Letter from the future
A design team at HOK produced this vision of a futuristic sports venue, featuring a retractable roof and flexible seating sections that can morph to accommodate a range of events.
Editor's note: This story has been revised from the print edition
Dear SBJ Readers of 2004,
I write to you from a stool in Chicago’s finest Irish pub in the year 2020, trusting that you will be pleased to learn that the Guinness still goes down smoothly, the ivy still blooms green at Wrigley, and the Blackhawks still stink.
Other than that, much has changed.
Wrigley, for example, is not quite as you know it.
While the brand-savvy Cubs have kept the ivy and brick intact and preserved much of the National League’s most charming ballpark, Little Wrigley has changed everything.
The Cubs opened Little Wrigley two years ago, after fighting a long and losing battle to increase capacity at the old ballpark. Since the city wouldn’t allow it to add seats in the park, the Tribune Co. turned its sights to opportunities outside it, building a 10,000-seat theater wired with “BThere” technology that evolved from the old “virtual” applications that failed so badly 20 years ago.
Founded in 2012 by former Sportvision guru Stan Honey (father of the old glowing hockey puck and the First-and-Ten line that revolutionized football broadcasts 20 years ago), BThere broadcasts games via hologram — a three-dimensional projection — creating the illusion that you’re actually at the ballpark. Visually, it’s similar to the holographic walls that we have in our home theaters. The difference — along with the concessions vendors and the communal experience — is that the Cubs’ rights deal with BThere carves out exclusive high and low camera angles for Little Wrigley that you can’t get at home.
And, of course, the sensory reproduction is better. No matter what the engineers say, I swear the BThere grass in my home theater doesn’t smell quite like the BThere grass at Little Wrigley.
I must not be the only one who feels that way, because the Cubs are making a mint off the extra 10,000 seats. It only took the Tribune Co. one season to figure out that not every “BThere” seat had to be created equally; that because the team controls the programming, it can provide an array of viewpoints and price the experience accordingly.
This season, a seat behind home plate at Little Wrigley sells for $45, while a Little Wrig bleacher seat is still a bargain at $9.95. (The Cubs planned to price them at $9.99, but had to drop the price this year when the Treasury Department eliminated the penny.)
It may seem like a lot of money to sit in a climate-controlled warehouse a block away from the game, but when you consider that it costs $400 to sit behind home plate at the real Wrigley and a bona-fide seat in the bleachers goes for $100, it’s not a bad deal.
BThere has benefited from the fact that in the last 20 or so years, most facilities have been built to accommodate the infrastructure needed to support rapidly advancing technology.
Franchises haven’t always made the best use of what’s been available. For years, teams kept trying to wire seats with handheld devices that fans could use to play games, participate in polls and order food.
What they found was that fans went to sporting events to watch the game together, not to play with a handset. At least that’s what the franchise operators thought after failing with a few modest devices. Those who kept trying found otherwise.
About 15 years ago, I asked one of the nation’s more prominent futurists,
I had to remind Watts that, even then, we had technology that allowed for that sort of thing, that it had been tried in the best seats at baseball and basketball and hockey games and that, in almost every case, fans hated it.
“Who have they tried it with?” Watts asked.
“In baseball, it’s been people who sit in the most expensive seats behind home plate,” I told him.
“Fifty-year-old guys who still can’t figure out how to use their cell phones,” Watts said. “If you talk to 25-year-olds, 75 percent will tell you that if they could make a living in an alternative reality universe like Everquest, they’d never come out.
“You’ll see it gain acceptance as the generational cohort changes, as the 50-year-old of today gives way to the next 50-year-old.”
Watts, a chronic baseball fan who has held season tickets to the Houston Astros, L.A. Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets, wanted a device that would allow him to send an instant message to the Mets manager, Art Howe.
It seemed a reasonable request. And it was only a few years after I spoke to him that the Mets acted upon it. When they opened JetBlue Park in 2009, one of the innovations the Mets were proudest of was a wi-fi network that included instant messaging capability that allowed fans to send IMs to the dugout.
For $5 a pop, fans could IM the manager, a coach or a player. For $10, they were guaranteed a response by game’s end.
Though the Mets continue to make good use of wi-fi at JetBlue today, they abandoned the IM idea after the 2010 season, when the club lost 90 games and the exchanges between fans and players became, as owner Fred Wilpon said, “something that divided, rather than united, our New York Mets player-fan family.”
