The resurrection of Brighton and Hove Albion as a formidable proposition for top flight football is not just about sport, it is also one of the great business success stories of the city. To mark the Albion's long-awaited ascension (after three attempts) from the Championship to the Premiership – an event that will bring both multi-millions to its revenues and the city's hospitality sector trade – we repost an article first written back in 2011, the year that saw the Seagulls take residence at the £75 million-pound Amex stadium, a move that saw them multiply club revenues fivefold. Detailing Albion's 14-year fight to exist, Jonny Wills' article assesses the real value of it's achievements with chief executive Martin Perry and the AITC's then commercial manager Barry McLaughlin
In one form or another I am sure you will be aware of parts of the Brighton and Hove Albion story. I would also wager that as a resident you will know about parts of the Albion’s contribution to the city and its people. But notice I said ‘parts’. What I would also put money on is that many people are still oblivious – and I include myself in this group – to the scale of the Championship club’s relatively recent business success. And in context of its 14-year titanic struggle to even exist you are looking at one of the most extraordinary turnarounds not only in global sport, but also in international business.
The effect that the Albion has had and continues to have on our city is a monumental one, and by the time you finish reading this all but fleeting précis of the football club’s saga – from betrayal to exile through humble subsistence to now, its resurrection – you will realise just how stormy and bleak the waters have been for supporters, players and board members alike. And by rebirth we don’t just mean the gloriously modern AMEX stadium at Falmer (known also as The Amex or Falmer Stadium) though at £75 million that’s a start: enhanced by the future-white bling of NASA-like cool and price. But if this isn’t impressive enough, realise this: that the development was on time and on budget.
Albion venue for the top flight
Perhaps you’ve driven up over Falmer Road/The Drove and seen The AMEX tantalisingly emerge like a vast mothership in a heat haze, waiting to launch. Perhaps you felt it didn’t belong there. Keep reading.
The club looked at nine different sites in huge detail. None had their own dedicated station concourse, which of course is Falmer station. None would have been able to boast the fact that 68% of arriving fans come by sustainable transport, something which is practically unheard of in the football league. None would have come with the filmic story of itself, that it took a six-year fight campaign once the plans for Falmer were submitted in 2001. Before that fans were fighting the board and in particular Greg Stanley, Bill Archer and David Belotti in 1996, to stop them selling the Goldstone Ground in Hove, now home of Toys R Us. At the same the football side were struggling to stay in the Football League and narrowly avoided obscurity by drawing the final game of the season. And no new ground was arranged. Supporters were either distraught or fuming.
Without a home Brighton were forced to play at Gillingham in Kent in 1997 till 1999, after a deal with Portsmouth suddenly fell through. For fans it was a 150 mile round-trip, and remember for some supporters losing the Goldstone was like ‘losing a relative’. Many were so put out or angry that they couldn’t bring themselves to believe the Albion would return to its former glory. But with the Gillingham trips grew a bonding between fans, a strength of unity that laid the foundation stones for the club in its present form. This is what sends a ripple of emotion when you see the stadium, it’s light of its history to get there: the never say die attitude.
In 1999 the Albion returned to Brighton and Withdean Athletic Stadium. A lot happened for such a little venue. In 12 years the club rode an increasing swell of goodwill and Withdean was upgraded to Football League standards in 2002 after the Albion reached Division One (now the Championship). During this time they had a strong chairman, Dick Knight, they had a strong manager in the form of Mark McGhee (from 2003), and the team got promoted four times. Not only that, injections of cash kept the club afloat, either from sponsors Skint Records and Norman Cook or by a series of benefactors willing to invest beyond their means.
Simultaneously, a campaign to move to Falmer gathered momentum after planning permission was given the thumbs up by the unitary authority of Brighton and Hove.
