Smart Start

What You Need to Know About Indoor Sports Design

By Kelli Anderson

When the going gets tough, the tough get going—especially when your name is George Derderian. Derderian, the general contractor and owner of North America's largest indoor soccer arena, was determined to keep his promise to open his 267,000-square-foot steel-framed facility on time despite setbacks that interfered with his construction schedule.

Eighty-eight days after breaking ground, the Ultimate Soccer Arenas Complex in Pontiac, Mich., was complete, amazing the design world with its innovation, its vast, unobstructed 72-foot-high interior, its quality and its jaw-dropping construction schedule. "Can't" is apparently not in Derderian's vocabulary, and neither is "compromise"—even in today's tough economy.

"In Michigan it's the worst of all economies," Derderian admitted, "but it has not impacted us because we built the finest facility, and it's exceptional enough that people want to be here over and above any other sports facility. No question."

What newer projects like the Ultimate Soccer Arenas Complex demonstrate is that tough economic times simply challenge us to think smarter. With a cash-strapped public more determined than ever to make their recreational dollars count, indoor sports facilities must offer a quality experience from start to finish. It's all in the details.

Nothing But Net

When coaches Ron Esser and his business partner Scott Chitwood decided to provide the community of Charlotte, N.C., with a better venue for indoor basketball and volleyball, they wanted to do it right.

"Scott flew to 11 different cities and did research, so we were able to take the best of the best and put it on paper," Esser said. "The quality of the building was vital to us and we wanted the total experience to be a 'wow.'"

With the Pepsi Center in Denver serving as a particular inspiration, they concluded that every decision in the design would need to address clear goals: a large space to comfortably house five basketball and 10 volleyball courts, safety, cleanliness and fun for the kids and their families who would be regular users of the space.

The result of their research and planning effort is Carolina Courts, a 44,000-square-foot facility with Olympic-quality playing surfaces and parent-friendly amenities that opened in January of this year. With tournament schedules and weekends already booked through mid-summer, the facility's booming business confirms a well-played design strategy.

Identifying your key user and making design choices with them in mind is crucial.

"One thing that we did very well is that we were very sports-specific with the ability to create other programs, but we didn't sacrifice the hockey experience," said Jody Hodgson, general manager of the world-class Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, North Dakota. "Many try to be a jack-of-all-trades and become a master of none."

Such a sports-specific focus allows the hockey arena, affectionately dubbed "The Ralph," to offer high quality to both players and their fans while still making room for other programming, including various big-attraction concerts and ice shows.

From its granite and brass-inlayed concourse floors to its padded leather and cherry wood seats, The Ralph was designed for the fan experience. "The fan experience is everything," Hodgson explained about the facility's enduring success since its opening in 2001. "The choices with video board fascia ribbons, the lighting and audio systems—those keep bringing people back."

Hodgson was quick to credit the vision of the arena's design and emphasis on high quality to its namesake, Ralph Engelstad, who had the foresight, among other things, to create a large number of luxury suites.

"Many told Ralph he wouldn't sell as many or get that amount of money for the suites, but he proved it to be possible," Hodgson said about Engelstad's commitment to the quality experience. "There's inventory for every market segment, some more cost-effective than others. It works for everybody."

And while having a clear vision and being sport-specific is important, sport facility design—particularly at many college campuses—is increasingly geared for an all-in-one location to meet many needs beyond the athletic.

"The significant trend is that on campus the athletic center has become the focus of social life," said David Body, sports principle with Cannon Design in Los Angeles. "Instead of only exercise areas, there is social space—lounges, meeting rooms and wellness centers."

Schools like Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., have taken this concept a step further to what Body calls a "fusion" design. "A lot of smaller and medium-sized campuses are building for synergy. Nova has a recreation building with a collegiate arena, athletic arena, food service, a theater/dance area and a student union," Body explained about the award-winning facility. "The arena and recreation center's basketball courts get day-to-day use, but when there's an event or tournament they seal it off without impacting the other components." For Nova, the decision to put so many student attractions in one facility was intended to attract and to grow the undergraduate population.

Cover Up

No matter what type of floor your facility uses—and what kind of sport is played on it—if you want to extend the life of the floor, you'll want to cover it up when you're using your gym for functions other than athletic events—such as concerts, graduations, dances and so on. Having such a cover not only reduces the maintenance your floor needs, but also extends your programming ability at your facility.

