Let’s get this off to a hot start – I don’t think Old Trafford is that great.
As I write this, I realize it may be helpful to explain where I’m coming from to better understand my perspective. I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, aka Silicon Valley, and have spent most of my adult life working in tech (albeit through the lens of law, not an engineer). The innovation of technology fascinates and drives much of my life.
In relation to sports, my favorite sports team of all time is the Green Bay Packers (sorry, Red Devils). I go to Lambeau Field every single year and have done so for some time now. Lambeau Field is considered to be the Mecca of (American) Football and for good reason. It is the most historical venue in the history of the NFL and the Packers have done a wonderful job building a stadium with modern amenities while maintaining the lure of its history.
Furthermore, I am a pretty big San Francisco Giants fan. I have been to (insert current sponsor) Park at least 100 times since its opening in the year 2000. For those that haven’t been, it is an absolute gem of a stadium, perched right on the San Francisco Bay. I have also had the fortune to have attended games at other notable and/or modern stadiums around the world such as Camp Nou, Wembley Stadium, Allianz Arena, Notre Dame Stadium, Petco Park, the Chase Center and Levi’s Stadium, among many others.
After seeing what so many teams around the world have done, it is hard to not hold Manchester United – with all its riches and fortunes – to an extremely high standard. Combine that with the history and reputation of Old Trafford, my expectations were high. Having now attended a few games at Old Trafford, I have to admit, I’m not impressed.
One last note: teams from sports around the world have to deal with two things that are driving fans out of the stadiums and onto their couch – the increase in ticket prices and the improvement of the home sports-watching experience. Those things should be considered when evaluating/renovating a stadium.
No Videoboard / Replay Screen
One thing that stood out to me was the lack of videoboard for replays. That would be questionably acceptable in a pre-VAR world, as the game of football is fast paced with very few moments available to detract attention from the field and towards a replay screen. Even then, it would seem reasonable to want to see a quick highlight immediately following a goal and it would certainly seem reasonable to want to see some highlights from the game (and others around the league) during halftime.
However, during the VAR era, not having a replay screen is unacceptable. Seemingly in every game (obviously an exaggeration), there is a VAR decision. While the refs are discussing / reviewing it, the fans at Old Trafford are left to just stare blankly until the decision is announced. This causes unrest in the stands and drives greater animosity towards the idea of VAR in general.
Last year, in the days leading up to one of the games I attended, I did the stadium tour. At one point, one of the people on the tour asked the guide why there is no videoboard at Old Trafford. The guide stated that installing videoboards would require a reduction of 7,000 seats and it is “the opinion of the board” (read: Woodward and the Glazers) that reducing the capacity is not worth a videoboard. While I think there is some validity to that argument, it is a problem United can afford to fix. Assuming VAR is here to stay, I would give it one more year before the voices get really loud about the lack of a videoboard.
The Stairs of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand
In August 2019, I went to the 4-0, opening day, trouncing of Chelsea. Ticket prices (on the secondary market) for that game were outrageous. If memory serves me correct, the cheapest ticket I could find was around $350. Given that it was at the beginning of my European vacation, I decided to be more frugal and got tickets to sit way up in the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. I had never sat up there before but I assumed it would be fine.
In the days leading up to the game, I did the stadium tour. At some point of the tour, the guide pointed to the stand and said he sat up there once but would never sit up there again. He mentioned the view wasn’t great (I didn’t think it was bad, FWIW) and that there is no lift (elevator) up to the stand. He said it was a really strenuous hike to get up there and warned anyone thinking about sitting up there. To be completely honest, the guide was a bit *ahem* “portly” and I am pretty young and relatively fit. I figured it would be no big deal getting up the stairs. After pounding beers at the Bishop Blaize, I was extremely wrong. That was an absolute trek.
The next day, I was thinking about that hike up the stairs. I’m in my 20s and I go to the gym almost every day. If one is middle aged, or heaven forbid disabled, those seats are basically off-limits. That’s unacceptable. A 60 year old man should not be forced to pay extra so that he can get good enough seats for him to physically reach. This is the lawyer in me talking but that would not fly in the US due to ADA regulations. Under US law, United would have to build multiple access methods for all of their seats or provide reasonable alternatives. Clearly, the UK does not have similar standards or United has found some great loopholes. Law aside, it is something that needs to be fixed ASAP.
This might be a weirdly specific complaint but I’ve heard others echo the same sentiment. When one attends a sporting event, they have to maneuver from the entry gates to their seats through the concourse. The same applies when trying to go to the restroom, the concessions, etc. and the same applies when trying to leave the stadium after the game.
When I think of this issue, I think of the now-gone Candlestick Park and the Oakland Coliseum in the Bay Area. When one would try to navigate the concourse, it was a tight body-to-body experience. It would take a significant amount of time and stress, just to get to one’s seat. It made going to the restroom / concessions during live-play almost a necessity so one could avoid the crowds.
Old Trafford is not at that level but it’s pretty bad. Before and (especially) after the match, it is a like a herd of cattle trying to move in / out of the stadium. It’s extremely uncomfortable and can be a total buzzkill. In case of an emergency, it is totally unsuitable. In a less extreme fashion, I think of the parents there with their kids and having to hold their hand super tight while swimming through the crowd is completely unnecessary and totally unenjoyable.
