SBJ/May 16 - 22, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Sports facilities changing with the times

When he attended soccer’s 1990 World Cup final in Italy, sports event consultant Dick Cecil quickly learned it was wise to arrive at the stadium well nourished, as concessions were limited more or less to “a guy walking around selling Cokes.”

Emirates Stadium, the new home for the Arsenal soccer team, was designed by U.S.-based HOK Sport. The stadium is set to open in 2006.
Only 15 years later, the gap between spectator experiences inside facilities in the United States compared with Europe or Asia is narrowing, according to industry experts, as design concepts and spectator expectations spill across cultural and economic boundaries.

In fact, the trend toward complex architecture, high-tech amenities, even earthquake proofing, is in some cases more prevalent outside the United States, where colossal stadiums and arenas are in higher demand, largely due to soccer fanaticism and non-sports entertainment.

In years past, not only were visitors to stadiums outside the United States likely to find limited eating choices, they frequently encountered little or no parking, daunting staircases, narrow passageways that inhibited crowd control, and cement benches rather than seatbacks. Stadiums often contained a track encircling the field of play, distancing spectators from the action if it were not a track meet they’d come to see.

Noted for its unique grass-covered exterior walls, the Palais Omnisports in Paris-Bercy, France, played host to numerous international basketball events in the 1990s, despite suffocating concourses where shoulder-to-shoulder crowds were engulfed by cigarette smoke.

Though spruced up for the 1992 Summer Games, Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium on Montjuic was accessible only by ascending a hillside on a series of outdoor escalators and then walking through a wooded area and across a vast square.

And despite its historic charm, Wimbledon long has been less than user friendly and vulnerable to nature’s whims during the annual Lawn Tennis Championships. The event’s stewards only recently approved plans to install a retractable roof and more comfortable seats in 2009.

The Palais Omnisports in Paris may look intriguing on the outside, but tight concourses inside can put the squeeze on patrons attending events.
“Stadiums in North America are geared toward the event [spectators],” said U.S. Olympic Committee managing director of international affairs Greg Harney, who has traveled the world as the USOC advance man for decades. By contrast, many stadiums Harney visits in Europe and elsewhere lack creature comforts but have great office space and spacious lounges for VIPs and even VVIPs such as heads of state.

“They have very functional space; quite a bit of infrastructure,” Harney said. “As an operations guy, I used to drool at some of these … venues.”

In the United States, functionality also matters, but more so in terms of the customer experience. Suddenly in vogue are shrinking stadiums and arenas geared to iconic design reflecting local “character,” intimacy for premium customers, and hospitality and shopping options to accommodate the narrowing American attention span.

“Our stadiums are built beyond the sports experience,” said Cecil, an Atlanta-based event and facilities consultant whose clients have included the 1994 World Cup in the United States and the Goodwill Games. “Sometimes, the game on the field is a secondary situation. People go to eat and drink.”

San Diego’s new Petco Park has its field-level premier suites and tower “lofts” — ballpark party condos with hardwood floors and views of cityscapes as well as the Padres. Chicago’s remodeled Soldier Field protects club-level patrons from the elements inside the spacious Cadillac Club, featuring bars, voluminous seating and numerous TV monitors.

Expanding the menu

Restaurant-caliber dining and elite clubs are commonly encountered beyond U.S. borders, too. Sports venues, and what’s inside them, are seemingly in competition with athletic performance for fan attention, if not affection.

Munich’s new Allianz Arena, a three-tiered, 66,000-capacity soccer venue expected to play host to the opening match of soccer’s 2006 World Cup, accommodates two enormous restaurants, each with 1,500 seats. When London’s new Wembley Stadium opens, it will contain the city’s four largest restaurants, including one that can handle 2,000 guests.

Japan and Korea raced to outdo each other while playing host to the 2002 World Cup. Among the venues built was the Sapporo Dome (bottom) in Japan that features a retractable field.
Trinidad’s planned $45 million cricket stadium will have only 15,000 permanent seats but is designed to make suite and lounge areas a priority, as matches, and the socializing that they encourage, often unfold over days, not hours. Taipei’s recently announced plan to build a superdome includes space for two hotels, apartments and 1.6 million square feet of retail space. Oh, and there is a baseball stadium in there, somewhere.

While the United States might still lead the way on food and beverage diversity in arenas and stadiums, indications are that standards are on the rise elsewhere.

Maria Kucherhan of food services provider Delaware North said premium dining is gaining appeal in the United Kingdom, for example, where the company is under contract to Wembley and Emirates Stadium, the Arsenal soccer team’s new home.

