• Conversion could take longer than stadium took to build
• It will be 2015 at earliest and possibly 2016, says LLDC
If West Ham United are given the go-ahead to move into the Olympic Stadium they are unlikely to be able to start playing there until the start of the 2016-17 season, it has emerged.
The chief executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation, Dennis Hone, has admitted that if it were to press ahead with plans to convert the stadium to make it suitable for football and athletics, then it could be August 2016 before the east London club moved in.
When Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, and the government resolved to reconsider the future of the stadium and invite bids from football teams in order to retain a larger capacity than the original 25,000 seat "base case", it was hoped that a tenant could be found for the start of the 2013-14 season. By the end of the first fractious process, which awarded the stadium to West Ham, a deadline of 2014-15 had been set for the stadium to host football matches alongside athletics, concerts and community use. That decision had to be annulled amid legal challenges from Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient but there were still hopes that a solution could be found that would enable regular use of the stadium when the south end of the park is due to reopen in spring 2014.
As negotiations over the future of the £468m stadium dragged on, amid debate over how conversion costs of up to £200m would be met, it became clear that the start of the 2015-16 season would be a more realistic deadline. Now, Hone has admitted that it could be August 2016, over four years after the Olympics opening ceremony, before competitive football is played in the stadium.
"2014 is completely out. It will be August 2015 at the absolute earliest and possibly August 2016," said Hone, appearing before a London Assembly committee.
That would mean it will have taken longer to convert the stadium than to build it and would risk losing public enthusiasm for the venue built during the Games. An already frustrated West Ham are likely to be unimpressed by the latest delay, although there remains a significant gap between the amount it is prepared to put towards the conversion costs and the total the LLDC would like to see.
If the LLDC decided to walk away from talks with West Ham and instead leave the stadium largely untouched, the work would cost around £40m and it could reopen in 2014. The large scale conversion work, including installing retractable seats and hospitality facilities, as well as a new cantilevered roof that would cover the new seating, would be a complex operation that would not be able to start until next summer.
"For football, that's about seating positions for the pitch, roof coverage, hospitality requirements and things like that," Hone added. "They change from bidder to bidder. Depending on the option they will have a different construction period. We have to procure them in a competitive manner and complete the construction.
The Guardian revealed last month that any decision on the stadium would be delayed until December at the earliest, with West Ham and the LLDC at odds over how the conversion costs would be funded. West Ham have claimed they could bring hundreds extra jobs to the area and boost the profile of the park, as well as increasing the value of naming rights and catering takings for the LLDC. On the other hand, the LLDC will have to meet matchday costs and fund upfront conversion costs if it opts to make West Ham its main tenant.
Other bids include an unlikely proposition to bring Formula One to the Olympic Park, a bid from Orient and one from a Burnley-based football business college to open a London offshoot.
Hone and Neale Coleman, the mayor's adviser on London 2012, said there had been no talks with the NFL over moving a permanent London franchise to the stadium despite speculation to the contrary.
"When the American football game was held at Wembley, the mayor met the NFL owners and took the opportunity to talk about stadium operations with them and that was it," said Coleman.
Hone added: "We have had no formal bids from American football. We are running a competition, we've got four bidders and we've had no bids outside that competition." However, the LLDC is also looking for an operator for the stadium such as Live Nation or AEG. It will manage the stadium and relationships with the chosen tenants, UK Athletics (which will host 20 days of track and field a year and the 2017 World Championships) and Newham Council (which is contributing a £40m loan in return for community access), as well as attracting other users. They could look to tempt the NFL to hold matches in the stadium once its contract with Wembley expires in 2017.