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Modern stadiums: Are we at risk of losing football’s soul?

Seth McKeown gives his thoughts on York City FC's move to the LNER Community Stadium

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Image Credit: Seth McKeown

Watching York at the LNER Community Stadium has been an interesting experience. The new stadium – which backs onto a retail park with an M&S, bowling alley and cinema – was a huge investment for a club in non-league football and it was met with controversy in the local community. It's led me to think about whether their move to the new stadium for commercial gain at the expense of leaving Bootham Crescent has been a positive one.

Football is becoming more and more commercialised and the stadium aspect of that is no exception. Premiership clubs have made considerable investment in modernising their stadiums – Tottenham’s billion-pound expenditure is a prominent example in the last couple of years. Non-league football, seen as the life and soul of British football by many fans, is no exception to this.

The old-fashioned football fan will tell you the atmosphere and history of football grounds is irreplaceable in many respects. And they’re right to an extent. Many criticised the FA’s decision to outlaw standing tickets at stadiums even after the atrocity of Hillsborough in 1989 because stadium capacities decreased all over the country, restricting weekly live football to the lucky few who can afford tickets on a regular basis. With less fans present at games, atmosphere was undoubtedly lost.

Yet football survived without standing tickets. Football can’t really be dictated by a space – it’s the fans that make it. And whilst there is less of them than during the standing tickets era, recent football stadium moves have remedied this – with most stadium moves finding increased capacity as the principal motivation alongside commercial opportunity.

And so, the question begs – is the commercialisation of non-league football clubs impacting the atmosphere of stadiums?

York City FC’s stadium move was not motivated by capacity. There are only 400 extra seats at the LNER Community Stadium than at Bootham Crescent. It was motivated by opportunity – and they have managed to keep their unique, local-based vibrant atmosphere intact. The LNER Community Stadium does not exclusively belong to York City FC. York City Knights, the Rugby League team in League 2, invested in the new stadium as well. It was built as a stadium for the community rather than the corporate.

The move has already seen reward. York is hosting the 2022 Rugby League World Cup at the LNER Community Stadium from October to November this year. This would have simply been difficult to achieve at Bootham Crescent.

And as for the atmosphere at the new stadium, lots hasn’t changed – the fans certainly haven’t. York City FC’s match against Darlington saw three goals scored in 10 minutes in the second half. In a fixture as important as this, both contesting for play-off places to the National League, it doesn’t matter where the game is played. It is the fans that bring the atmosphere, not infrastructure, as the Darlington fans in the away stand have shown.

The soul of football does not belong to a space. The commercial benefit that the stadium moves brought for York City – the increased capacity, the benefit of new opportunity for stadium-sharing, and the fact that Bootham Crescent had high maintenance costs, which is especially important post-Covid-19, has benefited the non-league club.

Despite some clubs sacrificing historical football grounds for commercial benefit, York City FC has shown that you can have the best of both worlds. The move was future-orientated – and it looks (and sounds) like it's paid off.

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