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Volume 22 No. 7

In Depth

The Rooftop at Coors Field is a popular hangout for Colorado Rockies fans.
Photo: Getty Images

The bases are loaded in the bottom of the fourth. It’s third and goal in the middle of the third quarter. It’s crunch time.

 

Do you know where your fans are?

 

It’s the way of the sports world now. Fans at games want to enjoy food and drink, walk around and socialize. A variety of amenities lure them from the seating bowl.

 

“It’s like a moving event. They want to see the building, they want to see the game. They want to go socialize with their friends,” said Chris Pezman, vice president for athletics at the University of Houston.

 

But Pezman said at some point fans need to be engaged in the game for the home team and to create a buzz around events.

 

“We have to figure out a way that they stay in their seats.”

 

It’s a concern across pro and college sports as teams, fans and television viewers frequently see large swaths of empty seats during games. It’s a challenge for television producers who want to offer compelling visuals and a quandary for team executives who want to amplify the in-venue vibe.

 

“It seems like sometimes the game is secondary,” said Todd Rose, business development engineer with Daktronics, the South Dakota-based scoreboard and electronics company.

 

It’s clear that fans today don’t want to be tied to a seat.

 

“They want to see everything in a building and not be confined to Row 34, Seat 32, and that’s where you stay,” said Bruce Miller, senior architect and senior principal with Populous. He’s designed Target Field and Allianz Field in Minnesota.

 

Teams and venues have responded by designing amenities aimed at providing a better overall game-day experience. That can include premium lounges, standing room areas, bars for socializing, and expanded concourses to entice fans to explore and mingle.

 

Open concourses where fans can watch the action while they get concessions or just roam are the norm at newer buildings such as Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and renovated arenas and ballparks. Open views to the playing field allow fans to stand at drink rails or on terraces to watch games from bars and food stands.

 

“We have standing room all over the building,” said Scott Jenkins, general manager for Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He said the Falcons sold 2,000 standing-room-only tickets for their Nov. 18 game against the Dallas Cowboys.

 

Falcons President and CEO Rich McKay said the idea of fans sitting in their seats for three hours straight for a game is increasingly in the past. That’s why Mercedes-Benz Stadium features nine bars and lower food prices to entice fans to explore the venue. “We want to create an environment where people felt like they could move around,” McKay said.

 

Heavy use of television monitors and display boards further allow fans to follow the action away from the field. The Buffalo Bills, for example, have installed more than 500 television monitors inside premium areas at New Era Field.

 

The courtside Hawk Bar in the newly renovated State Farm Arena in Atlanta offers a gathering spot just steps away from the game.
Photo: Michael Zarrilli

“It all comes back to the experience sports fans are looking for today,” said Doug Moss, general manager for sports and entertainment at Leyard and Planar Systems, which installs video and digital displays in social and fan areas at sports facilities.

 

The challenge comes in balancing those fan desires with the goal of creating a vibrant game atmosphere, and a loud, intense home-field advantage with people cheering from their seats, and one that doesn’t lead to rows of vacated seats as fans choose to watch the action elsewhere.

 

“When you have an all-you-can-eat crab buffet and lobster buffet, who the hell is going to sit in the seats when they can sit in air conditioning?” said Bill Johnson, design principal with architecture firm HOK, on the temptation fans have to choose premium lounges over stadium seats, especially during unpleasant weather.

 

The empty seats left behind can challenge the optics of television broadcasts.

 

“Having full stadiums and arenas makes the telecast feel better, more lively, richer to people watching at home. However, attendance at stadiums and arenas is not something we can control,” said Mark Gross, senior vice president of production and remote events at ESPN.

 

Chris Giles, COO of the Oakland Athletics, said teams have to get used to fans having varying levels of engagement with what is happening on the field or court.

 

“They want the ability to have a more flexible experience,” Giles said. That means sometimes leaving their seats — even the best seats — to go experience the ballpark, stadium or arena. “We need to embrace the ways our fans want to consume our product.”

 

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Rob Matwick, executive vice president of business operations for the Texas Rangers, said the team expects fans to want to explore, eat, drink and socialize at the new Globe Life Field being built in Arlington. But when games are on the line in later innings or the Rangers are in a pennant race or the playoffs, Matwick expects those same fans to be in their seats. Still, Matwick said the new ballpark, set to open in 2020, will have open concourses and plenty of social, food and drink, and standing areas where fans can still watch the game — just not from their seats.

 

Teams and venues have tried to find a balance with expanded in-seat ordering, faster grab-and-go food options in the concourse, more comfortable seating, social media interactions and even paring back the number of televisions in some premium areas to entice people to get back to their seats.

 

But sometimes even all that isn’t enough.