Watts Wacker didn’t even get to keep his line to the dugout for a full season. The Mets blocked his IM access in August 2009, after he sent Howe the same message for 60 straight games:
So, I was writing to you about today’s sporting grounds, wasn’t I?
As I recall, the early part of the 2000s is when the economy went south and the politicians started making noise about how they couldn’t afford to fund stadium projects when they didn’t have enough money for schools and roads.
A few owners took that as cause to throw up a white flag, and we had a spate of relocations and even one or two of what the leagues euphemistically termed contractions: the shuttering of failing franchises.
But, as is usually the case, adversity gave breath to creativity.
Downtown San Diego wouldn’t have the Purina Center, home to both the Chargers and the NBA’s Cliffs, if the city hadn’t balked at so many of the Chargers’ funding gambits.
The Purina Center, which opened in 2011, was the first major U.S. stadium to revive the multipurpose facility, which went the way of the VCR when the last of them was mercifully leveled in 2005. Designed by venerable HOK Sport, the Purina Center is a 70,000-seat football stadium that uses hydraulics to morph into an 18,000-seat indoor arena suitable for basketball, hockey, concerts and the circus.
Yup, in 2020 we’ve still got the circus.
From an architecture and construction standpoint, the resurrection of the multipurpose stadium — done this time in a way that serves both tenants’ needs equally — may be the most significant swing of the last decade, although I suppose some might make an argument for the “substadium” that has alternately thrilled and panicked the people of Pittsburgh, Orlando and Edmonton.
I couldn’t recall exactly where the “substadium” fad stood in 2004, so I went digging through my back issues of SportsBusiness Journal. Though the kids think I’m an old coot for keeping the paper copies when we’ve got a TouchRead in our quiet room, there’s a certain charm to flipping through pages by hand.
I realized I’d struck gold when I came upon a story by Don Muret, who covered facilities for the magazine before going on to found a ragingly successful chain of sports-themed blues bars.
Don first came upon the “substadium” concept in May 2004, while working on a story on facility trends of the future. It is a story from which I’ll quote liberally throughout the rest of this letter.
Michael Shapiro is one of those Hollywood types with experience in television and motion pictures, a production executive with creative tendencies and the ability to dream beyond his wildest imagination.
He also happens to be chairman and CEO of Sports Finance & Management Group of Los Angeles, a consortium of merchant bankers and advisers to the sports and entertainment industries.
Shapiro wants to build an underground arena in Pittsburgh for the NHL Penguins. The revolutionary facility would save money on construction costs and energy bills and avoid the red tape associated with adhering to environmental regulations, he claimed.
The proposed home for the Pittsburgh Penguins would be at least six feet below ground, but excavating could reach depths of 40 feet.
The future is now as opposed to 2020. Shapiro said that within the next few months he should secure the $150 million to $160 million bank loan that SFMG needs to privately finance construction and start building the venue.
Shapiro explained the reasoning behind his brainstorm, stating that he has been forced to “think outside the box” to attract advertisers and sponsorships in a “town so localized” as Pittsburgh.
The Steel City doesn’t enjoy the “international reputation” of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, he said.
“That was the driving factor,” Shapiro said. “But I was talking with our architect who told me what the air conditioning would cost, that we would have to spend $3.5 million for that alone. For that kind of money, I could get geisha girls with fans and ice cubes sitting next to each patron.”
Kirk Rose of The Smith Group, among the nation’s oldest design firms with offices in L.A. and Detroit, is working on the project for SFMG. His only previous sports facility design was Pepsi Arena in Albany, N.Y. However, the firm has helped design MCI Center in Washington and Ford Field and Comerica Park in Detroit.
Brave new ballpark
|The following are predictions for what fans will experience at the sports venue of the future:|
|Will the real Miguel Cabrera please take one step forward? Advances in hologram technology blur the line between reality and reproduction at venues and in homes.|
|As today’s twenty-somethings hit their 40s, fans finally embrace interactive applications at games.|
|Stadiums that shrink and stretch lead to the resurrection of the multisport facility.|
|Kids-only clubs help teams reach out to families who are looking for ways to spend more time together.|
|The healthy hot dog. Really.|
|All-inclusive pricing extends beyond premium clubs to rank-and-file fans.|
|Leave the city, but take the arena with you.|
Rose informed Shapiro that building the arena at least six feet below ground would allow the facility to maintain its temperature at a constant 51 degrees with slight fluctuations coinciding with winter and summer periods.
