Feature Article - May 2017
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If You Build It…

Up-to-Date Sports Facilities Aim to Bring Back Crowds

By Dave Ramont

On the last night of August in 2013, Bishop Sankey of the Washington Huskies scored a touchdown on a one-yard run, eight minutes into the first quarter. They were the first points scored in the University of Washington's (UW) new Husky Stadium in Seattle, which was celebrating its opening night after a $280 million renovation. The Huskies would go on to rout high-ranked Boise State by 32 points that night. And the sold-out crowd of nearly 72,000 loved it—not just the decisive victory over an arch-rival, but the new stadium itself.

Attracting a Crowd

Institutions of all sizes have been experiencing a drop in live-game attendance in recent years, particularly among students. And yet, they're spending money in record amounts to renovate or build new competition and training facilities, willing to gamble that upgrading and enhancing the user experience will translate to more fans in the stands. And in many cases, it has. Some studies and surveys have suggested that these days, college fans desire a more sophisticated game day experience, whether that means simply upgrading restrooms and concession areas to adding more comfortable seats to installing better technology like Wi-Fi and cutting-edge video boards and sound systems.

Robert Fatovic, an architect with CannonDesign, explained that technology considerations are a big trend in sports facility design, and venues need to be equipped to handle the wireless connections. "When you go to a game, everybody has their smartphone out, and it's a big drain on the systems. A lot of schools are upgrading technologies."

Indeed, many fans are streaming videos, chatting with friends or even live-tweeting the game. There are even mobile apps to track the shortest lines at the restrooms or concession stands, or order food from your seat. "More or less now the smartphones are used for being social, for being connected while you're at an event. And the ability to wander around and meet your friends in the club area or wherever—there tends to be a lot more freedom," Fatovic said.

Of course, all of this wireless service requires a large amount of bandwidth. Retrofitting and installing IT pathways to existing structures can prove to be an expensive proposition. Therefore, from a design standpoint, it's wise for new facilities to anticipate future innovations and include ample conduit channels. Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., provides Wi-Fi at up to 30 times faster than most other facilities, which was achieved by using more than 30 feet of fiber optic cable for each of the stadium's 68,500 seats, adding up to more than 400 miles.

It is getting harder for many schools to get students out to sporting events, which Fatovic said is a bit of a new wrinkle. And while larger, Division One schools are always going to go bigger and better, some smaller schools are re-thinking their strategy. "The trend really is not to build more seats," he said. "It's better to have a smaller house that's filled and more rambunctious, than a large, empty house that feels dead."

Practice Makes Perfect

Another evolution in recent years is the building of separate, standalone training and practice facilities, with many of them becoming more sport-specific, especially for football, basketball and Olympic sports.

Some studies and surveys have suggested that these days, college fans desire a more sophisticated game day experience, whether that means simply upgrading restrooms and concession areas to adding more comfortable seats to installing better technology.

Trevor Bechtold, project designer, and Nate Appleman, director of Sports, Recreation, and Entertainment for HOK, explained how in the past, you might see many different programs training in the same facility simultaneously, all with heavy demands on training and recovery, using the facility 24/7. But you can't have, say, 120 guys from the football program in there at once and still support your other 10 or 15 Olympic sports sufficiently. "So that's where some of your bigger sports started to pull out and have those standalone facilities to support them," they said. "And that gave a little more relief to the rest of the sports to be able to utilize the existing facilities on campus that were once shared."

Fatovic agreed, saying there are a lot more practice-type facilities being developed so teams can practice without having to rely on an event schedule. "So their day-to-day operations aren't affected by their venue, whether it's a student program or a concert. Or if it's an ice hockey facility that needs to put a floor down, pick it up for a hockey match, and put it back down. It's hard to practice in those kinds of venues, so they really need their own dedicated practice facility."

In South Carolina, Clemson University's football program has been very successful lately—winning the National Championship last season. And now they've unveiled their new training facility, the Football Operations Complex. The HOK project features many amenities, including a barbershop, mini-golf course, movie theater, bowling alley and gaming lounge. There are basketball, volleyball and bocce ball courts, a laundry room, meeting rooms, a recruiting war room, and a dining facility. For training advantages, there's a plunge pool, weight room, steam room, recovery rooms, a nutrition center and Gatorade fuel bar.

Bechtold and Appleman said there's a big focus lately on creating a healthier student-athlete all round, and the facility has things you didn't see in the past, like the nap room. "The focus is creating that rested athlete to where they can have a better baseline to start at and there's not as much recovery. There's more 'pre-covery' you might say, getting proper sleep, diet and nutrition." And it's not just training and recovery, but everything from motion capture to biomechanical and neuromuscular assessments.

Fatovic agreed, saying that monitoring the body's performance is a big trend, through the use of impact breathing resistance, heart-rate monitors, and other high-technology methods.