When selecting a cover for your gym floor, you need to consider the kinds of events you'll be hosting, and how often they'll be taking place—as well as your budget. For example, there's a big difference between a once-a-year graduation event and a once-monthly dance. The more use your cover will get, the more you'll want to consider factors like how long it will withstand abuse and possibly a warranty.

Covers can be found in a multitude of colors, so you can either boost school spirit by matching your school's colors, or you can provide a refined look by more closely matching the color of your sports flooring.

History 101

Taking a cue from a trend started by the Division I schools, sports facilities are also getting in touch with their past.

"We are seeing a lot more branding and themes with historic elements within interior design," said Erik Kocher, AIA, a principal with Hastings and Chivetta in St. Louis. "For professional teams and Division I's, we've seen designing with historical elements for quite a while, but now we're seeing it at all levels to market and brand."

In addition to using a sports team's colors for the interior color palette, sports facilities are dusting off their old photos and resurrecting memorabilia to incorporate more meaningful touches into their interior spaces. "You can do a lot with paint, emblems and signage without making it expensive," Kocher said. "At Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, they saved an old floor with its original emblem and put it in their hall of fame." Reduce, reuse, recycle—what's not to love?

At Center College in Kentucky, student athletic achievements and sporting highlights from a bygone era are forgotten no more. Oversized photos from the school's past athletic events add drama and a sense of connection in a main concourse. According to Kocher, these attention-grabbing photos continue to elicit positive comments and have made a strong, visual statement.

Stay Tuned!

Want to know more about selecting the right surface for your sports courts, fitness facility or other indoor sports and recreation center purposes? What about smart maintenance solutions?

Stay tuned for our September issue when we'll report on the ins and outs of selecting sports surfaces for indoor and outdoor use, fitness facilities, as well as playgrounds.

Select Comfort

Sure to elicit the most positive feedback from any recreational user, however, is just plain comfort. At Carolina Courts, Esser and Chitwood decided before the designing pen went to paper that a roomy (read: comfortable) layout for their courts and plenty of amenities for parents, takes center court.

"A lot of it is in the little things like the spacing between courts," Esser explained. "In a facility in North Carolina where we've coached, the courts are just stacked up on each other. The benches barely fit between courts. It's not well thought out."

Designing their multiple courts with 20 feet between ends and alternating their court's ends to width, the players, coaches and viewers have room to spare.

Comfort has been an essential factor of the Ultimate Soccer Arena Complex's design equation as well. From sitting in uber-ergonomic Izzy chairs to the quality and temperature of the air, Derderian identifies comfort as the public's favorite feature of the facility.

"Having a state-of-the-art heating and cooling system for comfortable, clean-smelling air is number one," Derderian said. "People love the consistency. It's warm, the air is clean, we have clean bathrooms—it's comfortable. People comment on it all the time."

Of course the arena's success also may have something to do with the many comforts to be found in its parent-friendly amenities. Offering more than athletics is nothing new for many sports facilities, to be sure. Gone are the days when a juice bar or vending machine is enough to score winning points. From great dining to lounges, arcades, upscale coffee shops and full-service bars, there's a lot more going on these days than just sports.

Be Flexible

Having to do so much more than just design for athletics becomes a particular challenge at a time when facility managers in a tightening economy are asked to do even more with less. Enter the continuing trend of multipurpose design.

With recreational spaces increasingly having to multitask to save money and space, one design solution is portable equipment. Reported sales of portable sports equipment are on the rise from basketball hoops and netting to seating and scoreboards. If it's moveable and durable, it's finding its way into multitasking spaces.

In addition to equipping facilities with multipurpose elements, facilities also need to build with an eye for the future.

"We are seeing interiors be as adaptable and flexible as possible so materials have to be adaptable too," said Mike Pratl, AIA, director of Jacobs Facilities in St. Louis. "For example, a space that may not turn out to be well used—like a youth recreation space—will often need a whole new reconfiguration."

For the hard-to-persuade, Pratl recommends touring other facilities to see how they started and how they have ended up in an effort to help clients understand how much programming spaces might change over time.

"The thing we stress is event management," Kocher said about helping clients understand the need to think outside the batter's box. "We try to sit them down and say, 'Yeah, this looks great but how are you going to run this special event—or 10 other potential ones?' We do our best to understand how the space is going to be used for all functions and to determine what you have to do to change that design."

Giving a high-profile example, Kocher said that when Michelle Obama recently came to speak at one sports facility during the presidential campaign, it changed the whole set of rules at the sports venue. Like Pratl, he recommends visiting other facilities and asking events staff how functions have changed to help anticipate needs from lighting to storage and technology.

