Paying to get the best seats in the sport stadium

Women's champion Serena Williams in action at Wimbledon Image copyright Getty Images

As the latest touches are being put to the playing surfaces of the tennis courts at Wimbledon, so the finishing strokes are also being applied to the latest fundraising scheme to improve facilities at the historic sporting complex.

The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), which hosts the world-famous tournament, has been pricing its latest debenture issue, with the cash raised going towards putting a roof over Court Number One.

The new debenture, which runs from 2017 to 2021, will set back tennis lovers some £31,000.

Sporting debenture holders pay a set sum of money, usually quite a sizeable amount, to be guaranteed the right to buy tickets to a top level sporting club or championship.

The seats are among the best seats available in the stadium, and the money raised is then usually used for capital works, such as stadium development.

At Wimbledon, debentures are issued in five year cycles, with separate schemes for the Centre and Number One "show" courts, which host the big-name matches.

'Master plan'

The AELTC say their schemes are a way of satisfying a certain high-end, niche, ticket market, while at the same time raising money without recourse to public expenditure.

"The proceeds of the next Number One Court debenture issue will help to fund the implementation of the next stage of our Wimbledon master plan," says AELTC chairman Philip Brook.

When complete, the facilities will include a remodelled Number One Court, with a retractable roof, two extra rows of seating, and increased hospitality boxes around the court.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Court One will be remodelled, with a roof and more seats and corporate boxes

In addition a new public plaza will be built in place of Court 19, and a basement dining area for officials will also be constructed.

"It is a big project, with the major work beginning after the 2016 tournament, and everything will be ready for the start of the 2019 championship," says Mr Brook.

Debentures have a long history at Wimbledon, starting in 1920 when the first £100,000 issue was used to buy the current Church Road site and fund building of the Centre Court.

Some £100m was raised from the last Centre Court debenture, with money from that directed towards that court's roof project.

'Affordable levels'

The Court Number One debenture provides tickets for nine days' play - the first week of Wimbledon and then until the Wednesday of the second week (when all remaining big matches move to Centre Court). An emergency extra day is also built into the package in case a day of play is lost to rain.

Some sporting debentures offer an annual interest rate return to holders. That is not the case at Wimbledon but holders also get access to facilities such as bars, restaurants and car parks.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Court 19 next to Court One will be demolished as part of the plans

Existing debenture holders get first chance to buy the next issue. On Court One there are 1,000 debenture seats out of the current 11,500 capacity, which will be expanded to 12,400 with the building work.

"Raising funds through debenture issues means that we can keep our ticket prices for everybody else at very affordable levels," says Mr Brook.

As well as providing access to must-see tennis matches, the tickets that come with the debenture - unlike other Wimbledon tickets - can be legally sold on, either through the AELTC or privately.

The debentures themselves can also be traded via Numis Securities, with recent sale prices announced in the Financial Times.

Fan protest

Such a fundraising method by UK sporting organisations is not as widespread as in the US. They are also generally pitched at such a price that only business people or the wealthy can afford them.

In the UK, as well as Wimbledon tennis, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Football Union have issued debentures, as have the MCC and Hampshire cricket clubs.

In the early 1990s football club Arsenal issued a debenture to help fund a new stand at Highbury, while a similar proposed plan by West Ham United met with fan fury.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Arsenal issued a debenture to help fund the building of a new North Stand at Highbury in the early 1990s

Meanwhile, the business plan for the building of the new Wembley Stadium in the 2000s was heavily based on the issue of 10-year Club Wembley debenture packages.

Alan Levett is managing director of Alad, a firm which publishes specialist magazine Pan Stadia & Arena Management.

"The West Ham debenture plan brought a lot of protest from supporters," he says. "They reacted angrily, and thought it was fan exploitation."

He adds: "A more recent and famous example would be with the Club seats at Wembley, it was a major part of the FA's funding of the new stadium. It will be fascinating to see how their renewals process goes, as those tickets were for 10 years from 2007."

Vikings stadium

In the US the system of using supporter cash to build or improve infrastructure is commonly called the "personal seat licence" (PSL).

They are in place in many baseball stadiums for the premier tier and luxury lounge seats, and are also becoming very common in American football at college and NFL level.

For example, roughly one-third of the cost of building the Metlife Stadium in New Jersey was met by the two NFL teams which use the stadium, the Giants and the Jets, issuing PSLs.

Image copyright Minnesota Vikings
Image caption Seating and pricing for sporting debentures and season tickets at Minnesota Vikings

And despite often initially being met with fan outcry, persistent sales efforts usually mean the seats' licences sell out.

Sports clubs in the US which are currently raising funds towards new stadiums through variants on the PSL include the American football teams the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons.

The Vikings's scheme is actually called a Stadium Builder's License (SBL), but is a similar beast to a debenture or personal seat licence; here you have to pay between $500 and $9,500 in order to secure the right to buy your season ticket.

Corporate interest

"Debenture schemes are more popular in the US, where the whole concept was invented," says Mr Levett. "It is taken as a norm over there."

"In the US they were quicker to appreciate the quality of the seats being offered. However they have traditionally have had bigger stadiums and more space to offer these sorts of premium seats.

"Furthermore, corporations there have always been keen to use sport as a method of entertaining clients, and so would snap up these debenture seats."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Metlife Stadium in New Jersey was part funded by two different debenture schemes, by the Giants and the Jets

Mr Levett, whose business also runs stadium trade shows, says there is scope to introduce this corporate seat model in other countries around the world, such as Japan.

"But I don't think there is a great scope in the UK for widening this sort of arrangement. It works for what you call the elite sports and events like Wimbledon," he says.

"I don't think we will see it being used as it is in the US, towards building new football stadiums."