“It’s no longer just a buffet menu, but white table cloth, silver cutlery, brass finishes,” said Kucherhan, Delaware North’s director of marketing and strategic growth. She notes that Wembley and Arsenal were sold on the company’s services after observing the fine dining it provided at facilities in Australia, including the Telstra Dome in Melbourne.

Ask the engineering and design crowd and they are likely to argue that the real feast when it comes to global stadium evolution is a technological one. Roofs allow natural light to penetrate when closed, or retract on demand to welcome blue sky. Grass playing surfaces slide in when needed (in as little as 45 minutes), and slide back out again to regenerate as nature intended. And walls recede to accommodate audiences of varying sizes and seating configurations.

Spectators can even send text messages to their favorite players from mobile phones. Inside the new indoor-outdoor Arena Auf Schalke soccer stadium in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, messages go directly to a 32-ton jumbo video cube, the largest in Europe.

The tech trend is particularly prevalent in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, where new and upgraded structures have been rising, or soon will, just in time for the Olympic Winter Games (Turin, Italy), Commonwealth Games (Melbourne, Australia), soccer’s World Cup (Germany) in 2006, and the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.

As home of many of the world’s leading arena and stadium designers and developers, the U.S. market is not ignoring the next-generation era, as evidenced by a jewel like the Arizona Cardinals’ forthcoming $370 million NFL palace, designed by Eisenman Architects in partnership with construction architect HOK Sport.

The stadium adopts the sliding, translucent roof with movable natural grass combination spreading across Europe, although the motivation was not merely to ensure that the Cardinals would play upon the lushest turf in the league.

“The field [slides] out in one big piece, leaving us a complete power grid on the floor,” said Global Spectrum’s Scott Norton, newly appointed director of sales and marketing of Cardinals Stadium. “As a result, we’ll be having a lot more traditional convention center events than any other stadium in the country. We are talking about everything from home shows, to RV shows, indoor motorsports, soccer and basketball events such as the Final Four.”

Examining the economics

The long-term economics of sports facility planning and design marks the starkest contrast between the American view of stadium globalization and the view held in other developed nations, where governments often subsidize or fully underwrite properties simply to bolster regional or national image. Consider that Gelsenkirchen’s Arena Auf Schalke, developed in anticipation of next year’s World Cup, is Germany’s first stadium built entirely with private sector funding.

“The international marketplace is not as starved for revenue enhancement as it is for architecture or fan amenities,” said Dale Koger, vice president and general manager of Turner Construction’s Sports Group. “The projects are not driven as strongly by revenue enhancement down the road.”

See also:

 

Reaching abroad: A sampling of U.S.-based sports facility companies with foreign interests

 

Turnkey Sports Poll
Koger said that when he was part of a group working as consultants to the South Korean government on its 64,000-seat World Cup stadium, a $166 million project, “We made a lot of suggestions regarding revenue-driving features [post-2002 Cup]. They were interested, but they didn’t follow through on very many of them because it was not a priority.”

Said Norton of Global Spectrum’s role in Arizona as facility manager of record: “We want to make money; that’s why [stadium owner Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority] hired us. That’s our goal.”

U.S.-based Anschutz Entertainment Group, owner of the Staples Center and Home Depot Center and five Major League Soccer franchises, is determined to introduce the stadium-as-profit-center concept to the United Kingdom and Europe. It is funding the construction and development of two facilities: London’s multipurpose Millennium Dome, at $1 billion the “most expensive arena built in Europe,” said AEG CEO Tim Leiweke; and a 16,000-seat Berlin property positioned as a “national arena” catering to sports and entertainment.

The Dome was born as nothing more than a 22-acre slab of concrete covered by a huge white tent erected for millennium celebrations in 1999, but was then forgotten. Connected to London’s West End by a subway stop, it is AEG’s boldest venture abroad as it will have no sports team as an anchor tenant for its 19,000-seat arena. But the arena is only one element of an enclosed “entertainment district” being created by AEG’s facility development partner, the Icon Group, and designed by HOK, which is also involved in the $225 million Berlin arena project.

Leiweke said HOK’s London operation is focusing design on revenue generators (suites and club seating) to position the Dome and Berlin as attractive venues when the NBA or NHL look to expand with overseas franchises. NBA Commissioner David Stern is on record saying that arena standards abroad have slowed the league’s expansion into markets outside the United States.

