Arabia has a sovereign wealth fund of around $620bn as of the beginning of 2023. This fund is called the Public Investment Fund (PIF). It was established in 1971 as part of their wider economic strategy called 'Vision 2030'. This strategy, (broadly speaking), has been designed to steer Saudi Arabia away from oil and to diversify its economic revenue streams, by 2030. This agenda is being driven by the effects of climate change and is hoped it can provide financial sustainability for Saudi Arabia in the future.
For the past few decades, the PIF has been making various investments, including creating 71 companies in over 13 strategic sectors. These sectors include Transport, Shipping, renewable energies, stocks and shares, hospitality & tourism, digital technologies, real estate, retail, ecosystems, aerospace and defence, entertainment, sport and a range of others. It also invests in other well established companies, across a range of sectors, including Facebook, Uber, Disney, Mariot Hotels, BP, Bank of America and a range of other household names.
In a nutshell, within the broad economic sector of Sport, (closely linked to hospitality and tourism, retail etc), Saudi Arabia sees an opportunity to take advantage of commercial opportunities, if football within its own country becomes a major sport. This sector could generate billions for them over the next decade or so, especially if they secure a major tournament in the future. In order to assist with this vision, it would help if they owned a high profile successful Premier league Football Club. Hence, investing in Newcastle United.
If you're reading this and the penny hasn't dropped yet, allow me to elaborate. Saudi Arabia haven't bought Newcastle United simply to have a vanity dabble in English Football. They see Newcastle United as an investment, an opportunity to make money for themselves, in Saudi Arabia. Of course, we will benefit from this arrangement as they are highly motivated to build a successful club that will compete in the Champions League, but ultimately, this isn't about us. Newcastle United are merely the means to their own end.
As a crude and oversimplified example of what I mean; Saudi Arabia will be happy to invest $2bn in Newcastle United, in order to help generate $20bn in Saudi Arabia. You may already be beginning to view our relationship with Saudi Arabia a little bit differently and be reshaping previously held beliefs. If not, allow me to continue.
Newcastle United are NOT the richest club in the world.
What?! But the PIF has a pot of $620bn?!
I've been banging on about this claim since the takeover, as I watch the seagulls follow the clickbait media trawler and fan media channels perpetuate the myth that we're the richest club in the world. We're not. I can understand the trap one falls into regarding this as this massive Sovereign Wealth Fund owns 80% of Newcastle United. Turned around however, Newcastle United make up less that 1% of the PIF. More importantly, there's a budget.
Newcastle United are an investment as I explained above, not a bottomless pit of money to lavish on a football club. We're not the richest club in the world, much the same as every coffee/taxi/hotel/property developer company the PIF invests in isn't the richest in the world either.
This matter was put to bed just a few weeks ago by Deloitte's, as Newcastle United were officially listed as the 20th richest club in the world and 11th in the Premier League. Even West Ham, Everton, Leeds and Leicester are richer than us! Our position will undoubtedly move us up the ladder as we gain larger commercial investments, but we should be under no illusion that we will NEVER be the richest club in the world due to obvious factors and we are forced to play by the same Financial Fair Play (ffp) rules as everyone else.
Saudi Arabia understand that St James' Park is our (sacred) 'Temple'
We shouldn't forget that over the past 18 months or so, our owners have told us the long term strategic plans for the club, how difficult things will be to compete in the transfer market due to ffp restrictions, but also what the plans are for St James' Park.
Our owners are on record as stating that we won't be moving from St James' Park as it 'would be like tearing the heart out of the city'. Why is that so important to Saudi Arabia? To understand this we must understand a little about the Saudi People. Now, I'm not professing to be an expert on Saudi culture and I do know that there is a lot of controversy about its sharia law practices, but I do know that they are a very proud nation, steeped in traditions, some of which our society lost a long time ago. They see culture, traditions and history as a corner stone to humility, pride and the bedrock of stability and it is important to them that they don't take away our own heritage in this country. They will understand that St James' Park is our 'temple', that it's sacred to us. I use these terms deliberately as deeply religious muslim countries like Saudi Arabia respect the significance of monuments like this. They understand that it's our 'Cathedral on the hill'.
