Open House Reflections: St Andrew’s and the Birmingham Sports Quarter

One of the most exciting things to emerge from the Open House event at Birmingham City last week was all the talk surrounding the Wheels project. With the club able to confirm ahead of the event that the Wheels project land was secured, it enabled Tom Wagner and co to go into greater detail about what is ahead.

We are Birmingham

This is my third piece on the Open House event held on April 9. You can read the first two at this link and this link.

In this article I have expanded on my notes about the work being done to St Andrew’s and what we can expect from the Wheels project.

St Andrew’s @ Knighthead Park – Repair and Improvements

With the Wheels project not going to be completed before 2029 it was important for the club to brief fans on what is happening at St Andrew’s before then.

As Tom Wagner put it, St Andrew’s is an “acquired taste”.

While the long-delayed repairs were finally completed this season the stadium is still a long way short of what it could be in the short term from both a fan-experience and a commercial revenue standpoint.

Thankfully, things have come a long way behind the scenes and the presentation given by Blues’ Head of Infrastructure Nick Smith was incredibly impressive.

Speaking without recourse to notes, Smith was able to talk in depth not only about how things were being redeveloped at St Andrew’s, but why the choices being made were made.

The 2023/24 season has been one sorting out the problems at both the stadium and the training grounds, with an initial “Proof of Life” phase of 52 individual projects costing £12.5m were undertaken immediately after Knighthead took control.

These projects ranged from building the Alliance lounge out of the mess of flood damage to boxes and the international suite, to growing a pitch suitable for football for immediate installation at the Elite Performance and Innovation Centre (EPIC) training ground in Henley-in-Arden.

The second phase of 36 projects code-named “Fix It” are due for completion next week and cost a further £6M in investment.

The third phase of 22 projects at the club and training ground have been given the name “Growth” and are due to take place over the summer, costing a further £15M in investment.

This includes projects such as the construction of fan parks in the main stand car park and Kop car park areas of the stadium footprint.

That means that in infrastructure alone, Knighthead have committed £33.5M to ensure that the ground is in the best condition it can be and that the training grounds are suitable for a club looking to grow in stature over the next few years.

I have seen some criticism from some fans online about spending money on infrastructure like this over the squad, but I think this is short-sighted.

If we ignore the fact that profit and sustainability rules meant Blues couldn’t spend much on the team this season anyway, we also need to consider how improved attendances and matchday spends will increase revenues which in turn will increase how much we can spend in future seasons.

This is demonstrated further by the work Blues are doing on the hospitality side of things.

Increasing Revenue

One of the things that Wagner and Cook have spoken consistently about since the first Open House last autumn was the need for the club to improve the amount of revenue it brings in.

The equation is simple – the more revenue the club brings in, the more it is allowed to spend on player transfers and wages, which in turn should improve the quality of player that is affordable within the budget.

One of the big ways to bring matchday revenue in at the club is from hospitality.

At the moment, attendance at the ground via hospitality packages works out to about 5% of total attendance. The plan is for the club to double this to 10% in the 2024/25 season.

I’m sure you’ve seen all the renders of what they’re hoping to build; if not, then I recommend this blog by Colin Tattum as a good starting point to check them out.

I have no reason to doubt that these new lounges, boxes and bars will be awesome experiences for matchday fans.

What impresses me more is the thinking that has gone into the how and why Blues are improving their hospitality offering.

Smith talked about how the club was looking to offer different tiers of hospitality at St Andrew’s, giving fans and sponsors a much wider range to choose from.

For example, the new Boardroom area will be the second tier of hospitality area underneath the Alliance and will feature innovative rooms built underneath the upper Kop to allow for things such as private dining.

At the other end of the scale, the City View lounge that is to be developed where the current Gil Merrick stand boxes are will offer a “premium economy” style area where fans can choose to add to their matchday experience as a special occasion or similar.

I’m not surprised that the club are heading in this direction at all; as far back as last June I talked about the stuff I saw when I visited the Emirates Stadium in London and how Arsenal had hospitality areas which added onto the experience of season ticket holders.

Even the proposed fan parks are part of this new hospitality offering, as they will offer spaces for fans to eat and drink before and after games.

This will help in other ways than improved revenue.