 

“People don’t want to be enclosed or cloistered into these little boxes any more,” said Thad Sheely, COO of the Atlanta Hawks. “They want a great view. They want to be part of the action. They also want to be able to move around and watch the game on their terms.”

 

The New York Yankees converted bleachers into social areas.
Photo: New York Yankees

The Atlanta Hawks, as part of their $192.5 million makeover of State Farm Arena, redesigned premium seating with a focus on providing more open sight lines for fans as they mingle.

 

Sheely said teams can’t dictate to their customers how they consume events and said the industry can put too much weight on television optics about crowds.

 

For the most part, it’s been giving the fans what they want. And this isn’t a trend that can be blamed on millennials. Just ask the New York Yankees, who have drawn attention for fans leaving high-priced seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium to visit restaurant and bar areas. The empty seats show up on the main camera view behind the pitcher, giving the appearance of a thin crowd even though the seats are sold.

 

“Millennials and young professionals regularly expressed their need for places to congregate and socialize for extended periods of time, especially easily accessible locations with creative food, views of the field and dependable Wi-Fi,” said Marty Greenspun, senior vice president for strategic ventures for the Yankees. “But we also heard from parents and grandparents, who explained how having a play space for their young children and grandchildren would allow them to go to more games and stay longer while in the stadium.”

 

That desire encouraged the Yankees to convert bleachers into social areas, create standing-room-only passes for $15 per game (which includes one beer, soda or bottled water), and to open a wine bar that can serve as another hangout.

 

“The overarching theme was that everyone wanted more things to do and more spaces to enjoy beyond just their assigned seat,” said Greenspun, adding that the Yankees have also brought new social areas and socially focused cabanas to their spring training ballpark in Tampa.

 

Daktronics’ Rose said the firm continues to install more television screens and digital boards in social areas away from the field of play so people can keep a watch on the game while they’re gathered in those spaces.

 

“You are not going to be able to force them” to stay in their seats, Rose said. “You have do what the customer wants.”

 

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Not all teams and venues are content with their fans spending much of their time away from their seats. They favor the atmosphere created by cheering fans in the main seating bowl.

 

“We’re analyzing this problem right now. It’s a problem that baseball stadiums are having, that a lot of colleges are having,” said Andrzej Czech, an architect and designer with NBBJ.

 

Adam Stover, a senior interior designer and principal with Populous, said not having empty seats show up on television but giving fans what they want was front of mind in the design of the new American Airlines 1914 Club at Wrigley Field. The premium club includes 600 seats behind home plate and an exclusive VIP bar and food area. It opened this past Chicago Cubs season.

 

“You don’t want it so engaging you don’t want to go outside,” Stover said.

 

That resulted in a limited number of TV screens in the club. Stover said a big wall of TV screens coupled with a climate-controlled lounge can capture fans’ attention. “That just entices someone to camp out and watch,” he said, which is not what the Cubs wanted at Wrigley.

 

The 1914 Club has dedicated food and drink vendors walking the aisles so fans don’t need to leave their seats. Elsewhere in the ballpark, the Cubs and concessionaire Levy Restaurants installed eight grab-and-go coolers where fans can quickly get food and drinks and return to their seats.

 

Mobile ordering is another way teams and venues are making it easier for fans to get food and beverages without leaving their seats. Concessionaire Aramark tested a program at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia where fans can order drinks by scanning a QR code at their seats and using Apple Pay. That program could be expanded to other venues.

 

Centerplate has rolled out a similar QR code service for premium fans at BC Place in Vancouver for the MLS Whitecaps and CFL BC Lions.

 

Technology might also get younger fans more engaged and get them to watch the games as much as their phones and social media, said Alex Hertel, CEO and co-founder of Xperiel, a Silicon Valley technology firm that installs digital fan interactions at sports venues.

 

“They are struggling to engage with younger fans, the next generation of consumers,” said Hertel.

 

Hertel said predictive gaming where fans can wager on things going on during the game and interactive contests using smartphones appeal to younger fans. “This generation of viewers grew up with Xbox controllers in their hands,” Hertel said. His company has done work for the New York Jets, Sacramento Kings (which has invested in the company) and most recently the Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament at AT&T Park in San Francisco. The gaming allows fans to win jerseys, tickets and other gear.

 

Beyond technology, something as simple as a more comfortable seat can have results. The Atlanta Braves and the Class AAA Las Vegas 51s are among teams that have installed mesh seating from 4Topps.

 

“No one wants to sit in an uncomfortable seat anymore,” said HOK’s Johnson. “We should be able to do better.”  

“Instagram-able” spots such as this one at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field cater to the desire to have more sharable moments.
Photo: Seattle Seahawks

Arenas and stadiums know that when it comes to appealing to women at sporting events, they better get one thing right: the restrooms. The amount and quality of restrooms have long been the top complaint for female fans going to games.