Therefore, it is clear to me that they have no motivation, or appetite to compromise the history of our city, even if it means missing out on a commercial opportunity, like a new stadium. The PIF are custodians of our club, they know their presence sparks fierce debate and emotion and it is clear that they're also passing through. They will eventually move on.
There's nowhere to build a new stadium
Now, I could finish this article here, as the penny should have well and truly dropped by now. However, I'll add this subject in for good measure as its important. I would also signpost you to read the articles posted by Stephen Hodgson for 'True Faith'. They're very good and of course, as an Operations Director for a Construction and Infrastructure company, he is an expert in this field.
His articles are very good and even though I'm a layman on the subject, I found that my ideas and views on stadium expansion are broadly matched by his.
However, over the past couple of weeks we've communicated, as I disagreed with his views on stadium relocation and he has acknowledged that his views have been derived in isolation, based only on what is and isn't (potentially) a sound financial investment. What he has said on relocation sites however is very well argued and articulated and I'd encourage you to read them.
To synthesise these points I'll cut out the 'highly unlikelies' and instead concentrate on the two realistic possibilities and add my views.
Castle Leazes / Leazes Park
In 1997 Sir John Hall came up with a plan to rebuild a new stadium that straddles Castle Leazes and Leazes Park, with its front end approaching the park lake. Unfortunately, there were large protests and petitions led by 'Friends of Leazes Park' and the plans were knocked on the head.
A few months ago I interviewed the Chair of this conservation group Marion Williams and should Newcastle United wish to revisit these plans, she said that the group 'would have a conversation' with the club. This is because the long term financial sustainability of the park is in doubt and there may be a way to come to a mutual agreement (in theory). Marion stresses that she doesn't speak for the whole group, nor the residential areas surrounding the land.
It should also be noted that the whole of this area falls under the Leazes Conservation Area and a drive by Newcastle City Council motivated to 'protect, manage and restore areas of high ecological, scientific, cultural or aesthetic values'.
The current Arena is being decommissioned next year as a new Arena is currently being built on the Gateshead Quayside. This will leave a site of approximately 26 acres that would comfortably fit a new stadium and associated parking land. It is also an ideal city centre location with all the other considerations in place, like transport infrastructure. It is however contaminated land from the old lead works that, although not a deal breaker, would cost a lot of money to restore and level off.
I've previously done a video on this land and why I see it as a non starter. My views remain firmly the same. This land is premium city centre real estate and there is a high demand for housing. Plans are currently in for a large housing development and hotel and of course the club could buy this back, as they have with Strawberry Place, however, they need to do it very soon. That's not going to happen for the reason I'll outline next.
As a result, I see neither of these options viable due to the reasons I've already stipulated, but I'll dig a little deeper with an explanation below.
Club Owners are prioritising world class training facilities
The club are highly motivated to build brand new state of the art training facilities and are on record to this effect. Amanda Staveley sees this as the best opportunity to attract the worlds best players. At time of writing, it is understood that the club have narrowed down their search to around three areas of possibilities. One of these options is just North of the Newcastle racecourse.
Amanda Staveley has made no secret of having training facilities that are amongst the best in the world and at least on a par with Man Cities Etihad training Complex and Leicester City. These facilities would have accommodation for up to 50 young players, luxury accommodation for high profile players etc, have a subterranean indoor training facility, around 16-20 training pitches, 7,000 seater stadium and all the other associated facilites expected. This land would need to be anywhere from around 80 acres (approximately) and would incorporate the first team, academy and Newcastle Women's set up. This could cost anywhere from £250m upwards. This doesn't include the purchase of any new land.
This isn't a staggering amount of money for the PIF, but what is important is how long it will take to have this site up and running. If they established the land tomorrow, it would take around three years for it to become operational. This is a long time. In the meantime, the Arena land is clearly vulnerable for development.
The owners will also want to see the club establish itself as a regular champions league outfit and this will in itself take a few years.
The owners have bought Strawberry Place
Not wishing to state the obvious, but buying Strawberry Place has signalled the owners firm intention to develop St James' Park in the future. This fits in with everything they've said in relation to staying put, but also their intention to expand the stadium to 60-65K (if possible).
