Infrastructure, Soccer, Europe

‘Arsenal a testbed for what Spurs are becoming’: How the Emirates is building bridges between rivals

SportsPro goes behind the scenes at Emirates Stadium to find out how Arsenal are evolving the venue and helping their old rivals in the process.

by Steven Impey
‘Arsenal a testbed for what Spurs are becoming’: How the Emirates is building bridges between rivals

If anything should be taken from a stroll through the halls of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, it is that artistic flair plays just as an important role in the success of a Premier League soccer club as the task of ensuring their money is spent wisely behind closed doors. 

There is a fine line that falls between keeping the business in good shape financially, and maintaining the trust of its loyal faithful, such as the one found at Arsenal, whose passion for their team runs deeper than the foundations that the club is built on.

How a club tells their own story is, therefore, also vitally important in attracting new fans through the turnstiles, while retaining the old.

With the opening of Tottenham’s shiny new stadium just up the Seven Sisters Road – a next-generation sports venue offering a blend of fan experiences – Arsenal’s now teenage Emirates Stadium has had to cast a different net to ensure its story remains relevant.

“We do an enormous amount of work to ensure that fans, wherever they are in the stadium, have the best experience possible,” Tom McCann, Arsenal’s premium and venue experience director, tells SportsPro.

“Our job really is to unlink the matchday experience from the [soccer] as best we can because our goal is for people to have a brilliant time whenever they are in the venue.

“The one thing we cannot control is the most emotional piece of the experience and that is what goes on out there [on the pitch]. What we aspire to do is to make sure that the experience everyone has inside the venue is as good as it possible can be.”

Whereas soccer clubs in particular were first established on strong community bases, the draw of international players and partnerships have turned their homes into destinations for supporters worldwide.

On matchday, fans now travel from all corners of the globe to soak in the experience, while some Premier League clubs have even lent their home to other sports, in a bid to attract different demographics.

For example, Tottenham’s UK£1 billion multipurpose stadium will host two National Football League (NFL) fixtures for the first time this autumn. The Premier League’s newest venue is the next leap in the evolution of stadia design, providing die-hard Tottenham supporters with a venue for the modern age, while inviting another breed of sports fan to enjoy its facilities just as well.

During the past two close-seasons, Arsenal upgraded their visiting fan experience, too. Using a wholly different brush from their rivals, the desired effect was exactly the same.

Upgrades include an expansion of the Club Level by 780 seats, McCann explains, while a revamp to the hospitality suites marks a “shift in trend”, he says, away from the traditional, corporate boxes, to “more informal, shared facilities”, which many of the newer stadiums favour.

“I am very mindful that there are attributes of other stadia which are great,” McCann continues. “Spurs have done a great job with their new facilities, and it would be remiss of me to say that they haven’t.

“However, Chelsea’s new stadium will, in some respects, be better than Spurs’, and then Everton again will be better than Chelsea’s, because that’s the nature of the beast. Our job, and our challenge, is to stay relevant and to keep updating our venue by matching the needs of the market and the demands of our fans.”

Arsenal opened their doors to rivals Tottenham Hotspur to assist the design process for Spurs' new 62,000-capacity stadium

While Arsenal and Tottenham share a rivalry on the pitch, it seems the clubs are more intertwined than one may have first thought. During the design and planning of Spurs’ 62,000-capacity stadium, McCann says that Arsenal welcomed their counterparts to the Emirates to help draw inspiration and learnings from its infrastructure and hospitality spaces.

“Spurs have gone down a different route, and they are going to make good money through their NFL deal, and it will create good exposure for them in the US. It makes a lot of sense from a commercial point of view,” McCann adds, paying compliments to Tottenham’s new digs, which include a retractable pitch to interchange between English soccer and American football occasions.

“At Arsenal, we are also very protective – and more protective than some venues – of the pitch. We are very proud of our carpet, and I guess using West Ham as an example, they will have had a narrower window for pitch protection when hosting events like Major League Baseball (MLB) this summer, which took a whole week to build.”

