Even for those who aren't sports fanatics, today's stadiums, ballparks and arenas are so amenity-rich and well-designed that they have the potential to turn just about anyone into a fan of the local team.
One of the most high-profile sports projects right now, the Minnesota Vikings' new $1.1 billion U.S. Bank stadium, features 1,300 Wi-Fi hotspots and a distributed antenna system (DAS) that ensures attendees can stay connected with their friends and the world via smartphone. Officials also planned the entire stadium around a relatively intimate seating bowl with wide concourses where fans can stroll from one part of the stadium to another while never losing sight of play.
And the Texas Rangers are finally giving their long-suffering fans what they've been begging for — air conditioning — along with a brand new $1 billion ballpark and an ancillary entertainment venue called TexasLive! Guests at TexasLive! will be able to view games from its shop- and restaurant-lined courtyard, and developers hope that ticketholders — before and after the game — will patronize the businesses. The complex also includes a convention center and hotel.
Across the U.S., sports venue design is rapidly evolving as designers and builders find new ways to serve the teams and the fans through a heightened focus on the experience of attending a sporting event.
Enhancing the fan experience
"It's driving everything right now," said Tom Tingle, Skanska USA senior vice president and national director of the company's sports and entertainment Center of Excellence. "There's a battle for the fan," he said, "especially for the younger ones because there's so much competition."
Tingle said getting people away from "the comfort of home," where electronics have made it possible to have a great game-viewing experience without waiting in line, is behind the vast majority of sports venue innovations. It's all about creating an atmosphere that attracts everyone from dilettante to "true fan," and giving them all a variety of enjoyable experiences, he said.
The new facilities can create those experiences "from day one," whereas sports authorities and teams that want to preserve their existing facilities must pick and choose the elements they think will fill more seats, according to Tingle. "Instead of just tearing it down, they're going in, and they're being very surgical about where they're going to put the product," he said.
What's really behind the attention to detail? Is it all about fan experience? Experts say yes and no. Team owners know that to increase revenue, they have to draw people in who are ready to spend money on tickets, souvenirs and food — and then make them come back and do it again the following week. Therefore, innovations in everything from parking to seating to lighting to internet and cell phone access are on the table when it comes to maximizing the fan experience.
One crucial component of the fan experience, parking, might seem like a no-brainer. Just make it plentiful and as close to the venue as possible, right? It gets a little more complicated than that, according to Jeff Ewing of Oklahoma City-based stadium management company Prodigal. He said the design of the parking needs to expedite traffic flow out after a game. It's not uncommon to see valet service, but the real change is around accommodating alternative methods of transportation like Uber. For example, Ewing noted that more stadiums are considering "Uber stations" where drivers can drop off their passengers before the event and then meet them afterward.
Autodesk worked with the Vikings U.S. Bank stadium's designers to "pre-build" the stadium before actual construction, and Stacy Scopano, the company's senior construction industry strategy manager, said that today's technologies allow owners the opportunity to tweak design and enhance fan experience like never before. "From generative and computational design, to ensure proper sightlines, to virtual reality to experience what fans will experience during design, to energy modeling tools which provide real-time feedback — all of these make the stadium of today a winning experience for fans and owners alike, and the community they represent," he said.
Advancements in lighting
Lighting is another area that can enhance fan experience as well as save money, according to Mike Lorenz of Eaton's Ephesus Sports Lighting in Syracuse, NY. Lorenz said owners have held onto their traditional sports venue lighting systems because, up until approximately five years ago, there wasn't a product that provided enough enhanced performance to make the change worth it. That's where solid-state LED lighting has come into play.
Traditional lighting, Lorenz said, basically just turns on and off, taking up a lot of time and power along the way, as it usually takes 15 minutes for the lights to power up. In contrast, LED systems light up instantaneously, and users can program them for a variety of entertainment purposes. "You can choreograph them to music for intermissions or pauses in the game," he said. "It's become much more multidimensional for the venue."
Lorenz said stadiums with older lighting systems can reduce power consumption by up to 90% if they change to solid-state LED, which also delivers and controls light more efficiently. Bulb lighting also deteriorates faster then LED, so using LED reduces maintenance costs.
New seating design
When it comes to comfort during the game, the new generation of fan is also looking for unique seating and viewing options, according to Tingle. Gone for the most part are the concrete benches that necessitated stadium cushions.
But new professional sports stadiums aren't the only beneficiaries of updated seating design. At a University of Kentucky stadium renovation, Tingle noted, the school opted to reduce seating capacity in order to install a variety of suites and club seating and spaces, as well as to make the rest of the existing seating more comfortable. Any sports venue overhaul requires an in-depth study, as there are "a lot of moving parts." However, the end goal is always "bang for the buck," or the renovations that will bring in the most dollars, Tingle said. Whether a new or old venue, "premium seating as close as possible to the field is a key revenue-generator."
Tingle added, "There's also a lot more standing room now in newer stadiums, and even some of the older ones are being renovated to that point." In some venues, ticketholders can go to an in-house bar or restaurant and still be able to see the field. Seating design also takes the type of fan into consideration, Ewing noted. For example, soccer fans tend to stand up more than other sports fans, so seating for soccer stadiums can be designed to prevent issues related to line of sight.
Creating an environment of connectivity
Perhaps the most disruptive new development in stadium design is the fact that more stadiums have outfitted their venues with Wi-Fi and DAS capabilities so that fans can use their smartphones during games.
However, encouraging fans to connect to the world via social media isn't just about showing them a good time. Ewing said it also represents the ultimate marketing move. After all, while attendees are tweeting and posting about what a great time they're having, their friends and family are ideally thinking they don't want to be left out of the action, so there is an increased likelihood they'll join their friends at the next game, Ewing noted. At the game, smartphone users can also receive targeted ads for deals on food and discounts for future game tickets.
Major League Soccer franchise Sporting KC in Kansas City, MO, encourages its fans, at the game and elsewhere, to upload to social media in exchange for points that can be redeemed for novelty items, food cards or other incentives, according to Ewing. Even though the stadium holds 20,000 people, team officials can document more than 140,000 people during a game taking part through social media. "That is taking place all over," Ewing said. Tingle added that the social media push has also changed the composition of many teams' front offices to employees who are social media savvy.