Emerging Trends in Sports Facility Design

Basic Design Principles With a Post-Pandemic Twist


From high school and college gridirons to gymnasiums, and from ice rinks to arenas, athletic facilities serve as an anchor for many communities—a place to congregate and participate in or cheer on games of friendly competition. COVID-19 put a pause to those social gatherings but only temporarily, as the world now begins to emerge from the lockdowns of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, expectations that communities have about their sports facilities are getting higher all the time, observed Gudmundur Jonsson, senior architect and principal with Populous, a global design firm with American headquarters in Kansas City, Mo. "There are a lot of crossovers happening. Things have changed over the past 10 years, and the gap between a municipal sports facility and a collegiate venue is getting narrower, in terms of the kind of facilities people are looking for," Jonsson said.

Colleges already have taken on many of the "wow" aspects of the professionals, he said. And now, some municipalities and high schools are picking up on these collegiate stadium and sports facility ideas.

"At the non-professional, non-collegiate level," Jonsson added, "we're also seeing facilities that cater to the future college athlete. These facilities contain training opportunities that will catapult a user to a level that can differentiate them from other athletes."

'Wow' the Public

Athletic facilities represent school districts and communities, and are often the first introduction for visiting schools and fans who travel to watch their own students compete. "Communities can have great pride in the facilities that they have been able to provide for their students. Likewise, facilities that are outdated, poorly maintained or in disrepair can also be a source of shame," said Scott Klaus, principal with Stantec, an international design and engineering firm with headquarters in Edmonton, Canada. "The pride an athletic facility can create can have a positive or negative impact on the attitude of the athletes and the overall performance of a team."

It's about creating an experience for both fans and on-the-field athletes, explained Klaus—creating energy. And, in many cases, using technology to do it.

At the non-professional level, modern educational sports facilities are being created to be more multipurpose and serve more than just the student athletes and marching bands. They are being created to support learning for careers that revolve around sports. Those careers include marketing, video editing, broadcast, technology, physical training, physical therapy, culinary and event management. The sport facilities can simulate an experience that students could receive in the real world.

"How we use a scoreboard is a big part of how we bring technology into the facility. We create commercials for the local community via the scoreboard, and it accommodates fine arts as well," Klaus said. "In some cases, students are given a small stipend to operate the scoreboard for an evening."


"The facilities we create serve more than one high school" Klaus continued. "So, we have to vary color. We'll bring in custom color lighting—create tunnels for teams to enter the field with colored lighting that is customized to their school. Lighting for a sports event is not something fans think much about, but it is one of the most important parts of any live sports event. Little details like that can really bring a sense of 'wow' and excitement to the team and the fans watching the events."

Create uniqueness, insists Blaine Perau, partner and sports design architect with RDG Planning and Design in Omaha, Neb., "so that a school's sports facility has something that distinguishes it from other schools."

For universities, Perau suggests thinking about quality over quantity of space. Designated areas that get higher-level finishes have more of an impact. "Branding experiential graphics is a low-cost, high-impact thing we are seeing across all levels," he said. "And that really plays into the culture of the program, which is huge with football programs. Reinforcing unique design elements within the space can separate them from other schools … to give them that edge and create excitement. We have started to make it all about the experience in the space, how it makes users feel how it impacts them."

All that can be very integrated from the beginning of the design process. You can design a building with those things in mind, and integrate the brand into the design for the client, Perau said. "This is something that can be done on existing spaces to amp up the experience pretty quickly, but also can be a part of new construction projects."

One of the most important elements in design, Perau added, is the balance between lighting, sound systems and video scoreboards. Even some smaller schools are using video these days. "We have some projects, stadium upgrades, that are relatively quick to do, but have high impact. One of those would be the scoreboard: You can enhance the experience with video and audio upgraded quality and that can really impact any facility. It's a great way to boost the gameday atmosphere."

This, however, must be done correctly, he cautioned. You don't want people to think about any of those elements as they are experiencing the event. You want the focus to be on the playing field and not have spectators being distracted by the audio in the stadium or the lighting.

'Wow' the Athlete

At universities, sports facilities are designed for the student athlete. "For young athletes coming in from high school, they (and their family) are trying to understand where they are going to play, and how the staff is going to keep them healthy, or recover from an injury, should that happen," explained Trevor Bechtold, a director of sports, recreation and entertainment at international design firm HOK's Kanas City studio.


Within the sports field complex, Bechtold suggests integrating into the design innovation labs from the equipment side of things, quarterback performance labs and other ways to enhance the opportunities for training, both individually and as a team. "We're seeing these enhancements are happening inside and outside the building, and even on the field," he said. Amenities, like barbershops, are being built into facilities because athletes are spending so much time training, so much time on the field, so much time with coaches and staff, learning about the game, that having some of those amenities on hand makes life a little simpler when the athlete has few minutes to spare.