By buying this land, they've future proofed the area so they can expand the Gallowgate stand when the time is right. In the meantime, the land will be used as a 'fanzone' area. I'll elaborate on this in below.
Attendances can fall as well as rise
We as Newcastle United supporters like to think we're the most passionate fans around and on a good day, it's hard to argue with that. The volume of support is something to be proud of and the atmosphere can be deafening when for example we're beating Arsenal, or Man City earlier this season (before drawing). Then there were the Keegan years where our support was absolutely frightening! When things aren't going so well however, I observe something entirely different, since my first match in 1976 as a ten year old.
I was supporting the club in the early 80's when we were regularly getting crowds of under 15,000 and if memory serves, I think our lowest was around 9,000! Also, for many years under Mike Ashley, our support (despite still being comparatively large) was quiet to the point of being embarrassing. It's one of the main reasons I lapsed my season ticker for two years. Against Man City at St James' Park last season, fans flooded out of the stadium with still 20 minutes on the clock. There were around 35K at the final whistle.
Even under our new owners and management, fans have booed at the final whistle a couple of times when we didn't get the result expected. In my opinion, Newcastle fans can be some of the best and worst fans around. Unfortunately, it would only take a couple of mid table finishes for things to turn and a real struggle to fill a 70K stadium, let alone an 80K.
Our owners I'm sure, will be well aware of how fickle all football fans can be, including ours, when deciding on a capacity.
The owners won't make major (sensitive) decisions without the blessing of the fans
Newcastle United's new CEO Darren Eales was interviewed a few months ago and explained his role within the club. He was brought in due to his experience in help building a club from scratch, with no stadium, into a money making, successful club in Atlanta FC - USA.
Darren Eales has explained how he is motivated to be 'fan led' and how it is important to consult with fans before making major decisions on their (our) club and to explore all possible commercial opportunities. He clearly already knows that the vast majority of fans want to stay at St James' Park, so he's been finding ways to include fans that can't get a ticket. This involves working in partnership with the city council to utilise fanzones and other initiatives around the city centre. Specifically he mentioned 'Tailgate' parties.
A Tailgate party is an American term for an area of land (like a car park) that can be used for creating a family environment of entertainment. A similar example in the UK is what Strawberry Place looks like on Magic Weekend for the Rugby League.
There's food and drink vendors, apparatus for the kids to play on, but it can also include street entertainment, blow up football pitches, or penalty kick areas. It is easy to see how Strawberry Place can be developed to be more open plan and take advantage of creating an entertainment area that will attract thousands of fans, before, during and after the match.
There could also be initiatives around the city centre so that ticketless fans could buy a wrist band and attend participating bars, to watch the match. The list and possibilities are endless and the more ones explores this area, the more it seems unlikely that the club will be actually motivated to maximise stadium expansion.
If one still has the view that the club will spend around a billion pound to relocate to a new stadium, in the face of huge local and global considerations and a fickle football industry, then I don't know what I'm missing.
Yes, looking through the lens at a basic business level, it makes more sense to build a brand new super stadium elsewhere, but this doesn't factor in other significant parts to this.
Our owners have told us we're not moving
Our owners understand the significance of culture and history
NUFC is an investment as part of Vision 2030. There's a budget
There's (realistically) no other city centre land available within the timescale
The club have stated that they'll be fan led
Our owners have priorities elsewhere
Fans can be fickle
For me, expanding St James' Park to 60-65K hits that sweet spot whereby we stay at our current location, it protects the culture and history of the city and club and allows for fanzones to help boost the local economy. It also minimises the disruption to local infrastructure and conservation/ecological zones.
I plan to enjoy this ride whilst we have it. I expect to see my club break into the top six and compete in the Champions League over the coming years and I expect to see my city benefit from new arrangements with the club. For me, that's enough and they will have my full support.
My expectations however are not too high as football is also about luck and there are some other major teams who will have a say in our future success. I don't look too far ahead and no trophy is guaranteed!
Thank you for reading this article. My views have been derived from extensive personal research, but also by speaking to experts in their field, regarding the topics I cover.