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A Fight Against Time

At the end of May, London’s Wembley Stadium transformed from the host of an international football match to the setting for a world title boxing match in a matter of hours. Elisha Chauhan finds out exactly how it was done.

One of the most anticipated boxing match-ups in recent times – the second fight between British boxers Carl Froch and George Groves for the IBF (International Boxing Federation) and WBA (World Boxing Association) super-middleweight titles – was held on May 31 at the UK’s most iconic sports venue, Wembley Stadium.

The preparations for the fight, however, were just as eagerly anticipated with England’s national football team playing its last friendly match on home soil before the FIFA World Cup the night before the fight. In total, a team of around 400 worked overnight from 11pm after the England-Peru game right up until the doors opened for the fight at 6pm the next day.

While the footballers were warming down on the pitch, the stadium conversion team – which included Wembley operators, temporary seating providers Arena, contractors of event promoter Matchroom Boxing and the fight’s domestic broadcaster, UK pay-TV operator BSkyB – started by removing the advertisement perimeter boards and the broadcasting cables from the football match.

The biggest challenge was laying down a pitch cover that would help protect the turf from the heavy load of the boxing ring and its canopy as well as the 10,000 ringside seats. Two types of plastic covers were used, terraflor and terratrak, which are both produced by turf protection firm terraplas. The stronger of the two materials, terratrak, was used under the ring, and both plastics fit together like a jigsaw.

Jim Frayling, Wembley Stadium’s head of music and new events – and one of the key people to bring the fight to Wembley – said the conversation from football to boxing was different to anything ever encountered before at the venue because he had people telling him “it genuinely couldn’t be done”.

“They were mostly external people, but even internally we thought the schedule was really tight,” Frayling told SportBusiness International. “We rehearsed [the transformation] in April after the FA (English Football Association) Cup semi-finals because we wanted to take the risk out of the conversion. That cost us a lot of money, but it was worth it.”

Before Wembley had even won the right to host the fight, all parties involved in organising it held meetings to systematically go through the transformation minute-by-minute, ensuring that the venue was capable of such a large project in such a small amount of time.

At the end of the day, 80,000 people were going to come through the door, no matter what

“At every point, we told people: ‘Honestly, if there is any reason you can’t do this, say so now’,” adds Frayling. “There were certainly times when we thought the event was going to be held at another stadium, but by having those meetings, we were able to claw it back and prove to people that it was achievable. There was an element of a leap of faith, but Matchroom trusted us to deliver and we did.”

Matchroom Boxing head Eddie Hearn wanted Wembley to host the fight as it had the largest capacity out of the other potential host venues, including Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Cardiff City Stadium and Millennium Stadium in the Welsh capital and Manchester United’s Old Trafford. Sky, however, preferred the other options over Wembley as they didn’t have a restricted preparation time.

“When I went to see Wembley ahead of the fight, it was 100 per cent the venue I wanted it to be held at,” Hearn told SportBusiness International. “With a big international football match at Wembley the night before, the initial response from Sky was ‘Look, this isn’t going to work. It’s not possible’, because they would normally need around three or four days to rig and set it up.

“But Wembley was keen on making it happen, and the expensive rig-day rehearsal was a necessity to make sure Sky was happy; at the end of the day the event’s revenue is driven by pay-per-view sales.”

Musical Chairs

As it turned out, on the night Wembley pulled off the conversation ahead of schedule and the on-pitch seating – which Hearn says cost between £50,000 and £60,000 – was signed off five hours ahead of schedule, according to Frayling.

“We didn’t have any issues that we didn’t anticipate and, apart from some fun and games arranging the seating, it went bizarrely well. I distinctly remember saying to Eddie Hearn that it’s all gone a little bit too well – it was slightly suspicious. I was waiting for when it all went wrong, but luckily it didn’t,” Frayling adds.

Before the on-pitch seating could be placed, supplier and industry leader Arena had to work with Matchroom to decide the number of temporary seats to put out. The difficulties were finding the balance between the huge demand for tickets, the space available on the pitch and the time restrictions.

“It was prudent of the promoter not to push it too far in terms of trying to fill the whole pitch up with seating,” Dave Withey, sales and marketing director of Arena in the UK and Europe, told SportBusiness International.

Fifty-two Arena staff worked on the conversion project.

“Around 1,000 Samsonite [fold-up] seats were placed ringside, but the other 9,000 seats come in three-seater frames and dropped into a floorbar grid that needed to be fixed into the floor. This means that you can’t move them as they are absolutely rigid.

“If one contractor didn’t perform, the knock-on effect would have been disastrous. From our perspective, it was absolutely crucial that the pitch cover went down as quickly as everyone said it would. Normally for a changeover of that scale with a venue as big as Wembley, you’re realistically looking at a three-day turnaround.

“Given it was an overnight project, there had to be a lot of trust involved in everybody to do their own jobs properly, because at the end of the day 80,000 people were going to come through the door no matter what.”

Hearn also says that the on-pitch seating was restricted by government requirements: “We were initially only allowed a capacity of 60,000 by [local government body] Brent Council and TFL (Transport for London), with a 10:45pm finish. We managed to push that to 11pm and 80,000 fans.

“I thought we could have fitted at least 5,000 more seats on the pitch, but that number had to be taken out of the number of fans in the stands, and if the upper tier wasn’t full, it wouldn’t have looked or sounded great.”

With the overnight transformation and the actual Froch versus Groves fight deemed a resounding success, Hearn is keen on hosting another event at Wembley Stadium next summer.

“I’m currently talking to Jim about holding another fight because we would love to do it again. Wembley was just on another level in terms of administration and logistics. We deal with a lot of venue managers, but Jim was absolutely first-class.”

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