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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 16:34 GMT 17:34 UK
Multi-sport stadium on horizon
With an announcement expected next week on a possible multi-sports stadium for Northern Ireland, BBC NI political correspondent Gareth Gordon visits a Premiership ground which could be a possible model for the new facility.

From the M61, it looks like an alien space craft has landed in the grey suburban expanse of Horwich on the outskirts of Bolton.

BBC Northern Ireland reporter Gareth Gordon
BBC Northern Ireland's Gareth Gordon visited Bolton's stadium
To football fans, it is known as the Reebok Stadium - where 28,000 people can watch the once old-fashioned Bolton Wanderers in futuristic splendour.

Soon, something like it may just beam Northern Ireland sport into the 21st century.

The prospect of a bright shiny new stadium in the province has been a political football for longer than any game you care to name.

Back in January, Tony Whitehead of the Strategic Investment Board, a Liverpool fan who helped rescue the troubled Wembley Stadium project, was asked by NIO Sports Minister Angela Smith to establish whether a stadium for Northern Ireland was commercially viable.

Ms Smith and Finance Minister Ian Pearson will begin to consider the report within days, and an announcement is expected next week.

The vision of the Reebok is bound to loom large within its pages.

Tony Whitehead has been on a guided tour. It is the kind of model he must replicate in Northern Ireland if the stadium project is ever going to happen.

"We are unlikely to get a stadium built completely by private sector or sponsorship or income generation, " he said.

Tony Whitehead
As a sports fan, I would love this project to happen. As an economist, I am well aware that it needs to stack up
Tony Whitehead
Strategic Investment Board
"Most stadia are built with some sort of public sector capital contribution. Clearly we are looking to try to limit that in this situation."

In other words, it must pay for itself and to do that it must copy the Reebok example, which in the words of Alan Duckworth, chief executive of Bolton's holding company Burnden Leisure, is "very much a hotel that's shaped like a football stadium."

He says: "For seven days a week it operates as an hotel and only on match days does it come into use as a football stadium."

The hotel is incorporated into one of the stands.

Under another stand is exhibition space for 4,000 people. Corporate and banqueting business generates between 8m to 9m a year for the football club.

Mr Whitehead said: "At Bolton, you've got the non-football related core income that is driven through things like offices, revenue from corporate hospitality and corporate sponsorship, so that the football side isn't simply the sole generator of income."

But finances are not his only problem.

The project must have cross community support.

That means as well as accommodating football (the Northern Ireland international team) and rugby (Ulster) he must also persuade the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) to come on board.

And that, given their opposition to sharing grounds with other sports, will not be easy.

"As part of the business plan exercise, all three sports bodies have played their full part, in terms of opening up their books and agreeing sets of assumptions," he said.

"By that I mean realistic sets of assumptions on likely attendance, ticket pricing etcetera.

"If we do move to the next stage and are asked to find the most appropriate site, quite clearly the number one criteria for that will be acceptability to all three sports bodies, both in terms of neutrality for the three sports bodies and also the fan base of the three sports bodies.

Reebok Stadium
The Reebok Stadium could be the model for a new ground
"The GAA have played their part in the business exercise. They were very, very generous in giving me a tour around Croke Park about two or three weeks ago.

"On the back of that, the concept we are putting together is designed to accommodate GAA.

"In fact, given the requirements of the GAA because of a bigger-sized pitch, what you could effectively say with this new stadium is that it is GAA-designed and it will also accommodate soccer and rugby."

If this project does eventually get the thumbs up, it will not be called the "national" stadium - that would go against the ethos of the vast majority of GAA fans.

Instead, like the Reebok, it would be sponsored by a company. It is understood discussions have already been held with a number of prospective sponsors in Britain and beyond.

The possibility of major concerts being staged there has also been discussed with music promoters.

Four sites are being considered. Newry, which must be considered the outsider; two in Belfast - the Titanic Quarter in the east of the city and the north foreshore of Belfast Lough; and the favourite, the site of the old Maze Prison, near Lisburn.

But we'll only get to that stage if ministers Smith and Pearson are persuaded a stadium could pay its way.

Tony Whitehead isn't giving much away.

"As a sports fan, I would love this project to happen. As an economist, I am well aware that it needs to stack up," he said.




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