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Mapping the new Lane and the world

What’s in a stadium?

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

A new era is beginning in N17, and its arrival has opened the gates to a flood of sentimental tributes, rightly rooted in memories of the old White Hart Lane and dreams of going to football at the new one. But for those of us who live outside of London, particularly overseas, it may be years—if at all—before we get to go to a match in the new stadium. I was fortunate enough to visit London last month (misfortunate enough to narrowly miss the stadium’s opening) and made a point to walk around the exterior of the stadium and take a moment to soak in its enormous presence, so that when I see it on the TV, I’ll be able to say I was there—kind of. Doing that meant even more to me because I was never able to see a match at White Hart Lane before it was torn down.

As momentous occasions often do, the opening of Tottenham Stadium provides an insight into the different relationships—geographic, economic, spiritual, political—that people have to sports stadiums. The new White Hart Lane sits at a unique and uncharted position on this map. It replaces a stadium that matured alongside the ever-changing Tottenham community for more than one hundred years with a brand-new, shiny palace of football and wealth that might be seen as out of touch with its surroundings. It will connect continents in more ways than one. It may usher in an epoch of glory at Spurs; it may financially strain the club and undo years of progress. We don’t know much about what will happen after today’s game. We do know that Spurs now have the largest stadium of any football club in London, making them the biggest dot on a map of big dots. In the spirit of celebrating its opening, I thought I would chart some theoretical and relationships that I see being refreshed, changed, and created by the new stadium.

Not only will record numbers of American and other international fans flock to the stadium, it will also host at least two American football games each year. Lest we focus only on the States, Heung-min Son’s renown in South Korea is growing an already-massive Spurs following there, and the club’s brand is undoubtedly becoming better known across the globe. Thus, Tottenham in the 21st century will look very different from how it has the past, and the new stadium’s decidedly international appeal will set the stage for that change.

Serious interest in Tottenham among Americans without some familial connection to the club is, anecdotally, a new phenomenon. In the last ten or twenty years, as American sports fans began to take soccer and the Premier League seriously, Spurs naturally got some share of the attention, although not as much as more-decorated, richer clubs like United and Chelsea. In recent years, though, Spurs’ uptick in quality has coincided with a vast expansion of televised Premier League matches in the US, meaning that a team which has been among the respectable, but under appreciated, ranks of good-but-not-great Premier League clubs for most of the twenty-first century is suddenly a growing global brand.

One indicator of this globalization is the growth in the club’s commercial revenue, which includes things like merchandise and other consumer goods: in the 2012/2013 season, Deloitte estimates that the club earned €52.4m from commercial sources; five years later, in the 2017/18 season, that number rose 122% to €116.5m. By comparison, Arsenal’s commercial revenue grew only 65% over the same period. Thus, Tottenham is becoming a global brand in a way that it has never been before.

The new stadium is not only coinciding with this trend, it is depending on it in ways both good and bad. The NFL partnership—two games per year for ten years—is an explicit strategy to cement an exchange between British fans and US fans, growing interest in the NFL among Londoners and expanding Tottenham’s brand recognition among Americans. If it succeeds, this maneuver could make Spurs a lot of money in new supporters, but it could also alter the identity of the club in the United States, making it feel more akin to Liverpool, Man City, and Man United, which each have a business connection to America and a strong following here.

Increased global attention also means that the club is getting new, richer fans, and that puts a number of things at risk. I wrote in January about the problems posed by Spurs’ new stadium, along with the Haringey urban renewal plan of which the stadium is a major part, which threatens to force out local businesses and residents who can’t keep up with rising rents. The class issues don’t stop at the stadium’s doors, either. While the beer prices are conspicuously affordable, season ticket prices have been rising in recent years, and despite a freeze for 2019-20, the club must be careful that it doesn’t price out working-class fans who supported the club through thin times.

The stadium can also become either a headache or an asset to the club’s business. It will be a selling point for new players or targets for the club’s recruiting: why play anywhere other than the biggest stadium in London, with its wall of sound and immense, teeming bowl of fans? Those fans, too, will be a good thing for the club, since the stadium’s vast capacity will enable it to generate significant match day revenue. On the other hand, the debt that the club took on to pay for the stadium may have prevented us from purchasing players in recent transfer windows, and if the stadium fails to pay off its costs in coming years, a one-year dry period could become a years-long time of little or no transfer activity. Still, despite its risk, fans, players, and the club alike are united in seeing the grand aspirations that the stadium expresses, and we can have faith that on this magnificent field, Spurs will march on to certain glory for the next century.

Those of us who support Spurs from a distance will navigate our own relationships to the stadium. To some, it will be a destination of pilgrimage, whether once each year or once in a lifetime. Particularly devout Spurs fans will want to attend a match in the one place in the world constructed specifically for our team, and this is a beautiful thing. There will be a buzz in the air around the stadium for as long as it stands, a manifestation of the incredible meaning it holds for us. For others fans, it means less: the game will look the same on TV as they did two years ago, and if one’s relationship to the club is confined only to the glorious weekly ritual of curling up in the morning (in the States) to watch a football match, that habit will remain unchanged by the new venue.

The new stadium, however, has the potential to transform international supporters’ relationship to the club by giving them a reason to travel to England and see a game. White Hart Lane predated many people’s support of the club, but the new stadium is coinciding with the wave of new fans I mentioned earlier, and it would be delightful if people who were once content to see a game on television now managed to make it to one in person in order to see the hottest property in world football. This poses the aforementioned risk of changing the club’s identity, and we must be careful about how we react to the new interest, but if the new stadium allows people to watch Tottenham Hotspur for the first time, that must be a good thing.

Ultimately, the new stadium is like any major life decision. It will probably be good, hopefully be very good, but no matter what, Tottenham Hotspur will never be the same after today. That we get to be a part of this, whether watching in a pub in Boston or singing in the single-tier stand, is a blessing. What better a team to welcome this change than one with Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Heung Min Son, Christian Eriksen? What better a family to ring in the new day with than those supporters who have been by our side since the beginning? When the team takes the pitch tonight, all the nagging questions and the prodding hopes will fade. Then, as it has for centuries, White Hart Lane will resonate with the familiar thud of the ball, the squelch of boots across turf, the melody of football unfolding itself once again.