There are two sides to the spectrum, Bechtold noted: the star athletes and the students at the club level. The student athletes play on an organized competitive team and competes within their conference. And then there are those students who play on the recreation side of things. They will also use sports facilities, such as gymnasiums on campus, or an outdoor field or track. Providing for both sides has become incredibly popular in the past decade in terms of having the right amenities built into the structure.

"If I was a high school student looking for a college," Bechtold suggested, "I would look at their sports and recreation facilities, even if I wasn't a star athlete. We do some high school design, and particularly in the southern region of the U.S., schools are elevating their facilities, oftentimes almost to the collegiate level, to prepare those students for becoming collegiate student athletes as they move further into their lives and careers."

Colleges are setting the bar for high schools to learn from, said Jonsson, of Populous. "And sports facilities are being used as a recruiting tool." The sports complex is often one of the first things an athlete will look to as a factor in deciding what school to attend.

Back to Normal, With a Twist

As the world slowly begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, the fallout will have produced far-reaching effects in nearly all facets of life, and certainly in the development of new sports facilities, according to our design experts. And while these facilities may look different in a post-COVID-19 world, they will remain integral parts of our lives as athletes leave the "bubble" and spectators return in-person to the stands.

During the worst days of the pandemic, Klaus noted, facilities were not used so much for sports. They were used for holding graduations. The larger football stadiums gave schools a way for people to spread out safely, with the kids in chairs on the field with given masks, and families required to stay six feet apart and wear masks in the stands.


During the February cold spell in Texas, many stadiums transitioned to serve as places to distribute water and food.

Some stadiums have served as virus testing and vaccine sites.

"These facilities have been used in ways that we might not have imagined a few years ago," Klaus said. Most of the facilities he and his team are designing now include a community room that can serve 300 to 500 people, and these rooms are used throughout the year. The school can rent the space out for wedding receptions or birthday parties, or they can be used for school events and board meetings. These are functional, multipurpose rooms, actually built into the sports facility. Another plus is having and using the parking space that is already there.

What will the new normal look like?

"One thing we see coming is a real focus on the wellness component for student athletes," Klaus said. "Not just a training facility but the actual health of the person. And how the facility responds to that. This will only increase as athletes will be looking for a place that they know is going to respond and appreciate the importance of the wellness side of things."

Also, expect to see the square footage per athlete increase in locker room space, Jonsson said, and overall in training facility settings. That was already happening, but it is happening now even more so as a safety protocol.

Look for designs incorporating cleanability and sanitization, using materials that are non-porous and that are durable and easy to clean, such as fewer carpets and more hard surfaces. You'll need to think about increased cleaning of the space.

"One thing we've seen," Klaus noted, "is a transition from a group shower to individual showers. The trend is moving toward single partitioned out shower areas. In common areas where athletes walk through areas, there will be increased width in those spaces and hallways."

Post-Pandemic Stadium Changes

While the impact of COVID-19 will almost certainly change the spectator experience, it will not eliminate large in-person viewing in the long term. "The world continues to adapt to new physical distancing standards to support public health, and sports complexes can use the lessons learned from other industries to ensure the safety of visitors," Klaus said. "Changes in cleaning regimens and operational protocols will allow facilities to host spectators, which will continue to provide an economic boost for communities."

Limited stadium capacity is something that is going to be a current state of mind, said Bechtold. "Eventually, as things begin to improve, it will become more about, how can we create a unique fan experience? It will mean elevating the fan experience at all levels, in all sports. Just because a venue is smaller or accommodating less fans, that doesn't change the goal. Even now, with people adhering to social distancing protocols, it doesn't mean that that experience shouldn't be unique and memorable."


Some of the stronger changes we are seeing come out of the pandemic is on the amenities side of things, Bechtold said. "The lines at concessions are a thing of the past, gathering in large crowds, people in close proximity will be frowned on. Folks are likely going to have a sensitivity to close-in crowds moving forward for years to come, because we've lived there for a year with those mitigations."

You will see more grab-and-go concessions, Bechtold said. "These sports facility spaces will become more open. And look for a cashless environment, where there are no lines, no checkout, no interaction. Staffing will be down for the venue, but then you'll have freedom of choice to be able to come and go as you please as a spectator, and be able to pick and choose what you want without having to worry about 'do I have time to get back to my seat at halftime because I am standing in a line with 300 other people?' …All these things are changing and starting to evolve."

The main driver for spectators and athletes during the new normal will be wellness, Bechtold said. It's important at the collegiate level, club sport and high school level in 2021, 2022 and beyond. "You are seeing things implemented in these buildings that allow much more freedom, much more opportunity for having space. But also, you can't lose the camaraderie—you can't lose that within the walls of the buildings."

Take whatever you can that is positive from the pandemic, suggested Jonsson. "Talk to the users of the facility. We need to be sensitive to user experience."

Listen to the experience of your end users—spectators, athletes and staff—and use their guidance to inform your decisions about your facility going forward. RM