Feature Article - May 2021
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Emerging Trends in Sports Facility Design

Basic Design Principles With a Post-Pandemic Twist

By Rick Dandes


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 Likewise, facilities that are outdated, poorly maintained or in disrepair can also be a source of shame," said Scott Klaus, principal with Stantec, an international design and engineering firm with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.