“We could be excavating 30 to 40 feet into the earth, but we won’t know until we find out how much rock there is on site,” Rose said.
The initial rendering illustrates an above-ground restaurant propped on stilts, rooftop cooling pool and plenty of green space above the arena. Shapiro said the idea is to convert that unique space into parkland, satisfying the concerns of environmentalists and neighboring residents.
“It would serve as a park and an area for families and kids,” he said. “We would be doing business, making money and servicing the community at the same time. Every city and county in the country has cut their parks and recreation budgets.”
Those areas could also be used to stage a concert, swap meet or farmer’s market, said Rose.
Shapiro’s radical ideas don’t end with the building’s exterior.
He worked in the U.S. Senate, helping to draft the Veterans Affairs Act in 1968, so Shapiro knows all about the “importance of dealing with a particular constituency.” He has an unorthodox idea to capture the younger demographic.
“One of the things I’m dying to do with a sports facility is build bars with no roofs that would be decorated with fun characters, but you can’t get in if you’re over four-and-a-half feet tall,” he said. “The only thing you can buy is Jell-O.
“But there would be no roof, so as a parent you could watch your children to make sure they’re OK. I think it would be cool for kids. We’re reversing the table here. Having something catering to them adds to their self-esteem. And they would bug the hell out of you take them back to the ball game.”
Shapiro was wrong about the Jell-O. The animal rights activists got people to stop eating it a few years ago.
But he was on to something with the kids’ clubs. They’re everywhere. With so much of the work force telecommuting and families moving downtown to avoid the hassles of suburban traffic, parents and children are spending more time together. If you want to attract adults, you have to make your event palatable for their children.
Most teams put their kids’ club next to the cigar bar — which has become quite popular again since we started vaccinating against lung, throat and mouth cancers, albeit with admittedly spotty results.
What else can I tell you about? With all the emphasis that teams put on creating premium experiences beginning in the 90s, I suppose you’d be curious about what the top shelf looks like in 2020.
Once again, Don Muret wasn’t far off target with the technology he identified in his story back in 2004.
The 2003 Association of Luxury Suite Directors conference in Boston showcased the “Suite of the Future” with design firm Ellerbe Becket. The German-produced HoloPro 3-D style projection system was the most intriguing new technology, said ALSD Executive Director Bill Dorsey.
“That was the most futuristic thing I saw,” he said. “It’s cutting edge and could eventually take the place of flat-screen TVs in the suites. There are advantages in its size and ability.”
Think of the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report,” the 2002
Dreaming up a design
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In the film, police used holographic images transferred from precognitive human minds to discover illegal activity before those crimes actually occurred.
“The technology was just beginning when ‘Minority Report’ came out,” said Mike Gaffney, director of business development for Audio Visual & Film Group of Minneapolis.
The company is the North American distributor for HoloPro. Gaffney said sports venues can utilize the technology for programming purposes and sponsorship opportunities.
“It’s not only an informational piece but an advertising tool that generates cash,” he said. “We have taken the HoloPro technology and developed a graphics system so you have something like a Coke can hanging in midair, sitting and spinning. You can see it from all sides.”
The same could be done to promote, for example, a watch or cell phone manufacturer.
Midwest Wireless Civic Center in Mankato, Minn., installed HoloPro last August above its ticketing windows in the main lobby. The arena projects advertising messages and in-house information through its Civic Center TV network.
“It’s a very clean product and people wonder where the image is coming from,” said Steve Conover, the building’s senior operations manager. “Right now, the expense is quite large, but when it comes down, I can see others using it.”
The costs range from $1,500 for a 20-inch HoloPro system to the 35-square-foot model for $19,000, the one used at Midwest Wireless Civic Center, said Gaffney. Conover estimated the system cost $30,000 for his facility.
Fear not, purist sports folk of the past. You can still get a hot dog at any game you go to. And beef franks aren’t the artery cloggers they used to be.
Once again, Don Muret, from 2004:
The future of food at sports facilities will be affected by emerging technology, the dynamics of dieting and a major shortage in the work force, predicted Michael Thompson, an Aramark senior vice president.
In other words, the hot dog you’re eating in 2020 won’t be the same one your father enjoyed at the ballpark.
“It may not be made of tofu, but it’s going to be made differently and taste differently,” he said. “What people are looking for and demanding is literally going to change the product we deliver.”
