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Stadium innovation: The major trends in stadium development

Major sports venues are increasingly becoming leisure destinations, as operators aim for financial viability. Tom Walker looks at two major trends shaping stadium development – fan-centric technology and sustainable design

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 1
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Spurs’ new White Hart Lane stadium will offer a complete leisure experience
Spurs’ new White Hart Lane stadium will offer a complete leisure experience

In an age of commercialised sport, stadiums and other major venues are no longer simply a stage for the action to take place on. With terms such as ‘multi-use’, ‘fan-centric’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ peppering project briefs, modern sports facilities are as much revenue generators as the sports that they hold. As a result, technology, sustainable design and improved guest services now play a crucial role in the design and management of major venues.

Take the new White Hart Lane stadium, the future home of Tottenham Hotspur FC, currently under construction in North London, UK. Offering fans heated seats with built-in USB ports, superfast broadband, a fromagerie, microbrewery and a Michelin-starred restaurant, the venue is set to be more a complete leisure destination than a simple football stadium.

As for the sport itself, the stadium will also take a revolutionary approach to creating a truly multi-use venue. A natural grass pitch will sit directly above an artificial one, making it the first of its kind to have two pitches inside the same bowl. The fully retractable grass surface will be used for Spurs’ Premier League matches, while the artificial pitch will be used for NFL games as well as music concerts, to protect the integrity of the grass surface.

“We believe our new stadium will redefine sports and entertainment experiences,” says Daniel Levy, chair of Tottenham Hotspur. “We’ve travelled to some of the best venues in the world to ensure no stone is left unturned in order to deliver the best visitor experiences.”

While Spurs might provide us with the perfect case study of a modern stadium, it’s not the only venue implementing technology and sustainability. How then, are modern venues tackling the two main trends – sustainability and a fan-centric approach?

In the past decade, environmentally-friendly operations and practices have gone from a marginal concern to a major consideration in sports venue management. Organisations – such as the Green Sports Alliance (GSA) – have been set up to offer guidance and support for the sector, and there is now an understanding that ‘sustainable stadium’ equals ‘economically efficient’.

The trend towards sustainable building practices is encouraging construction companies and architects to look for more innovative ways to use recycled materials in sports projects. At the London Olympic Stadium, recycled materials included an unused gas pipe from a North Sea oil project, while approximately 40 per cent of the concrete used was made of recycled aggregate.

Meanwhile, at the Amsterdam ArenA, seating made out of plant material was installed as part of plans to make the venue carbon neutral. The raw material for the 2,000 seats – renewable ethylene derived from sugar cane – was supplied by Brazilian petrochemical company Braskem.

As well as the use of recycled materials, the deployment of sustainable building materials in place of traditional ones is becoming increasingly popular. At the new Stade Oceane in Le Havre, France – designed by KSS Design Group – the use of Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) has allowed the venue to become Europe’s first ‘carbon positive’ stadium.

Used as cladding, ETFE has a carbon footprint much lower than comparable systems and also weighs as little as 1 to 3 per cent of traditional cladding systems.

Wood too is making a comeback. Architecture practice Bear Stadiums has teamed up with Italian timber manufacturer Rubner Holzbau to offer wooden sports venues that can be built quickly and cost-efficiently.

Targeting Italy’s smaller football clubs, which can quickly move up the ladder of the professional game, creating a need for larger capacities, the modular design means the stadiums can be assembled in just six to eight months and are “totally green”. The designs allow venues as small as 1,500 seats, but this can be raised incrementally to a maximum of 20,000 seats.

“We see a huge demand for medium-capacity stadiums, typically ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 seats, which represents 80 per cent of the global market for this type of infrastructure,” says Jaime Manca Di Villahermosa, creator of the format and co-founder of Bear Stadiums.

“Given the rise of HD television technology, which drives us to watch games in the comfort of our homes, it’s necessary to build a new concept of a beautiful, comfortable, safe and easy-to-assemble stadium.”