My caution in building a venue to be all things to all people is that it becomes nothing to anybody. Therefore, in building Arsenal, we went through this ‘Arsenal-isation’ process to ensure that it feels like a home to Arsenal

Tom McCann, Arsenal’s premium and venue experience director

That said, McCann notes that Arsenal are not averse to welcoming new sports the stadium. Just as the Nou Camp in Barcelona hosted a Super League fixture between Catalan Dragons and Wigan Warriors earlier in the year, the Emirates is among 21 host venues for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.

“The moral to the story there is that we want to make sure, with whatever extra content that we bring to the stadium, that it keeps the [soccer] as the core product,” he expands. “In that regard, Spurs will have to continue to work hard to make sure that their venue remains a stadium for their fans, rather than being a multi-use venue.

“That is a balance that they will have to strike, and my caution in building a venue to be all things to all people is that it becomes nothing to anybody. Therefore, in building Arsenal, we went through this ‘Arsenal-isation’ process to ensure that it feels like a home to Arsenal.”

The Club Level at Emirates Stadium has undergone several upgrades of its own over the summer

There are several nods to Arsenal’s history throughout its new-look Club Level suites, which include several new dining areas. Tipping its hat to past successes, The Avenell Club – created by combining 14 pre-existing executive boxes into one open space – pays homage to Avenell Road on which Highbury, the club’s former stadium, still resides as a converted housing property only a stone’s throw from the Emirates.

Meanwhile, the old Highbury stadium itself also gives its name to another new space, designed to give the club a modern feel, while staying true to its community roots. These are in addition to the club’s Dial Square catering suite, which holds reverence to Arsenal’s origins, and led to an increase in food and beverage sales of 105 per cent at the club since its opening in 2018.

“If you look at storytelling, the club puts a great effort into making [the stadium] a vibrant space,” explains Michael Artis, strategy and development director at 20.20, the London-based design team charged with drawing up and installing Arsenal’s summer upgrades.

“Arsenal has been here [in North London] since 1913, but in terms of when it landed at Highbury, it was an iconic time and, in many ways, it was thought even during the 1930s that it would never be as good as it was then.

“With that, there is a double-edged sword, because, while [the past] makes the club what it is, it would be completely remiss of us to only ever hark back. Whenever we pay tribute to the heritage, we always try to do it in a manner that allows us to say what’s going to happen tomorrow, using Arsenal’s history as evidence of what can be achieved.

“I don’t think there is one stadium that you can say has got it right,” Artis continues. “Arguably, you can look at some of things that Anfield [Liverpool’s home stadium] has put in, and also Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium, and you can say they both have great attributes that are smart ideas.

“In many ways, if you look at architecture, it is about learning from the last legacy of stadia. Therefore, Arsenal has been a testbed for what Tottenham has become, and once you have the infrastructure in place, it is very hard to start again.”

Emirates Stadium opened in July 2006 following Arsenal's move from Highbury

In other areas, the club is integrating new technology into the stadium in a bid to boost their digital presence on matchdays. In February a partnership with US software giant Intel was struck for the inclusion of the company’s True View technology at the Emirates, with the goal of creating a more “immersive viewing experience” for supporters.

Other European clubs such as Manchester United and FC Barcelona are already embracing 5G technology at their stadia, but McCann says that Arsenal is keeping a “watching brief” in that space as part their ongoing work around a “digital stadium strategy”. 

“Our stadium does have Wi-Fi in the bowl, though when there are a lot of people in the building, it obviously struggles like most Wi-Fi does,” McCann continues. “Certainly, 5G is going to be here sooner or later, and that will be a bit of a game changer. At the moment, we are waiting to decide whether we should invest substantially in Wi-Fi or 5G, and we are doing that analysis at the moment.

“From a fan experience point of view, I think it is going to be important, but it shouldn’t become more important than the [soccer]. There are certainly areas where it can benefit the matchday experience. It will be nice to get off the London tube, log on to your app, pre-order a pint, and collect it from a kiosk when you get here, rather than joining a queue.

“At the moment, we don’t have the ability to access the stadium on your phone, although that is coming in really soon. For the time being, it’s not detracting from the matchday experience not having 5G, but it is certainly something we are looking to advance.

"It is something that continues to develop and, certainly going forward, is going to be crucially important as we become more connected and reliant on technology. We will respond to that.”