“People tell us we’re doing this backwards,” Leiweke said of the overseas projects. “We should be building soccer stadiums over there and arenas [in the United States]. … We see things and others question why. We have some interesting concepts that work in America that we’re customizing to demand in the U.K. and Europe.”

As Leiweke infers, soccer represents a divide between the United States and other economically robust countries when it comes to stadiums. The first soccer-only stadium in the United States, in Columbus, did not open until 1999, and established a model for soccer facilities emphasizing fan-friendly, limited capacity configuration. Conversely, soccer stadiums populating Europe tend to be enormous houses of worship for the masses who consider soccer a religion. The newest of these, such as Munich’s Allianz, are both expansive and aesthetically head turning.

In Asia, the 2002 FIFA World Cup will be remembered for more than its improbable co-host nations, Japan and South Korea. Indeed, the tournament three summers ago spawned one of the greatest stadium building competitions ever witnessed, as the longtime geographic and political rivals sought to outshine one another.

The result was 10 new or refurbished stadiums in Japan; and nine new or refurbished structures on mainland South Korea, plus one on the resort island of Jeju, with several erected in areas so obviously rural that there was little to observe for miles around other than rice fields and colorful landscape designs ringing exterior concourses. Japan spent nearly twice as much as its neighbor, an estimated $4.6 billion, and even built one new stadium, in the city of Nagoya, that was passed over by the FIFA selection process. Another, the 42,000-seat Miyagi Stadium, is largely unoccupied, as its presumed tenant, a second-tier pro soccer team, plays most of its matches in an older, smaller stadium preferred by local fans.

A symbol of progress

A stadium building frenzy of the magnitude seen leading to 2002 is unlikely to be duplicated but was not entirely surprising in Asia, where stadiums have tremendous symbolic meaning. For the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, China is planning a 91,000-seat, $278 million National Stadium complete with an earthquake-resistant frame, and a $100 million natatorium complex, just to name two.

Patrons at the new Allianz Arena in Munich, which will play host to 2006 World Cup competition, will be wined and dined in suites (bottom) and two enormous restaurants.
“In Asia, [sports construction] is more publicly funded, in that the reason for building the building is slightly different,” said Rod Sheard, a senior principal of HOK who oversees its international projects. “Sport in Asia doesn’t attract the same numbers of people or the same interest; there is no real money in the sport.”

But that doesn’t stop progress.

“For example, we tend to think of China as one big nation-state, but there is quite a bit of competition between the regions,” Sheard said. “[HOK] has just done a new stadium in Nanjing. They’ve got the China Games coming, but really it is a stadium that is more than just a practical place to watch sport. A lot of these provinces want to be put on the map. What’s the use of these buildings? Sometimes they are of very little use. It is all about having one.”

The awarding of the Olympics to a city is a frequent catalyst for overambitious stadium and arena development, as the 2004 host Athens is learning. The city known as the cradle of the Olympic Games is, today, emerging as a graveyard of forgotten Olympic venues.

“You’ve got a lot of elephants sitting around the world as a result [of the Olympics],” said event consultant Cecil.

But that isn’t stopping Beijing from building a behemoth, or discouraging 2012 Olympic candidates London and New York from promising dramatic new stadiums as part of their bid presentations to the International Olympic Committee.

New York’s bid group and Mayor Michael Bloomberg are pushing for government approval of a $1.925 billion multiuse stadium on Manhattan’s west side that also would become home of the NFL’s New York Jets. A pivotal legislative vote on the fate of the 75,000-seat stadium complex will come soon amid a recent public relations effort by the Jets to promote the economic upside to building it. IOC members vote for the 2012 host from among five candidates on July 6.

New York’s proposal has faced heavy resistance with some city residents.

“The public is much more savvy than ever about the economic costs and benefits of the Olympics,” said Tim Chapin, a Florida State University professor who has studied the effects of stadium projects on urban development for a decade. “There has been so much research done on the economic impact of hosting the Games, and it often shows that it is nowhere near what is promised.”

Whether or not the Manhattan stadium and New York’s Olympic quest become reality this time around, HOK’s Sheard expects the type of multiuse complex supported by Bloomberg and the Olympic bidders to gain momentum universally.

“People have started to realize these big sports buildings can actually generate huge amounts of money by themselves, and that is a realization that has only come about in the past five to 10 years or so,” Sheard said. “They don’t have to be empty concrete bowls. They can be lively, exciting places even when the team is not playing; just as comfortable as a shopping center or an airport.”

Steve Woodward is a writer in Chicago.

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