Ramat Gan national soccer stadium left to crumble

Ramat Gan National Stadium Photo: Eyal Izhar

The 45,000-seat stadium, on prime real estate in Ramat Gan, is unfit for anything as planners argue over future use for the land.

In January 1950, Ramat Gan Mayor Avraham Krinitzi declared that he would build a national stadium of giant proportions that could host the Maccabiah Games scheduled for September of that year. It was the first Maccabiah Games after Israel became independent and after the Holocaust. The idea was to produce a powerful event, with tens of thousands of people in a single place. Then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion welcomed the initiative, but said that the state would be unable to pay for it. Construction began in April 1950, and it was completed in 130 days.

45,000 people filled the new Ramat Gan stadium at the Maccabiah ceremony in September 1950. Israel had a large-scale stadium, even though there was no grass, lighting, or money from the state. The municipality had a huge deficit because of the stadium, which cost an unprecedented 600,000 Israeli lirot ($1.7 million at the time).

The mere thought of building a national stadium in 130 days seems remarkable today, given the current inability to decide the stadium's fate. The decision has preoccupied three mayors over 15 years.

As of 2019, the Ramat Gan stadium is extremely neglected. People are not allowed to enter three quarters of its bleachers. It is still the largest facility in Israel, but it will no longer host the Maccabiah Games, or any other important event. Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Depeche Mode, 50 Cent, Kanye West, Simon and Garfunkel, Madonna, Metallica, Bob Dylan, and Sting gave shows there over the years. Today, music is heard from the circus tent on the north side of the stadium, which is designed to make a few shekels to cover the stadium's huge operating expenses.

Every few years, a headline announces a new grand plan for building a national stadium in Ramat Gan. The closest it ever got was in 2010, when then-Ramat Gan Mayor Zvi Bar, together with Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon, managed to bring a project to an architects tender. According to the municipality's minutes, almost NIS 3 million was spent on the proceeding, but the plan was shelved. Yisrael Zinger followed him as mayor and brought his own plan for reducing the stadium's size as part of a cultural and commercial zone, which also vanished without a trace.

Do we need a national stadium in Ramat Gan today? Now that stadiums have been built in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Beer Sheva, and the renovation of Bloomfield stadium will be completed in August, has the time come to finish off the dream of the national stadium, which was fitting a decade ago, once and for all? Here are several questions that arise from this saga.

How much compensation will Israel Land Administration receive?

As it now stands, the Ramat Gan stadium has quite a few problems. "One of the main problems is the fact that the stadium belongs half to Israel Land Administration and half to the Ramat Gan municipality," explains Ilan Yavlokovsky, a former manager of the stadium and now managers of the new stadium in Netanya. Other sources say that the municipality owns 60% of the stadium and Israel Land Administration (ILA) 40%.

Nir Parzelina, a project manager specializing in sports facilities, who was a partner in Zvi Bar's 2010 initiative for rebuilding the stadium, is aware of the dual ownership problem. " It would have been easier had the Ramat Gan municipality owned 100% of the land on which the stadium is located," he says.

The inability to do anything significant is causing neglect. As of now, the only part renovated was the western bleachers in 1986. Today, putting an audience into the stadium is allowed only in the western part, so only 11,300 seats out of over 40,000 in the stadium can now be occupied.

Will the Football Association step in, and if so, what will it do?

The second point complicating a solution is the Israel Football Association. Towards the end of 1984, the Ramat Gan municipality signed 49-year lease with the Football Association valid until 2033, with a further 49-year option. In other words, the Football Association is a tenant; as long as it complies with its agreements with the municipality, it cannot be evicted before 2082. In 1993, the Football Association extended its connection with the Ramat Gan municipality by moving its offices inside the stadium, while at the same time maintaining warehouses there and renting several dozen square meters for its training department.

People from the Football Association who hear about the initiatives by mayors of Ramat Gan have no plans to move anywhere. The Football Association asserts that the fact that the Israel national team no longer plays in the Ramat Gan stadium does not mean that the stadium is no longer needed. If the municipality wants to build a new stadium, or to demolish the stadium and building a different location, a senior Football Association sources told "Globes" that the municipality would have to pay the Football Association tens of millions of shekels in compensation for what the Football Association invested over the years. According to the Football Association's calculation, it spends NIS 5 million a year on maintaining and operating the stadium, which brings the total spent by the Football Association during the 25 years since it entered the stadium to NIS 125 million.

The Football Association leaders recently attended a meeting with new Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama Hacohen. At the meeting, Hacohen told them that he wanted to solve the problem of the stadium during his term in office. Nothing specific or clear was said, however, and the municipality is also refusing to talk about its plans at this stage - whether it would be better to demolish the stadium, build homes on the site, and move the stadium to another location, or demolish the stadium and rebuild it in the same place. The Football Association claims that in the past, they were offered all sorts of alternatives for moving the national stadium. One was to the area of Ariel Sharon Park, and another was to the Winter stadium. No one was enthusiastic about these possibilities.