"These facilities are not used just for sports anymore," Kocher concluded. "Even a soccer facility that says, 'We're never going to hold a dance or a concert' may have the next set of directors do just that."

One way to accommodate those changes is changing the way we think about interior construction. Pratl recommends a solution that is both affordable and aesthetic. By designing interiors with a lighter drywall and steel frame, walls can be changed out to suit a facility's ever-evolving functions. The best news is that the cost for the more pleasing finish is the same as the old sports-facility standard—concrete block.

Niche Sports on the Rise
But Traditional Sports Still Strong

When considering how to outfit your facility, it's important to recognize that while traditional team sports—basketball, baseball and soccer—still attract the most team sports participants, niche sports are showing strong growth patterns. So says the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association's annual participation study on team sports for 2008.

According to SGMA, activities like lacrosse, paintball and cheerleading have been showing significant growth since 2000. Other niche sports that have seen respectable gains in participation include ultimate Frisbee, rugby, field hockey and all forms of volleyball.

SGMA also reported on another continuing trend in team sports: Participation in sanctioned or supervised leagues is strong, while there has been a decline in the number of people playing casual or pickup games.

Here are some other nuggets of information from the report:

  • Basketball, the most popular team sport, also can brag that more than half of those playing it are considered frequent participants. In other words, they play 25 times or more a year.
  • 73 percent of court volleyball players age 17 or younger are girls.
  • Slow-pitch softball has just about as many 18- to 34-year-olds playing (3.4 million) as players over the age of 35 (3.61 million).
  • Since the 2000-2001 school year, there have been more women soccer players at the collegiate level than men.
  • Two-thirds of indoor soccer players also play soccer outside.
  • There has been a 14 percent increase in participation in varsity high school baseball since 1990-91.
  • Nearly half of all field hockey participants play it at school.
  • Participation in lacrosse at the high school varsity level has risen more than 370 percent since 1990.
  • Rugby is one of the most popular athletic club sports on U.S. college campuses, and is seeing rapid growth at the high school level.
  • Track and field is the second-most popular sport for girls in high school and college, after soccer.

Learn more at

Simply Floored

Perhaps no area of design can make or break the functional success of a sports facility like the choice of flooring. At the heart of a facility, athletic surfaces must be playable, durable, safe and maintainable. It's a tall order no matter how you look at it.

For Carolina Courts, aware that they would host tournaments as well as provide a general learning environment for youth groups, having a durable but professional surface ideal for both basketball and volleyball was a must. After considerable research, the sports flooring product they selected was one they had coached and played on at other facilities and one used in the 2007 Olympic volleyball courts. Reputation and personal experience won the day.

Safety is another prime consideration when it comes to selecting flooring—especially for areas where water is a key factor in the decision process. "For locker rooms and bathrooms I recommend resinous flooring," Pratl said, touting its anti-microbial benefits. "One facility in Columbia, Mo., loved it so much they even put in on the walls in one seamless surface."

However, Pratl concedes that while ceramic tile floors are very aesthetic, they can be less safe and require more upkeep. Unless treated with epoxy, ceramic is slippery when wet and their surfaces must be regularly disinfected. Maintenance, he said, can be a greater problem as well, citing the example that street shoes are often worn through shower areas, making the floors more difficult to clean and requiring regular protective sealing treatments to resist stains.

Sometimes, however, a recreation space will play host to so many uses that a universally friendly flooring product rather than a sports-specific one is a must.

"Selection involves the operator and how they're going to market the facility," Pratl advised. "It comes down to the anticipated users and what they're going to need. What is the purpose of the sports flooring? Will there be spinning bikes and aerobics? Or do you need to be more specific? I've seen wood floors ruined by cleats."

Take the LEED

By now green design and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification may be old news, but ongoing innovative designs in those areas are anything but. Whether the motivation is to save the planet or simply to save money, concepts promoting sustainable design, green ideas or LEED-certification bragging rights are just plain smart.

And smart is certainly one word to use about the innovative heating system of a recently opened enormous hockey, basketball and volleyball sports complex in Fargo, N.D., the Urban Plains Center and Tournament Facility. "This has a geothermal system to recover the waste heat from the ice compressors," said Mike Kuntz, principal designer and founding partner of ICON Architectural Group on the project. "It's stored in the ground in 200-foot-deep wells and in winter months we pull that heat back out so the whole building is heated for free."