“Many female fans cite length of queueing times at restrooms as a primary source of dissatisfaction at sports events,” said Michelle Frantellizzi, an architect and designer with NBBJ’s sports practice.

But that’s just part of the story. Sports facilities are listening to the growing female fan demographic on other fronts by rolling out a variety of new amenities including specialized food stands, bars and fan experiences.

Teams, concessionaires and architects are using analytics, fan surveys and apps to gauge the fan experience and track consumer behaviors that could decide their next moves. That includes the swath of female sports fans ranging from socializing millennials and wine lovers to moms with kids in tow.

Some of the data is low-hanging fruit — or grapes.

With women making up 59 percent of U.S. wine drinkers, according to the Wine Market Council, more venues have responded by opening wine bars. 

The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks are among the teams that have added “bubble bars” that feature wine, champagne and sparkling wine. The Seahawks also serve mulled wine at cold-weather home games at CenturyLink Field. 

The New York Yankees opened a wine bar with locally based City Winery at Yankee Stadium this past MLB season. The San Francisco 49ers have wine available at 21 bars and stands at Levi’s Stadium, and feature Napa Valley and other California wineries each week in club areas as part of a program called Appellation 49.

Other fan experience enhancements include “Instagram-able” murals and art where fans can take selfies, which caters to the desire for more sharable moments.

And venues are offering more food choices that get beyond fried fare.

Globe Life Field, the future home of the Texas Rangers, will feature a marketplace concept from concessionaire Delaware North on the lower concourse that will be highlighted by local restaurants, retail and fresh food. 

“It will feel like a farmers market,” said Loretta Fulvio, associate principal, senior vice president and design director for sports and entertainment for architecture firm HKS. “We want the area to just let people get back to their roots and how people used to socialize.” 

The Milwaukee Bucks and concessionaire Levy Restaurants have opened a locally infused Southside Market at the new Fiserv Forum. Other venues such as the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Hard Rock Stadium in Miami have rolled out more vegan, vegetarian and fresh food at games.

When various research, including a study by Deloitte, revealed that female NFL fans didn’t believe they had enough team apparel options, teams and vendors responded by increasing offerings and creating larger sections in team shops and online.

In September, for example, the Dallas Cowboys opened a shop featuring women’s apparel at The Star mixed-use development in Frisco, Texas. That women’s apparel push, led by Cowboys Chief Brand Officer Charlotte Jones Anderson, also has pop-up shops open on game days at AT&T Stadium.

Other team shops are trying to cash in on the growing athleisure fashion trend of wearing sporty clothing, such as yoga pants and hoodies. The U.S. athleisure market — which is driven mostly by women — totaled $48 billion last year, according NPD Group. It is projected to reach $83 billion by 2020, according to Morgan Stanley. 

The Arizona Cardinals added a “bubble bar” that features wine, champagne and sparkling wine.
Photo: Arizona Cardinals

Rank + Rally, the retail arm of Levy Restaurants that operates teams stores at the Staples Center, United Center, Barclays Center and other venues, sees the trend as a way to expand the retail customer base beyond diehard sports fans and reach casual fans. 

Fan data also has driven decisions to provide more diaper-changing stations at sports venues, as well as rooms and pods for breastfeeding mothers.

“Forty-six percent of the NFL audience is made up of women,” said Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill. “One of the things that we heard, from moms especially, is that there were no nursing rooms, no private rooms if they want to nurse.”

The Cardinals’ stadium is among a host of sports venues — including Soldier Field in Chicago and Citi Field in New York — that offer spaces for nursing moms.

Fan surveys by architecture firm Populous found that only 25 percent of fans overall take their children with them to most games, citing both security concerns and the hassles of keeping children entertained. In response, Populous is pitching a premium space to venues called the Family Lounger Box that would feature play areas, changing stations and baby-sitting services. 

At Levi’s Stadium, the San Francisco 49ers provide private pods for mothers who are breastfeeding.
Photo: San Francisco 49ers

As for making changes on the fly, the 49ers launched a real-time analytics system with SAP that can track lines at concession stands, complaints about restrooms and other aspects of the game-day experience. That allows problems and complaints to be addressed that day. The Milwaukee Bucks use secret shoppers to test out food stands and bars, and check the condition of restrooms at the team’s new arena. 

When it comes to what’s next, Delaware North, Levy and other concessionaires continue to lean more on analytics at their venues to better track consumer behavior and tastes.

Andrew Spencer, vice president of customer engagement and revenue for Delaware North, said the insight allows teams, venue managers and designers to drill down on specific demos and find out how to best serve them, whether it’s staffing, inventories, menus or whom to target with promotions.

“We can start to make smarter decisions based now on what they are buying and where they are buying it,” Spencer said.