In any case, Hacohen's dilemma is clear and well-known. According to sources informed about the discussions with the municipality, on the one hand, Hacohen has to create a commercial area on the site that will bring money to the municipality ("with 6-7 towers like the BSR Tower across the street"). On the other hand, he has to leave the stadium, even if only on a reduced scale; otherwise, in any scenario in which there is not a stadium on the site, he will have to pay ILA a huge amount as compensation for rezoning. What is the problem with the stadium? These sources say, "The mayor wants to find someone for whom the stadium will be a permanent home - a team that will undertake to play there, because there's no logic in building a new stadium with 30,000-35,000 seats just to have the national team play there two or three times a year and be empty the rest of the year."

Who needs it?

The main question is whether there is any need to build a new facility. Opinions on the issue vary. In contrast to the past, the current worldwide trend is against building national stadiums. The 2019 Benchmarking report published by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) contains an important chapter about stadiums, and the picture is fairly clear: of the 159 soccer stadiums built in Europe in the past decade, only one quarter of the countries built a national facility: Kazakhstan, Ireland, Albania, and Romania.

Parzelina says, "Israel still needs a stadium with 40,000-45,000 seats. It will be a stadium that can also be used for shows, events, and conferences." With proper planning, Parzelina asserts, the new stadium built on the same site can leave room for commercial ventures that will make a lot of money. "The Ramat Gan stadium occupies a huge area, because it was built together with a track and field stadium surrounding the grass. The playing field of a modern football stadium, which is the area covered by grass up until the bleachers, is around 10 dunam (2.5 acres, T.V.). The Ramat Gan stadium playing field occupies 22 dunam (5.5 acres, T.V.) - just the playing field, without the stands." What does he suggest? "Demolish the stadium and build a new proper stadium in the same place. That will release a lot of new area."

In any case, since a new national stadium is being discussed, the soccer infrastructure in Israel has completely changed. Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa, inaugurated in 2015, has 30,000 seats. Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem was expanded to 32,000 seats. Renovations on Bloomfield Stadium will be completed in six months, bringing the number of seats there to 29,500, after which it can provide a solution for the greater Tel Aviv area. This stadium is only seven kilometers distant from the Ramat Gan stadium as the crow flies. The Tel Aviv soccer teams signed an agreement with the Tel Aviv municipality to play in the stadium in Jaffa, so they have no need of a larger national stadium. So Israel will be unable to meet the threshold conditions for hosting the UEFA Champions League final, which requires a large spectators capacity - so what?

How much will it cost?

To all of this must be added the trivial and minor detail of the cost. In 2010, Avi Luzon "launched" that Ramat Gan national stadium project at a celebratory press conference. Besides declaring, "Construction will be completed within five years" and "Israel will compete to host the UEFA Champions League Final in 2016," he also said that the cost of the project was estimated at NIS 900 million. Almost a decade has passed since then, and the cost of facilities has risen considerably. "If Sammy Ofer Stadium cost over NIS 600,000, a Ramat Gan stadium will cost over NIS 1 billion," says Yavlokovsky.

Beyond the cost of construction, all those involved agree that a stadium is not economically worthwhile. "It doesn't matter how many teams play in it and how many events are held in it. A stadium doesn't pay for its regular operation," says a senior source in one of the municipalities that operates a large stadium. "That is in addition to the cost of construction, which is a heavy one-time expense that the municipality has to cope with for years."

In certain cases, municipalities try to make back part of the operating costs in creative ways, but this is a drop in the ocean. "At the stadium in Netanya, we have an event hall that we operate," says Yavlokovsky. "We do bar mitzvahs there, ritual circumcisions, and it brings in a few shekels. Every so often, we get events of commercial companies - business events. For example, we held an event for Coca Cola in the stadium and conferences of Bank Hapoalim and insurance companies. We had a big event of Elbit Systems, with Shlomo Artzi in the stadium, and Elbit is a company that can afford to pay and is worth this headache. In general, though, it's not always worthwhile, including for the companies themselves. For example, take the device we use to cover the grass during an event. Just bringing the covers costs NIS 60 per square meter. Multiply that by 7,000 square meters and you get NIS 400,000 just to cover the grass. Beyond that, we don't have too many dates on which we can say for sure that the field is available."

How much will the state contribute?

How much of the burden will the state assume? In the past, Luzon talked about the sports lottery paying NIS 400 million for the renovation plan formulated by Zvi Bar. However, given the fact that starting last year, the money from the gamblers goes straight to the state treasury, not to the sports lottery treasury, there is no way that the state will undertake to spend such amounts. How much will it spend? Through funds for construction of new stadiums, the state will pay NIS 150 million.

The Ramat Gan municipality will therefore have to try its luck in finding a donor like the Ofer family in Haifa, who will agree to give tens of millions of shekels to see its name appear on the stadium. According to Football Association sources, it almost happened three years ago. Mitchell Goldhar, owners of the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer club, was willing to move the team to Ramat Gan and give a huge amount of money ("two and a half times what the Ofer family gave for the stadium in Haifa" - about NIS 200 million) in memory of his parents, "but Mayor Zinger eventually decided to let the opportunity go by." Goldhar chose instead the option of a gift for renovating Bloomfield Stadium, and the money disappeared.

The Ramat Gan municipality did not respond on the subject of the stadium.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on April 1, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

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Ramat Gan National Stadium Photo: Eyal Izhar
Ramat Gan National Stadium Photo: Eyal Izhar
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