Another significant money-saving design element includes dual-flush toilets and waterless urinals with a projected savings of 1 million gallons of water annually. When all phases of the project are complete, the facility hopes to get a minimum LEED silver certification.

"For years there has been a total disregard for energy savings, and now everybody is trying to undo it. It's number one." Kuntz said. "I think the selection of the right building systems makes a huge difference."

While it is true that many of the most energy-efficient mechanical and electrical systems have a higher upfront cost, Kuntz cautions against discounting those systems without taking the operational cost and long-term cost savings into account. "We have one of the most cost-effective arenas around," Kuntz said. "It can be done if the designer leads and investigates."

Pedal to the Metal

With 72-foot-high ceilings, keeping down heating and cooling costs was particularly important to The Ultimate Soccer Arenas Complex. Their solution was twofold: R30 insulation and a fiber-reinforced aluminum backed roof liner that has already produced better results than they expected.

But probably the most impressive design aspect of the complex was its 88-day construction process. Derderian knew he wanted a massive clearspan design but wanted a building with more permanence than an inflatable facility. The solution to both his clearspan needs and his record-breaking construction schedule was pre-engineered metal.

The resulting structure was made possible through a team effort. Built by Michigan-based Wolverine Steel Erectors Inc., the pre-engineered materials were delivered on site, ready to be assembled with precision accuracy. According to Derderian, from start to finish, materials were delivered early or on time, it was well staged, every color was spot on and nothing was missing.

It just so happens that the steel company also met another of Derderian's criteria—it was local. "It's all U.S. steel made in Wisconsin. A criteria was everything had to be made here with U.S. products," Derderian stated matter-of-factly. "It was a principled decision."

Metal construction was also a design solution for the Urban Plains Center's very tight budget. The resulting cost savings was also a success thanks to the team approach that ultimately saved them even more. Kuntz estimates that the $25 million project would have cost between $40 and $100 million if not for ICON being both the developer for the project as well as the architect and builder. Having the final say in materials and design is what he attributes to successfully keeping costs down.

Sensory Experience

Controlling costs while maintaining a comfortable environment for the end user is always a tricky part of the design game. From lighting to temperatures to sight, sound and smell, the overall sensory experience can determine whether someone comes back for more.

Even a modest project on a tight budget can get a "wow" if high-end materials, however few, are staged up-front and center or strategically placed where clients will be most apt to see and touch them. A little goes a long way.

"The things people see and touch are important—it creates their perspective about a facility. Even on a shoestring-budget remodel we funneled exterior dollars and put them into upgraded, durable, countertops and desks like a Starbucks," Pratl said. "The community saw the finishes as the improvement and felt the money was well spent. Finishes matter."

Visual impact also creates excitement and anticipation.

"We really wanted to set the facility apart, and it looks different than any other indoor soccer facility," said Chris Sowers, CEO of Facility Matrix Group, Ann Arbor, Mich., about his work with The Ultimate Soccer Arenas Complex. "Each area—the European coffee shop, the upscale restaurant and the upstairs bar—is different. We created a sense of ceiling with fabric and gave excitement to the space whether you're walking in or looking down from the mezzanine."

Color selection is critical too. For those facilities not wanting to appear dated within a few years or to foot the bill of constant repainting, select overall classic or neutral colors. Fashion colors—hues that come and go like models on the catwalk—are best left to smaller areas or as accents where they can be more affordably changed out as needed.

When it comes to sound, however, many designers and clients simply forget to plan. According to some in the acoustic industry, the biggest problem is that facilities don't include anything in their initial designs. This is particularly true of swimming pools, but also a common problem in gyms, multipurpose rooms and health clubs.

From spectators not being able to hear scores and rulings to players not being able to hear instructions from their coaches, bad acoustics make for a bad sporting experience. In the case of the Danvers YMCA in Danvers, Mass., the reverberation in the natatorium was so high it had become a safety hazard. Lifeguards could not be heard from 10 feet away and coaches could not communicate instructions to their students.

After an acoustic consulting firm evaluated the problem and acoustic panels were installed, however, lifeguards could easily communicate from one end of the pool to the other. Problem solved.

According to Pratl, design comes down to a balancing act between programming, budget and quality in which none of the three should be noticeably neglected. "In some facilities you'll see imbalance—sacrificing quality for programming space," Pratl said, adding his final thought: "Whatever is seen by the community needs to be seen as a success." Smart thinking.

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