Tottenham Returns With a Tie, but Its Losses Are Mounting
Tottenham Returns With a Tie, but Its Losses Are Mounting
LONDON — It was for nights like this that Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was built. It was on nights like this — hosting a clash between Spurs and Manchester United, global soccer royalty, under the lights — that the arena would have been expected to be at its captivating best.
The coronavirus has changed all of that.
The pandemic has changed the way teams prepare, it has changed the way they travel and, certainly at Tottenham, it has changed the club’s best-laid plans. For as Spurs returned to the field against United on Friday, those changes also mean that the most expensive stadium in British sports — a state-of-the-art wonder, a building designed to be both a caldron of fanatical support and a money-spinning entertainment venue — has fallen silent.
The lights are on, but, for the foreseeable future at least, there is no one home.
The Premier League finally ended its 100-day hiatus this week, restarting with a mix of optimism, excitement and fear. But the circumstances of its return — and the uncertainty of what is to come — have hit particularly hard at Tottenham, a club loaded with the debt acquired to construct its billion-dollar glass-and-steel home.
Without paying customers filling its arena, Spurs have not only lost a source of inspiration to drive the team forward under Coach José Mourinho, but also a vital source of revenue for their owner Joe Lewis’s big stadium bet.
No detail was spared and no cost deemed too much to build the perfect new home for Tottenham, which has been playing in this gritty corner of North London since 1899. The new stadium, a 62,000-seater that incongruously dominates the low-slung homes and shops that are its neighbors, opened last year — later than planned and after costs had ballooned to one billion pounds (about $1.2 billion).
For many fans, all the difficulties, all the problems and hardship — including the months playing as tenants across the city at Wembley Stadium — seemed worth it: excellent sightlines, acoustics that amplify the crowd’s exhortations and even a bar billed as the longest in Europe made the stadium feel like the perfect home for a club seeking the next stage of its evolution. Tottenham was, at last, positioned for a move into the ranks of Europe’s superclubs.
On Friday night, though, all of that suddenly seemed different as the stark reality of soccer without fans played out in front of an empty South Stand, the enormous single-tiered section that would usually house 17,500 of Tottenham’s most vocal supporters.
Forty minutes before kickoff, a time when the venue would be buzzing with anticipation and the air would be filled with song, the concourses were empty, the seething mass of humanity that turns sports events into collective experiences was absent. A steward, wearing a now-compulsory mask, motioned to one end of the stadium, where throngs of fans would under normal circumstances be downing prematch pints at the Goal Line bar.
“They’d usually be four deep there now,” he said, shaking his head.
The backdrop when the game eventually kicked off was stranger still: the booming thuds of the ball echoing around the empty arena replacing the booming voices from the stands, and the low-level, relentless chuntering of elite players — “Man on”; “Time”; “Left shoulder”; “Away”; “Not too deep” — filling the gaps as the soundtrack of soccer’s new normal.
Without its usual support to close out a victory, Spurs, leading for much of the game through a goalkeeping error, wilted and settled for a 1-1 tie after conceding a penalty with 10 minutes to go. It only avoided what would have been a punishing defeat when the video replay system came to its rescue and overturned a second United penalty.
Tottenham, the team, had entered the stadium last year with high hopes. A squad assembled at a fraction of the costs of its richer rivals, it was on its way to the Champions League final last April and emerging as a contender for trophies both at home and in Europe, a team poised to usurp traditional heavyweights like United. Club revenues soon surged to record levels.
And then things started to go off track.
The team lost to Liverpool in the European final, and player dissatisfaction started to surface. Fan angst about its parsimonious spending habits in the transfer market rose in direct proportion to the team’s sagging domestic results. In November, the manager who had spent five years crafting Spurs into a contender, Mauricio Pochettino, was forced out.
Things have hardly gotten better under Mourinho. Tottenham was dumped out of the Champions League by Germany’s RB Leipzig in March, just before the season was suspended, and its current form — it remained in eighth place after Friday’s draw — makes it unlikely Spurs will return to the competition next season.
That absence will be felt in the stands, whenever fans are allowed to fill them, but perhaps most sharply in a boardroom that had counted on deep runs in the Champions League — which can be worth more than $100 million a year — to provide the funds to pay off the new stadium.
Now the coronavirus appears set to extract one heavy cost after another. Like the rest of the teams in the Premier League, Tottenham owes broadcasters a share of at least 330 million pounds ($408 million) in rebates because of the disruption to the league’s schedule. The N.F.L. already has scrapped two fall games scheduled for the arena, and top-tier rugby matches, a heavyweight title bout and a series of concerts are among the other events that will now not take place.
The club estimated that its lost revenue could approach $250 million by June next year, the highest figure forecast by any club in the league. Packed stadiums on match days might have covered some of that; empty ones will not.
Faced with that ominous financial outlook, the club has tried to undertake mitigation efforts. Some have been more successful than others. In April, its efforts to pay some of its employees by tapping a government furlough program were quickly reversed after a fan revolt.
Earlier this month, Tottenham managed to secure an important lifeline, convincing authorities it met the requirements for an emergency low-interest loan from the Bank of England. The 175 million pounds ($217 million), which must be repaid by April 2021, has provided Tottenham a little breathing space, or, as the team put it, “financial flexibility and additional working capital during these challenging times.”
“I said as early as 18 March that, in all my 20 years at the club, there have been many hurdles along the way but none of this magnitude,” Daniel Levy, Tottenham’s chief executive officer, said in explaining the club’s decision to get hold of cash at below market rates. “The Covid-19 pandemic has shown itself to be the most serious of them all.”
“It is imperative,” he added, “that we now all work together — scientists, technologists, the government and the live events sector — to find a safe way to bring spectators back to sport and entertainment venues.”
What kind of team those fans will get to watch when they eventually return is unclear. While the squad looks in need of an upgrade to recapture the form that took it to that Champions League final, its finances mean that is likely to be all but impossible, particularly when a condition of the government’s loan stipulates that the funds cannot be used to strengthen the team’s playing roster.
On Friday, those players that remained trooped wearily off the field and headed to their socially distanced dressing room, cursing at more dropped points. Many things have changed for Tottenham this season. Some things have stayed the same.