The new Fiserv Forum, home of the Milwaukee Bucks, created the Panorama Club that provides views of the court inside and of downtown Milwaukee outside.
Photo: Dylan Buell

Stadium designers, teams and venue managers are upping their game in the upper deck. They are bringing many of the same amenities, food and drinks, and experiences fans enjoy in pricier lower bowls and even premium areas to the upper levels of their buildings.

 

“I think there is really a whole transition of creating a premium-style atmosphere for fans in the upper deck, in the cheaper seats,” said Peter Feigin, president of the Milwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum. The new arena hosted its first concert in September and its first NBA game in October.

 

It’s a reaction to fans who increasingly don’t want to be tied to a seat and want to have the opportunity to take in the game in multiple ways.

 

“The cheap seats are being used by people to get into the game, not necessarily to sit in them,” said Jim Renne, sports principal with the Rossetti architecture firm. His design portfolio includes the transformation of Daytona International Speedway and recent renovations at Ford Field in Detroit, ISM Raceway in Phoenix and the Prudential Center in Newark.

 

Renne said fans in the upper deck treat their tickets almost like a grounds pass at a tennis or golf tournament. Then they will wander the building finding places to hang out and watch the game.

 

That can include new destinations that buildings have created to offer expanded food and beverage options, and compelling views of the game or outside the building to cityscapes. Mercedes-Benz Stadium, for example, has sky bridges on its upper concourses that offer fans views of downtown Atlanta and the field.

 

The $1.1 billion Globe Life Field ballpark in Arlington, Texas, will have the Sky Porch in the upper deck, featuring a social area with rocking chairs, a barbecue restaurant, bars and two decks where fans can watch baseball from one side and the adjacent Texas Live entertainment district from the other, according to Loretta Fulvio, senior vice president, associate principal and design director of sports and entertainment interiors for HKS. The architecture firm is designing the 41,000-seat ballpark, which is scheduled to open in 2020.

 

“It’s going to be a destination for fans from all over the ballpark,” said Fulvio of the porch concept.

 

The Atlanta Falcons opened the 100 Yard Club on the uper level of Mercedes-Benz Stadium featuring bars, restaurants and social areas.
Photo: Atlanta Falcons

At Fiserv Forum, the Bucks developed the Panorama Club, a 500-person space that is open to the public for Bucks games and can be rented for private events. The club features a balcony that provides views of downtown Milwaukee.

 

“We created the Panorama Club in literally almost the catwalk of the building,” Feigin said. “It’s almost like you have created this destination in what was traditionally the least-valuable real estate in the arena because it was so far from the court.”

 

Feigin said the Bucks also put a big customer service focus on a Coors Light-branded bar on the upper level. It alone has 20 points of sale.“That is the highest-producing bar in the arena by a far amount. It’s a phenomenal space that people love to be around,” he said.

 

Atlanta Hawks COO Thad Sheely said one of the goals of the recently completed $192.5 million renovation of State Farm Arena was to offer the same level of service and food quality in the upper concourse as its lower counterpart. The arena has two of its most popular food stands — J.R. Crickets (an Atlanta favorite for wings) and Chick-fil-A — on the upper concourse. Sheely said fans actually will come up from lower-level seats to visit those food stands.

 

The Atlanta Falcons have installed a space called the 100 Yard Club at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the upper level. The area is the length of the football field and has bars, restaurants, social areas, TVs and displays about Falcons players.

 

Mercedes-Benz Stadium general manager Scott Jenkins said fans expect a top-notch experience no matter what level. “We want the whole building to be that,” he said.

 

Renne sees more of what he calls “arena passes” for fans to be able to watch games from different areas. Then, teams link that with better food and drinks throughout the building. “You create these multiple destinations to watch the game. The delivery of experiences is critical,” Renne said.

 

Brad Clark, a senior principal and architect with Populous who led designs of the Bucks arena and T-Mobile Arena in Vegas, expects to see fewer and fewer seats in upper bowls as fans look for better options to enjoy the event and venues respond with more spaces for food and drinks, socializing and premium amenities.

 

“Our approach to making a better upper deck is to make a bigger lower bowl,” Clark said. He sees the critical mass of seats in the lower bowl and more club areas and cool spaces up top.

 

Andrzej Czech, a senior associate and architect in architecture firm NBBJ’s sports group, said venues are generally OK with reducing seating capacity, especially in the upper decks, if they are being replaced with premium products or better quality. Czech points to Rupp Arena in Kentucky where seats with chair backs are replacing bleachers. Czech said the move reduces Rupp’s capacity from 23,000 to 20,500, but “it gives those folks upstairs the same chair-back seats that everyone in the lower seating bowl already has.”

This week, writers Bill King, Mike Sunnucks and Eric Fisher take on our front-page story on facilities and fans; plus a discussion of MLB’s long to-do list ahead of and including next season.