Predicting the future

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I have recently read an intriguing article by Jeff Beckman titled The Future of Stadiums. Beckman questions where stadium design may head in the future and whether there is a need for them at all. He referenced the ongoing competition amongst NFL cities to build ever-grander venues and their exorbitant costs, with price tags starting at US$1bn, and even breaching the US$1.5bn barrier in some cases.

These behemoths can be a jaw-dropping sight and are successfully pushing the boundaries of what is feasible in stadium design. The eye-catching circular retractable roof (similar to the opening of a camera lens) of the Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta, Georgia (below), will be something entirely new in the world of stadium roofing when it opens in 2017.

There are two key things that distinguish these new NFL stadia from venues in the UK.

Firstly, there is a huge appetite to provide a plethora of facilities focused on the spectators to help enhance their game-day experience, as if the match alone cannot sate the crowd’s appetite. Having also written about the differences between National Hockey League (NHL) arenas in North America, this seems to me to be a consistent theme in the United States, whereas Canadian hockey fans want to be close to the action above all else. To the Brits, the focus is also on the sport and the main wish is for a reduction in wait times for toilets and food and drink concessions so that they don’t miss any of the action on the pitch. Personally speaking, being able to use my cellphone before a match and during breaks would be a nice-to-have – although there has even been a backlash to the provision of wi-fi at soccer grounds as the diehards believe you shouldn’t be there if you want to catch up on the latest scores from elsewhere or, heaven forbid, post an update on social media.

Secondly, the United States is blessed with significant amounts of space and has far lower expectations for spectators to travel large distances by public transport to attend sports events – whereas many larger soccer clubs in the UK tend to find themselves with limited space if they want to redevelop their existing home or build from scratch close by.

Additionally, the level of expense for club venues on the scale seen in the USA is simply not an option for self-funded projects with little or no public finances available to help. Supporters wouldn’t accept the impact on their team’s finances, and finding the capital to fund such an expense would be impossible for all but the likes of English Premier League soccer club Manchester City FC, since its purchase by Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008 made it one of the world’s wealthiest soccer teams.

Fortunately, and partly as a result of the lower expectations for peripheral distractions, truly world-class venues with 60,000-plus capacities in the UK can still be realized for closer to US$600m, and elsewhere in Europe, costs for even the largest stadia are often lower still.

Beckman’s article also puts the high costs stateside into starker context by highlighting the lifespan of some stadia alongside the relatively low number of events. With a number of venues being replaced or redeveloped every 20-30 years, costs per event can become astronomical. Such timescales are often no different in the UK: EPL club Chelsea are looking to rebuild their Stamford Bridge home, which was developed throughout the 1990s and finalized in 1998; Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane completed its latest development in 1998 (though the main West Stand dates back to 1982) but the club are looking to move into a new 61,000-capacity home (top) for the 2017-2018 season; and West Ham’s newest stand opened as recently as 2001 with the east London soccer club set to move into the capital’s Olympic Stadium in August of this year.

I’d be surprised and disappointed to see these new structures replaced after just 20-30 years, given that venues such as Munich’s Allianz Arena (opened in 2005) in Germany and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium (opened in 2006) in London retain an air of the ultra-modern. Sure, there will be some tweaks, but the genuine belief of clubs like Spurs is that these new stadia should become home to generations of fans to come. And the idea of one-upmanship is not exactly alien to England’s Premier League, with Spurs amending their original plan to take their proposed capacity from 56,250 to 61,080 – making it the largest club stadium in London and, most importantly, slightly larger than that of London rivals Arsenal’s Emirates! That said, I wouldn’t bet against Chelsea finding a way to squeeze in a few more seats to take that particular crown.

One of the main concepts in Beckman’s article was the idea of reducing this excessive cost and making better use of each stadium on a more regular basis. In European soccer, the key difference is the number of event days. The more successful teams can expect to play between 25 and 30 home matches each season. Using my favored example, Spurs are expecting a further 16 events to use the full stadium each year – providing far greater value than many NFL venues.

Integration with the local area is another important factor to ensure that a stadium becomes either a 365-days-a-year attraction and/or has facilities that meet a demand from the local community. While many other new venues are broadening their use with conferencing facilities, Spurs are ensuring that their development encompasses the club’s requirement for a new venue, the financial reality of needing to encourage visitors throughout the year, and the provision of new jobs and facilities for those living in an otherwise neglected corner of north London.

A few miles to the south, The O2 arena is a perfect illustration of a leisure and entertainment hub that is in regular use, even when there is no event in the main arena itself. Provided new stadia are not built too remotely, having a second life as a business, community, entertainment or leisure hub must be a consideration for all future stadium and arena builds.

The most drastic notion that Beckman suggested was the possibility of having no permanent stadium at all, or at least of having elements of temporary spectator stands to cope with peak demand. Personally, I am a fan of the idea of integrating venues as part of a multifunctional complex and leaving seating capacity expansion as an option. This is logical for one-off events or short tournaments, but not for a soccer team that sells out its stadium regularly. However, such is the development in the ‘pop-up’ venue sector, that this could be a great option for smaller teams who may just want the flexibility to expand occasionally for the largest matches, or for smaller grounds to be able to boost capacity to serve as additional stadia as part of bids for major tournaments and events. London 2012 took the lessons from previous Olympic Games, particularly Athens 2004, and managed to dodge white elephant syndrome by creating venues in iconic locations and allowing them to return to normal in the weeks that followed – as is the case with Monaco’s F1 circuit and the Palio de Siena horse race, which takes place twice a year in a medieval piazza in Italy.

I’ve mentioned previously that the ultimate goal for any stadium architect must be to create a truly multipurpose venue that can transform itself for different sports and events. This holy grail is now becoming less of a dream, with real examples already in use or under construction. One of the most brilliantly conceived is the Saitama Super Arena in Japan: a 37,000-capacity indoor stadium capable of hosting American football, with a 9,000-seat block that can move back and forth 230ft to create a more intimate 22,000-seat arena and an exhibition space in the void that remains.

It is a remarkable feat of design and engineering, but one that is unlikely to be replicated too often, as full-sized field sports rarely need a roof. This level of flexibility is far better suited to arenas that want the ability to host a variety of traditional indoor events as intimately as possible. Returning, finally, to north London, the new White Hart Lane embraces the availability of these new powers of transformation in providing a sliding pitch. With a 10-year deal to host at least two NFL matches per season, the ability to protect the sacred turf is essential; after all, the stadium’s raison d’être is as a home for a top-flight soccer team. In addition to the safeguarding of the surface, the team is also protected as the extra income from other events will help ensure that the new venue doesn’t become a burden or a ready-made excuse for reduced levels of performance on the pitch brought about by an inability to compete financially. Only the future will tell if this is the ideal blueprint for stadium development.

Dan Gordon is a contributor to Stadia and has extensive experience in the events industry as a workforce planner for the London 2012 Olympic Games and England 2015 Rugby World Cup. He also runs Stadia Gaga, a blog that takes an enthusiastic look at all aspects of stadium development.

January 22, 2016

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