Opposition to Falmer proposals
However, now Lewes District Council, local residents and the South Downs Joint Committee opposed the plans, citing boundary and beauty issues. A planning enquiry was thus engaged upon by the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. Albion fans supporters sent 18,000 postcards to John Prescott along with flowers and even a seven-foot Valentine’s card trying to try to sway his mind and give the go ahead to build at Falmer. First in 2005 he approved plans, then, in 2006, he withdrew them. But in 2007 the Secretary of State, Hazel Blears, responsible for all planning, re-affirmed the approval. By 2009 property investor and internet gambling entrepreneur Tony Bloom had succeeded Dick Knight (now the club’s life president) as chairman after an investment package worth nearly £100 million. Bloom eventually brought in Gus Poyet as manager and together led the Albion to their new stadium as Football League One champions and promotion to the Football League Championship in 2011.
An impact on the city
With such a monumental recent history – as you can now imagine – for followers Albion isn’t just about Falmer. ‘Brighton and Hove Albion has a huge impact on the community,’’ says the club’s chief executive Martin Perry.’’It isn’t just about the stadium. A whole series of events has made the transformation happen, and the club revolves around its changes. Indeed, the total turnover of the club breaks down into various areas, impacting on the surrounding area.”
On its first match day for example supporters sank 17,000 pints of Harvey’s beer, with the brewery struggling to supply pubs in Sussex for the next week.
“We source our pies locally,” continues Perry, ‘’As we try do with everything involved in our operation. Piglets Pantry, based in Shoreham, had to supply us with 7,000 pies for our opening match. To do this the company had to expand and employ more staff and use a bigger facility, which they did, basing its operations in Robertsbridge. For the recent games against Liverpool, Leeds and Crystal Palace they had to make 25,000 pies. This is one of many knock-on effects of the club creating jobs and growth around the county.”
It’s easy to focus on purely the fans and the football. Yes, it fuels the success, but it’s also the backroom work and the network that is the club’s reason for being, and a visit to Falmer to will tell you they are ready for the top flight. For the success of the club quintupling its revenues Is not solely based on ticket sales, it’s about the perfect synthesis of community spirit and conglomerate support initiated by a fight for survival.
AMEX stadium and the community
At Falmer, the spacious facilities of the AMEX dovetail with the Albion’s work with the commercial sector and the community, and it is estimated there are more than 1,500 businesses working with the football club. They stem from the in-house catering of Azure and its massive hospitality operation to the crucial interconnectedness of business networks. Friends of the Albion, borne out of the Withdean years, is one such network made up of everyone from solicitors to print-brokers, to florists and Juice FM, where more than 120 meet regularly for breakfast. Another, the 1901 club is a corporate supporters’ society, and invests in the ground by buying 2,500 specially-allocated seats and access to the 11 hospitality suites.
And then there is the Albion in the Community (AITC), the jewel in the club’s crown, and one of the country’s top football charities. Around 60,000 Brighton lives are affected to the positive by the AITC’s work in education, disability, social inclusion and 16-24 youth employment programmes, the latter naturally helped by Albion sponsors American Express and Brighton and Hove Jobs. All told the AITC has around 200 teachers, mentors and coaches working from an annual fund of £2 million delivering through to other clubs at Worthing, Hastings, Havant and Waterlooville.
“The business that’s been going on since June and July is from scratch, which is incredible,” said the AITC’s commercial manager, Barry McLaughlin. “But it makes sense when you take into account the fortunes and work the Albion as a whole has put in over the years. It’s three basic areas, the club, business and hospitality and our charity, Albion in the Community, all feed into one another and make it the success it is, not just in financial terms, but in terms of investing in the people around the club and in the future.’’
A visit to the club will find you perhaps walking by the cleverly-designed banners of past player heroes Peter Ward, Mark Lawrenson and Bobby Zamora. In the car park the 4x4 wagons scream of football’s current glamour and commercial power. The stadium takes fifteen minutes to walk round and the wind on inclement days bespeaks a daunting vastness to the undertaking. But that would miss the point. The position that Brighton and Albion football club has reached is already a cumulative achievement, less about the football business and more about the devotion of the supporters and the tenacious spirit of the people of immediate community. To paraphrase the Fatboy Slim track: They have...we have, come a long, long way together, and we need to praise them like we should.
AMEX Stadium, Falmer, 2011 statistics
14 corporate boxes sold within eight days of going on sale
15,500 season tickets sold within three months
138,00 cubic metres chalk excavated preventing an estimated 20,000 lorry trips
£93 million invested into developing the American Express Community Stadium