Fifteen years from now, all meat products will be strictly regulated, according to Thompson.
“Beef will be stamped to ensure that it is free of any fat and contaminant,” he said. “Nothing will be chemically fed, resulting in leaner animals.”
The new Wembley Stadium will feature a platform that can be built above the soccer field, covering some of the seats but adding enough space for track and field competition.
“There’s already a sensitivity in today’s market on obesity and a push for more information on what we’re feeding each other,” he said.
Food service firms continue to adapt to an increasingly cashless society with credit card and second-generation smart card transactions.
Thompson isn’t the only industry executive who believes that the trend toward including food credits in a game ticket will eventually become the norm.
“There will be one piece of plastic, all inclusive, from the time you park your car, get into the building and buy food and beverage,” said Ken Lapponese, a salesman for Venue 1.
Lapponese sells point-of-sale systems to concessionaires.
“You’ll get points for using the card like a frequent-flier program,” he said. “I really believe we’re becoming all-inclusive, where one thing does it all.”
Thompson said the concept will affect the dimensions in building a stadium to accommodate a pay-one-price entertainment package. “The question will be, ‘What kind of space do I have to allocate on the all-inclusive patrons?’” he said.
As a North Sider and Wrigley devotee, it pains me to say nice things about the crosstown White Sox. But you have to give the franchise its due for the all-inclusive area behind home plate at Global Cellular Field.
Jerry Reinsdorf was one of the first owners to recognize that mainstream fans might appreciate the same conveniences that customers at premium clubs in all sporting venues had come to enjoy. Five years ago, the Sox became the first team in pro sports to turn the entire lower bowl into an all-inclusive area, segmenting sections in ways that allowed for different levels of cost and service.
The fans who pay premium prices to sit behind home plate receive Platinum Cards that allow them entry to two private clubs that feature fine dining. Gold Cards give fans who sit along the baselines access to a pair of sports bars, along with an interesting mix of premium food stands. Silver Cards get you unlimited access to standard concession stands down the outfield lines.
The White Sox pitch — “Bring the kids, leave the wallets at home” — has brought families back to Global Cellular Field at a time when the South Side is showing signs of resurgence.
I’ll leave you with today’s buzzword:
Just as the luxury suite advanced sports facilities in the 1980s and the retro trend marked the ’90s, architects today believe that portability — the movement of sporting venues from place to place — will stand as the hallmark of the 2020s.
Once again, Don Muret hinted at possibilities in his SBJ story of 2004.
Randy Bredar, vice president of HNTB and the person in charge of the firm’s sports architecture group, believes sports facilities will eventually become mobile entities with the flexibility to go where the major events are scheduled.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of venues that can travel, temporary venues that can swell and shrink to fit a wide variety of events,” he said.
Bredar, a Davenport, Iowa, native, remembers as a kid being fascinated by the circus coming to town by railroad and setting up on a gravel levee near the Mississippi River.
“This city would magically appear and a month later, it
|Turnkey Sports Poll|
|New uses for old sports venues|
That’s what several architects were thinking during a design competition years ago to develop a stadium for the NFL’s return to Los Angeles, according to Bredar.
“Their idea was to build a stadium on a ship so that if the franchise decided to leave L.A., it could just pull up anchor and go,” he said.
More recently, the Michigan State University athletic department in East Lansing wanted to stage a Spartans basketball game on a naval aircraft carrier during the 2004-05 season. The Navy nixed the notion.
Bredar mentioned that Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt has always wanted to put a temporary roof over Arrowhead Stadium to attract the Super Bowl, another take on portability.
“I think it would be great to have some sort of traveling roof that could go around the country and open new venues for big events,” Bredar said. “It’s my way to get rich and retire, but I have a feeling technology could get us there.”
Portability is one thing, foolishness is another.
There was one “conceptual scheme” for a sports facility in Miami that didn’t last but a couple of weeks, said one industry professional who requested anonymity.
“They thought it would be interesting to have a portion of the ballpark move across [Biscayne] Bay,” he said. “There was an old bleacher section that was used to watch the boat races. The idea was to save the bleachers, which were on a linear stand that slides on a rail underneath the water. They didn’t even think about the problems occurring with erosion and obstructions.”
While architects have touted portability for the last decade and teams continue to look for ways to use it to their advantage, we still haven’t seen the massive, moving stadium that many envision.
Will it ever come to be?
Let me get back to you on that in 2040.
– Bill King and Don Muret, staff writers