Feature Article - May 2019
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Engage Your Fans & Players

New Innovations in Sports Facility Design

By Dave Ramont

Even the most dedicated football fans seemed to agree that the latest Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams was a snoozer. But if you attended the game, which was played at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, you may have had a completely different outlook.

Nate Appleman, director of HOK's Sports, Recreation and Entertainment practice, was there. "It was not a high-scoring, highly active, keep-your-interest kind of game, and what was amazing to me was it didn't feel that way at all in the building."

From all the feeds the halo video board was showing, to fan comfort and the ease of grabbing concessions, to just walking around and experiencing all the different amenities in the building, Appleman said it turned a lackluster game into a thrilling experience. "There are a lot of other things to experience that are highly technology-driven components of the building."

HOK is a global design firm, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium is one of their projects. The 71,000-seat stadium, which opened in August 2017, is home to the NFL's Atlanta Falcons and professional soccer's Atlanta United FC. And already they've hosted an array of other events, including the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four, the Major League Soccer Cup, the College Football Playoff National Championship game and major concerts.

The new stadium is said to be a benchmark for sports stadiums and fan experience. The semi-transparent retractable roof opens and closes like the aperture of a camera. The transparency creates a 16-story "window" that provides daylight and offers panoramic views of Atlanta's skyline. The high-definition 360-degree halo video board—the largest in any stadium, at nearly six stories high—gives fans in every seat an immersive, theater-in-the-round experience. There's an additional 100-foot 3-D video board and 2,000 TVs throughout the venue. There are many seating options with different vantage points and levels of service. Amenities include a technology lounge and a row of concession stands bookended by bars that stretches as long as the field itself. The stadium can be easily reconfigured to accommodate various events, and retractable seats and a motorized curtain system get soccer fans closer to the action. More than 4,000 miles of integrated fiber-optic cable support a technology-driven, interactive game-day experience.

Of course, not every minor league baseball park or Division 2 college basketball facility can match the experience of a Super Bowl-ready stadium, but these days sports venues at every level are hoping to attract fans with newer technologies and creature-comfort amenities.

CannonDesign is an integrated global design firm, and Eric Einhorn is vice president and leader of the firm's Washington, D.C.-based sports practice. He explained that these efforts are focused on keeping fans in the stadium for longer time periods. "If they're having a better experience overall, and they're able to keep in touch with their friends and other fans even if the game isn't the most exciting, they're more likely to stay within the stadium and that increases opportunities for revenue."

Einhorn said facilities are very focused on offering the highest speed Wi-Fi as it's becoming so critical for a positive fan experience. "There are numerous apps that empower fans to purchase and send tickets, check real-time fantasy sports scores and player stats, order food and much more. Stadiums with slower Wi-Fi inherently interrupt these processes for fans, diminishing their overall experience."

And when fans do leave their seats, they want to move quickly and stay connected to the game, so stadiums are pushing cashless payment and pre-ordering food to accelerate transactions. Similarly, apps can ensure that fans know the fastest route to the restroom and/or those with the shortest lines. "While technologies are accelerating these processes, teams are also equipping support spaces with leading-edge TV technology so fans don't miss any of the action," said Einhorn.

"Being able to take a picture and throw it up on Instagram or Twitter because there's great Wi-Fi in the building—those kinds of things are highly critical to today's fan, so that's all really important to the game-day experience and getting people to come to these venues," said Appleman. "It's really the spectacle of it—something you can't get in your living room."

Lisa Roy is vice president of commercial sales, Building Solutions North America at Johnson Controls, who strive to create intelligent and sustainable buildings. She agrees that fans are looking to navigate venues as efficiently as possible. "Many arenas are focused on installing or upgrading technology to allow fans to access live data streaming on-demand, check wait times of concession lines on their phone or order a hot dog right to their seat so they don't have to miss any big plays."

Roy mentioned Fiserv Forum—home of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks—as an example of a venue implementing technology to enhance fan experience. "The arena is equipped with exceptional internet speed and capacity; an immersive viewing experience with over 840 high-definition IPTVs that deliver live feeds, analytics, promotions, advertisements, entertainment and communications; integrated and multi-layered security; and a smart HVAC system that automatically adjusts to provide fans a comfortable in-arena temperature. A building automation system connects these technologies so that they can 'speak' and work in tandem with one another."

And how are technologies assisting with security and fire protection? "Cutting-edge technologies include anti-drone technologies, incident management platforms, social media monitoring and crowd control detection. And of course access control, video surveillance and fire alarm detection remain central to a well-developed security and life-safety strategy within venues," said Roy.

She explained how connecting those technologies with other building and security systems can help venue operators better plan their overall security strategy. "It can also provide detailed information about critical alarms and game-day systems to ensure an optimal and safe fan experience." Roy added that these technologies can also provide vital information to first responders if needed.