For example, if a couple of thousand fans use those facilities before the game, it will further stagger the entry period of fans into ground, helping to reduce queues at kickoff.

Likewise, if fans are still in the fan parks after the game, it will help to stagger the outflow of traffic from the ground, taking some of the pressure off the roads around St Andrew’s.

I’m also of the opinion that the more of this kind of thing the club do now, the more that the board will be able to understand what works and what doesn’t ahead of building the upcoming sports quarter.

The Birmingham Sports Quarter

While it was cutting it fine at the end as the deal to buy the Wheels land was only signed off less than 24 hours before the Open House, doing so allowed Wagner and Cook to talk about some of their plans for the “Birmingham Sports Quarter” (BSQ).

Like with the hospitality presentation, Wagner showed an artist’s impression of what the new stadium could look like.

Wagner was honest enough to confirm that this artist impression was nothing more than an idea; something to whet the appetite.

From speaking to people with knowledge of the industry, it’s wise not to take much stock of any renders or artists impressions until the official documents have been submitted as part of a formal planning application process.

And while 2029 would be an accelerated timeframe to complete the project, I’ve been told it’s not necessarily a flight of fancy.

I think to meet those kinds of deadlines it will require a lot of stuff to go right; hopefully this time the main contractor won’t go into administration halfway through the project as Buckingham did during the St Andrew’s stadium repairs.

What was pleasing was Wagner confirmed that the club will be taking things from St Andrew’s such as dirt from the pitch and the commemorative bricks from outside the ground.

I’m thankful that Wagner and his team have realised how important St Andrew’s is for the memories of those who have left us and that they want to make that symbolic connection with a new ground to show that they are willing to remember them as well.

After the Open House I discussed with others about other things the club should take from the ground for display or use in a new ground in the same way Arsenal took the clocks from the Clock End for display at the Emirates.

I hope that Knighthead consider taking things like the Jeff Hall Memorial Clock as well as the plaque commemorating the death of Ian Hambridge on 11 May 1985 during the infamous “Leeds Riot” at St Andrew’s.

Much has been made of the size of the potential investment and how it will be funded online, especially by fans of rival clubs in need of copium due to their envy.

Wagner was very guarded on this subject, for understandable legal reasons.

He did confirm that the construction of the BSQ would not affect the profit and sustainability position at Blues and paid tribute to the amount of work done behind the scenes to work out the detail of the project.

He also confirmed that land purchases have been made by entities connected to Knighthead Capital Management LLC; for legal reasons he had to be very careful in how he described these entities and no details could be given.

During the Q&A session Wagner also confirmed that the club would own everything down the pike.

Naturally, as a noted sticky beak and nosy bugger, while I accept everything that Wagner told me I’ve been trying to find out what I can via publicly available sources.

I’m still working through Land Registry records to try to glean what details are available there and will update this website when more is available.

However I have come across a couple of interesting new companies formed in Jersey.

On April 8, Birmingham Sports Quarter Propco Limited was registered with Companies House as a Jersey company. The Companies House registration confirms that Tom Wagner has significant influence or control over this company.

A search of the Jersey registry found this company and two others; Birmingham Sports Quarter Midco Limited and Birmingham Sports Quarter Topco Limited.

All three of these companies have been registered in Jersey on April 5, but as yet I have no further detail.

Due to the nature of Jersey’s company laws I think it’s unlikely that we’ll get a true understanding of who owns what; however this article by expert legal advisors Bedell Cristin gives some insight into why three companies have been formed.

As I did under the BSH days, I’m creating pages on this website tracking these companies and other entities created as part of the BSQ project.

While I appreciate there’s a lot of jargon to take in from this piece, especially the last section it’s worth reiterating that this is why I’m so confident about Knighthead and what they plan to do.

As someone who has seen some awfully lax and incompetent stuff happen over the last dozen years, it’s great to see a new regime who are not only competent but who are willing to pay to use the best legal and financial advice to run and build the club.

There are going to be people out there who will try to belittle the plans that have been made, whether due to envy or a superficial understanding of the situation.

I agree with Garry Cook and Tom Wagner that it’s not the time to listen to those people, or even engage with them.

A lot has been done to earn our trust. As much as I plan to continue to keep track of things and where necessary hold people to account, I’m excited as hell.

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