While “at-home technology” offers a potential threat to operators, it also provides opportunities. With their smartphones, fans now carry a supercomputer in their pockets. This opens up a way of delivering entirely new spectator experiences – ranging from viewing instant replays from any angle to the ability to have food and drink delivered to your seat.

The tech experience can begin even before fans enter the stadium, with parking apps such as JustPark and StadiumPark being designed to help arriving fans find their way to the nearest free space. Inside the stadiums the Venuenext app helps fans navigate the venue – pointing out the nearest bathrooms and offering queueing times at food stands.

Tech can also be used to create atmosphere in the stands. The AT&T Stadium app at the Dallas Cowboys’ home has a unique mood-lifting feature. At any time during a game, the app can be set to a “Unite This House” mode by the stadium’s tech team, which sends a push notification to fans, telling them to activate the app. When fans do so, their phones begin to vibrate and flash. The resulting noise and flashes are then synchronised in an ‘electronic wave’.

Apps can also be used for upselling products for fans after they arrive. ExpApps and Pogoseats allow fans to upgrade to better seats at discount prices. Among the venues to have introduced the app is AT&T Park, the home of Major League Baseball franchise San Francisco Giants.

“Fans can check out ticket inventory that may not have been available when they originally purchased their tickets,” says Russ Stanley, Giants managing vice president for ticket sales. “We see our partnership with Pogoseat as another way to enhance the fan experience.”

While operators can take advantage of the technology that fans carry in their pockets, they still need to provide a “wow” factor at the venues. This led to an arms race throughout the 2000s and 2010s, as venue owners began competing to have the largest screens and videoboards at their facilities. Operators began mounting huge TV screens either at the corners or ends of stadiums or hung large ‘jumbotrons’ from arena ceilings above the playing areas.

The screens became a major feature especially in the US, where it seemed that every stadium opening or redevelopment would out-do the previous “biggest screen in sport”. Take the screen at Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, which opened in 2009. The 25,000sq ft video display came at a cost of US$40m – more than the construction of Cowboys’ old Texas Stadium.

A peak in the size of the traditional screens was hit in 2014, with the launch of the 60ft (18m) high, 362ft (111m) wide videoboard at EverBank Field, home of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. Containing 35.5m LED bulbs, the US$63m installation of the Daktronics screen was a major feat of engineering and involved a number of high-profile architects and building specialists, including Populous, Elkins Construction, Haskell and Troika.

Increasingly flexible screen technology is now, however, ushering a new generation of displays into sports venues. The new generation of screens are still large in size, but move away from the traditional square shapes.

At the new 34,000 capacity Krasnodar Stadium, a 4,700sq m, 360-degree LED video panel has been wrapped around the entire interior wall of the stadium above the top seating bowl. Supplied by Unilumin and animated by Russian AV specialist A3V – in partnership with UK-based content house The Mill – the screen has been designed as a wave and offers fans inside the stadium a jaw-dropping AV experience.

Perhaps the most impressive example is the 360-degree videoboard found at the Mercedes Benz stadium in Atlanta, the new home of the NFL franchise Falcons. Manufactured and installed by Daktronics, the ‘halo board’ has been installed above the field as part of the stadium’s unique retractable roof structure.

Measuring 58ft (17.6m) high by 1,075ft (328m) in circumference – large enough for a helicopter to fly through – it is the largest LED video display in all of sports.

Bill Johnson, design principal at architects HOK and lead architect of the Mercedes Benz Stadium, says the halo board will come into its own when the venue’s secondary tenant, Major League Soccer franchise Atlanta United, plays at the 75,000-capacity stadium. Johnson says it will help create atmosphere in the cavernous space even when lower attendances at United’s home games will result in parts of the upper bowl being closed.

“Having this halo right above the soccer pitch will really focus fans on the action on the pitch,” Johnson says. “If we’d had end-zone scoreboards – or a scoreboard hanging from the middle – it would’ve been really detrimental to creating an intimate feel for the soccer matches. I believe it will help prove that you can play soccer in larger football venues, as long as it’s designed properly.”

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