Unfortunately, fixing something like this would require a massive renovation. The powers that be would have to expand the stadium in its entirety to allow for more space. If it wasn’t for the possibility of an emergency, I’d argue that maybe it’s not worth it but given the history of issues in the past in the U.K., I believe it becomes a more pressing need.
Ancient TVs in the Concourse
Speaking of the concourse, what is the deal with the TVs they have in the concourse? What struck me as amazing was how stuck to the TVs people were at halftime. At every game I’ve been to at Old Trafford, I would run to the restroom at halftime and every time, there were fairly large gatherings of people around the concourse TVs to check highlights/scores from other games. It was probably more so than any other sporting venue I have ever been to. Aside from what was mentioned above in the crowded concourse section, the television screens they were looking at were so small and so old. The TVs were roughly 20 inch screens and were broadcasting in low definition.
I have exceptional eyesight and I had to be pretty close to the screen to see anything. If United placed much larger, much higher quality screens in the concourse, it would allow for people to peer over from all over the concourse instead of all gathering in a narrow area. Upgrading the television screens around the stadium would be such a minimal cost (relative to the operating budget of Manchester United) that is completely laughable for them to have such old TVs.
This topic seems to create such a wide divide amongst sporting event attendees. The instant argument against is always something to the effect of “you’re at a sporting event to watch the game, not be on your phone.” I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. I am complete supporter of the idea of that everyone should be fully engaged with the game.
BUT…that is a shallow way of looking at the issue in 2020.
Having access to the internet while at the game provides so many opportunities to enhance the matchday experience. For example, instead of congregating in front of the ancient TVs scattered throughout Old Trafford, if there was stadium WiFi, one could simply check the scores on their phone and watch exactly the highlights they want to see, all on their phone. The fan would not have to deal with the crowded concourses and the mess that comes with that. Also, if one wanted to place a halftime wager, they could do it from their phone, instead of standing in line.
More simply, as it relates to the “you’re there watch the game” crowd, just get over it. If I’m at a sporting event, I want to be able to text my friends and family to share the experience with them. If I’m at a Chelsea/United game and Bruno just banged one in from the box, I want to send them a video of me singing “BRUNO BRUNO BRUNO,” just to rub it in. Hell, if I’m having a conversation with someone, I want the ability to simply be able to extend the conversation throughout the day. I don’t want to miss out on setting up a date with a cute love interest just because I have too much network interference in the stadium.
From a team standpoint, adding WiFi to the stadium serves a bunch of purposes. If United doesn’t want to install video-screens, fans could watch replays on their phone. That would be too slow of a process of VAR calls but I digress. Limiting the crowds in the concourse is also advantageous to the club. However, what’s most important to the team ($$$) would be the ability of the fans to engage in social media while at the game. Every professional sports team does it. “Take a photo of yourself at the game and tag #GloryGlory and see if you make it on the screen/team page!” That social media engagement creates clicks and views. Clicks and views drives sponsorships. Sponsorships bring $$$ and $$$, of course, brings talent.
Adding WiFi to the stadium would be such a minimal cost and would be greatly appreciated by the fans. It seems like a no brainer.
No Mobile Ordering
Tied to the idea of being able to get more out of your phone is the idea of mobile ordering. As true at most stadiums, the lines for concessions before the game and at halftime are insane. No one wants to miss out on game action but people have to eat, especially if you’ve pounded six beers before the game. Mobile ordering would simplify things immensely. One could order from their seats and get a quick text when things are ready then the fan could just run out, grab the food, and hurry back to their seats. Alternatively, they could schedule their food to be ready at halftime and not have to wait in line to order. They could simply walk over to the pickup side of the concession stand and grab their food, allowing for more time to use the restroom, stretch their legs, banter, etc.
No Variety of Concessions/Beer
Lastly and certainly not least (okay, maybe it’s silly), there is no variety at the concession stands! I totally understand that there are vendors and sponsors to deal with so they have an obligation to promote certain products. However, United can do so much better than having the option between a meat pie and a hot dog at halftime. Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, home of the San Francisco 49ers, have mastered this. They have SO many food options. I know that one shouldn’t go to a sporting event for the dining options but there is one thing that is irrefutable – kids are extremely picky. Every parent has been there. They brought their 7 year old to a game and now their kid is hungry.
“Do you want a meat pie?”
“Do you want a hot dog?”
Well great, Old Trafford. We’re basically out of options now. Now the parent is going to have a hungry, fussy kid for the rest of the game. It would be so much nicer if there were other options (chicken sandwiches, pizza, nachos, pretzels, popcorn, etc.).
And now, for the pièce de résistance – the beer choices at Old Trafford are AWFUL. To be fair, I am a typical Californian millennial in that I am a craft beer snob. However, I can manage…to an extent. I really do not want to drink Heineken. Heineken owns the California-originated brewery, Lagunitas. Lagunitas has an extensive beer catalogue. Lagunitas also has their simple IPA, which is a pretty standard beer around the US and parts of Europe. England claims to be a proud beer country. Why can’t we get even five different beer options at Old Trafford? I think ten would be more reasonable but I’ll take what I can get. As mentioned in the preface, I go to a lot of San Francisco Giants games. I think the Giants proudly claim they have over 100 different beers in the stadium. Other than the absurd beer prices at a ballgame in SF – I’ve paid over $20 for a beer before – it is great to have so many options.
P.S. if you’re a craft beer aficionado and you find yourself in Manchester, I highly recommend visiting Port Street Beer House on the outskirts of the Northern Quarter. This was not a paid advertisement. Cheers!