Region playing for £50m jackpot

By Jonathan Barnes, Derek Davis and John HowardTHE region stands this morning just three football matches away from a £50million boost to its economy.

By Jonathan Barnes, Derek Davis and John Howard

THE region stands this morning just three football matches away from a £50million boost to its economy.

Ipswich Town's draw with Cardiff City yesterday put the Portman Road club into the play-offs for the prized place among football's elite in the Premiership – where television and sponsorship prize money is worth an estimated £20m.

The Blues will now play West Ham United in a two-legged semi-final play-off against West Ham which will net the club £250,000.

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Victory over the Londoners would pitch them against either Sunderland or Crystal Palace and a further £750,000 in a Millennium Stadium final in Cardiff.

But business and tourism leaders said a return to top-flight football for the Blues would be worth about £50m a year to the region's economy.

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They added it would raise the profile of Ipswich and East Anglia – particularly with Norwich City already securing their place in the Premiership – generating more tourism and investment in the region.

Ipswich Town chairman, David Sheepshanks, said: "Football in this region is on the ascendancy. All credit to Norwich for winning the title in the way they have and we are now intent on trying to join them.

"This is something to celebrate. We are not there yet, but it is a success after two years of sheer hell where everyone had to dig deep in so many different ways.

"The administration process hurt us deeply, it hurt our families, it hurt our fans, it hurt our community and hurt our pride."

He added: "Although we have not achieved anything yet, it is a stepping stone to show that the club is on its way back. We are determined to now finish the job. We must grasp the opportunity and win the next three games."

"We have everything to play for. We are now in them and we are just three games from the Premiership and it is a wonderfully tantalising prospect.

But Mr Sheepshanks warned the gulf between Division One and the Premiership was now so great, that whichever club made the jump would be relegated in a year's time.

"No-one is ready to go up from this division. In this day and age, short of having some huge benefactor funding a runaway championship team, the gulf between the Premiership and this league is so vast that anyone going up is going to need considerable strengthening in order to have a serious chance of staying up," he said.

"We now live in a new football economy from when we were in the Premiership before and clubs cannot rely on the transfer market. To be candid, any team promoted now has to go up with one eye on coming straight back down again.

"Whichever of the four of us goes up will try to hang in there, but will use the one year to stabilise their finances."

James Hehir, chief executive of Ipswich Borough Council, said he was delighted Ipswich Town were in with a chance of getting back into the Premiership.

"The big picture is that Premiership football would be a tremendous boost to the town of Ipswich in terms of PR and positive feeling. This is one of the fastest-growing places in the country and promotion would have real benefit," he added.

"I think it would be worth in the region of £50m a year to the economy, and not just in terms of people coming to watch football at Portman Road. Ipswich would be on the back pages, and sometimes the front pages, of national newspapers and on the TV all the time."

Mr Hehir continued: "The exposure is enormous. On business holidays, the first thing that people mention when you say you are from Ipswich is the football club.

"It would be a major benefit at a time when football's profile is so high. It's a good thing Norwich are in the Premiership too, so we can still play against them if we go up – hopefully it will be worth six points next season."

Bob Feltwell, chief executive of the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, predicted promotion would be worth about £1m a month in trade and turnover.

"It will also have people feeling good about life, which is what brings spending. It would be very good for the area, especially as Norwich have already secured promotion. Most people would like Ipswich to go up with them."

Tess Wright, managing director of the East of England Tourist Board, said the Blues' promotion to the Premership would be "terrific" for the region and help bring in more investment.

"It's all about profile. It will really help to raise the profile of the region, which will help to encourage more visitors," she added.

Chris Mole, the Labour MP for Ipswich, said: "I am very pleased that the possibility of promotion to the Premiership remains an outside chance. Obviously, it's very important for the town that Ipswich is seen in the Premiership.

"That means it becomes recognised worldwide as a place that people will want to come and do business. That's something we saw last time we were in the Premiership.

"It can give an economic boost, tens of millions of pounds can come in to the area. I know from the last time we were in the Premiership that people are then much more aware of the town across the country and beyond. I am keen to see us progress through the play-offs."

Bryony Rudkin, the Labour leader of Suffolk County Council, said getting through to the Premiership would be great news for Ipswich and Suffolk.

She added: "This could be really great. Economically, when you are in the Premiership, we saw that it brought people in to the town and gives an economic boost.

"The club has done really well in the community too, working in the community with young people. More interest in the club when they are in the Premiership can be used to get young people more active and interested.

"It also gives Suffolk greater confidence, is an important boost for the hole county – it puts Suffolk on the map."

Meanwhile, Mr Sheepshanks and Ipswich Town chief executive, Derek Bowden, have delivered a progress report to two separate groups of shareholders, revealing the club's financial recovery was ahead of schedule.

Twelve months ago the Blues were still in administration, which they eventually exited in June after 16 weeks of financial uncertainty.

Now the picture is far rosier, with Mr Sheepshanks reporting that "immense progress" was being made in trying to balance the books.

"We are on target to make an operating profit after a lot of hard work off the field. All our budgets are based on being in Division One, so getting into the play-offs and anything better, is a bonus," he said.

Mr Bowden reported that the club's key performance indicators were performing better than hoped for.

While Town budgeted for a mid-table position and an average gate of 22,500, they have finished in the top six with an average attendance of 24,500.

Season tickets sales of 18,204 were 500 ahead of budget, with both ticket sales and media income bringing in £15.4m, compared to an anticipated figure of £14.6m.

Commercial income was also up – £7.5m compared to a projected £7.4m – but costs were marginally higher at £22.8m (£22.7m), but that was due to the fact that other areas were performing better than expected, which meant funds were allocated to allow manager Joe Royle to bring in loan players.

In terms of costs as a percentage of income, the actual figure was 87.7%, as opposed to a projected figure of 89.3%, while the anticipated profitability of minus £650,000 was, in fact, plus £200,000.

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