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Trends in stadium design

Published Dec. 20, 2017

Sweeping changes to meet changing interests, needs

Stadium design strategies are undergoing sweeping changes to meet evolving consumer interests, growing athletic program aspirations, and emerging campus needs. These changes range from reduced or flexible seating capacity and advanced fan services to broadened multipurpose capabilities and sustainability in both design and function, all while satisfying ever-present security concerns. 

“Today, the brutal, purely-functional forms, that rather dominated stadiums in the ‘80s and ‘90s, look tired and lacking in vision," AECOM Global Sport’s Clive Lewis told CNN in a recent article. "A subtler form of sports architecture is emerging."


Many of these changes reflect one evolving trend: increasingly fickle consumers face ever more competition for their time and money. Resulting shifts in fan participation are forcing stadium operators to seek year-round usage for these facilities, either as meeting space, events hosting, or athletic offices and infrastructure.


“Sports has more competition today than ever to bring in the fan base,” said Gary Sparks, a co-founder of Sparks Reed Architecture and Interiors of Tulsa. “Especially at the college level, if you’re not winning on the field, you’ve got to figure out a way to get people to come to those events. It’s not easy to fill a stadium or arena. The competition is off the chart. You’ve got to figure out a way, a compelling way, to get people to want to spend the money and the time and make it a higher priority than anything else that is going on.”


A 2012 survey by Cisco suggested more than half (57 percent) of sports fans prefer watching the game at home. Millennials prove especially fickle, according to research by sports demographer Rich Luker, with those between ages 12 to 34 delivering the largest declining sports fan base.


"To reach that audience, many sporting venues are moving to accommodate the social interaction component fans desire," said Sparks Reed co-founder David Reed.


Many new stadiums use high-powered wi-fi systems and apps to deliver food to individual customers, provide instant replays from multiple camera angles, and broadcast commercials to fans who can’t go without, according to a recent article. Some architects see this spreading into in-house content generation or virtual reality.


"You've got to have all those toys because, otherwise, you're going to stay home," Sparks said of fan motivations. "If you can't figure out a way to appeal to millennials, you're in trouble, because that's the current and future of your audience."


While extending direct services to individuals, many new stadium designs also boost their retail, dining, and other interactive options for the wandering fan to explore while at the venue. 


“Sometimes people want to spend more time interacting with each other and still have time to see the event,” said Reed. “We’re designing venues to provide more social activities spaces as opposed to staying in your seat.”


The first strategy in competing for consumer time remains architecture's age-old foundation — attractive design aesthetics. Creating a modern landmark to amaze observers and develop fans. Inspiring loyal consumers who simply enjoy going to the stadium, walking its halls, and gazing across its vistas, year after year, even when teams on the field fail to shine.


"Architecture should add to the drama of an event," London Aquatics Centre’s Jim Heverin said in a recent CNN article. "By doing so, it can encourage repeat usage and positive association with the facility. Architecture can do this in many ways, from large gestures such as the overall design, down to the small gestures, like the quality of its finishes."


"We want to design features that excite fans the second or third time they come back to the same building," HOK’s Bill Johnson told "The built environment is becoming more and more activated with technology, where it was static before."


Winning designs gain a modern appeal not just from using new materials and amenities, but increasing consumer interests in environmental stewardship and sustainability.


“Sports teams are just now beginning to scratch the surface on what a truly environmentally sensitive building might look like,” HOK’s Brad Schrock told Sports Business Daily. “Sports facilities that are truly woven into their urban environments and encourage mixed-use development, walkability, facilitate connections to public transit, and encourage activity 365 days a year, are the framework for sustainable solutions.”


That call for sustainability returns its focus to multipurpose flexibility. The more revenue a stadium may generate from non-athletic events, the more sustainable its operation will prove. To meet this need, many designers are using more temporary seating, or simply reducing seating capacity, while boosting a stadium's flexible hospitality space.


“The next generation of sports facility will provide more diversification of amenities inside and outside the venue, catering to fans of all ages and backgrounds, not just the premium-seat customer,” HNTB’s Gerardo Prado said in a recent issue of Sports Business Daily. “Venues will continue to increase the number of uniquely branded concourses, seating zones, plazas, clubs, and social zones to better connect with fans and cultivate the future generation of sports fans.”


Many high school and college campuses are cross-purposing stadium functionality with daily academic life, reviving trends of earlier generations.


“Stadiums, especially on campuses, are integrating academics, year-round dining, membership clubs, and community activities,” Populous’s Sherri Privitera told Sports Business Daily.


Many campuses integrate student-athlete training, rehabilitation services, and academic centers into stadium projects, along with coaches offices and multipurpose meeting rooms.


“Student-athlete welfare has become a major point of emphasis within collegiate athletics,” HOK’s Nate Appleman told Sports Business Daily. “To that end, design and construction of training facilities has been a significant driver within the industry.”


All this must be achieved while emphasizing safety and efficient traffic flow for those within the facility. This demand reflects not just today's high-profile concerns, but everyday needs as storm shelters, health care services, and communications networks.

“If you have a campus and you want to get a lot of people in a safe environment, a stadium would be a good place to do it,” said Sparks, who was one of the principal designers behind Oklahoma State University’s Pickens Stadium and Gallagher-Iba Arena projects. “You can accommodate 10,000 people at Pickens Stadium, easily.”

Through these changes, stadium designers seek to rejuvenate not just the fan experience, but the surrounding neighborhood or campus. Successful stadiums have proven catalysts for real estate development, commercial growth, and tax collection.


“In urban areas, the trend has to be more multipurpose planning, i.e., housing, shopping and recreational complexes adjacent to or part of the stadium,” said Sparks. “Stadiums will be smaller as the market shrinks and competition for time and dollars increase. Technology will drive a great deal of what is built in the future. Even the whole transportation thing will change how we design venues.”

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