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.
A Stadium With a View
Many feel that UW's Husky Stadium sits in the most beautiful setting in college football. Built in 1920 on the shores of Lake Washington, it features stunning views of the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. Fans can even arrive by boat—up to 140 boats can dock less than 100 yards from the stadium. But the stadium was suffering from age, with cracked concrete and exposed rebar.
HOK worked on the renovation project, with Bechtold and Appleman explaining that, "The narrative for Husky Stadium was that you had an aging building that was an iconic building, and we needed to preserve that iconic nature of it while also ushering it into the modern era."
They also needed to figure out a way to infuse much-needed premium seating. "So it was as much a revenue project as it was a deferred maintenance project in a lot of respects."
The first step was removing the worn-out track that surrounded the field. "Fans are definitely closer to the action," said Daniel Erickson, assistant athletic director of events and facilities at the university. "Fans in the front row are now 29 feet closer to the field. Fifty-six thousand of our 71,000 seats are new, and 65,000 have a back-support feature. The floor treads in non-premium areas are 32 inches, giving excellent leg room."
Premium seating includes six suites and 60 club seats on the field level, and 30 suites, 2,500 club seats and 30 loge boxes on a dedicated club level. Bechtold and Appleman related how premium offerings used to be pretty simplistic; you had club seats and suites, and the rest of the seating was mostly the same. Or you paid a little more to be on the 50-yard line or at mid-court.
But now, for example, somebody who couldn't necessarily afford a suite could kick in to be part of a loge box. "Now there's an emphasis on the donor base, and understanding the types of products that really reach the majority of that donor base from top to bottom; distributing a premium experience almost entirely across the patronage to some degree."
Erickson confirmed this, adding, "Our premium seating offerings have been extremely popular, selling out well in advance of the 2013 stadium re-opening and generating a substantial waiting list, particularly for Club Husky."
The building's iconic metal roofs were preserved, as were the upper-deck bleachers—though they were rejuvenated with new paint and new speakers. Lobby space and restrooms have been upgraded, and Husky Stadium now boasts 447 bathrooms, including suites. High-resolution video boards have been installed, and there are more than 700 flat-screen televisions in the stadium, including 42-inch TVs in the concourses and 55-inch TVs in the luxury suites. "We've invested in Wi-Fi enhancements," Erickson said, "and continue to explore ways to increase the technological innovations within and around the stadium."
Erickson also said that concessions and souvenir sales are steady revenue-generators, and they've certainly evolved through the years. Fatovic explained that people are looking for more of a restaurant vibe, wanting to see their food being prepared, with the grills up front. "They don't want it pre-packaged, and they want more choices. Menu boards are mostly electronic, so they can easily change menus or pricing for an event. People want the game on a TV by the concession stand, and when you go into hospitality areas, they want coffee stations and different specialty foods. Food service is becoming a big deal in venues." Fatovic added that jerseys and other souvenirs are also becoming higher quality.
Bechtold and Appleman said that a lot more thought is given to what the local brands are, since that's tied in to the whole game day experience of visiting that particular university or city. "Concourses aren't concourses in the same vein anymore. It's got a lot of different feels and a much more upscale approach, so it's heightening the fan game-day experience beyond what it used to be. You can still get your hotdog and popcorn, but you have a lot of other varieties to choose from in a modern facility."
Another thing facilities strive for is flexibility—creating multiple uses for their venue. Features like retractable seating and portable floors can help achieve this goal. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Retriever Event Center is a CannonDesign project, slated to open early next year. The 172,000-square-foot facility will host UMBC NCAA games for men's and women's basketball, and women's volleyball. It will also provide space for events such as concerts, banquets, speakers' series and commencement. There are 5,000 seats in the bowl and around 1,000 on the floor, with spectator amenities including concessions, catering and hospitality. "UMBC Arena is more than an arena; it's the athletic department, sports medicine, academic services, strength and conditioning. The multipurpose nature of the venue is important for student life," Fatovic said.
Event days are important to many facilities now, according to Bechtold and Appleman—how many and what type of events a facility can accommodate—since these event days equal revenue. "So that's something that is often asked of us now: How can we build in flexibility and utilize the space in multiple manners?"
They point to their Notre Dame Campus Crossroads project as an example, which featured enhancements to Notre Dame Stadium, including adding video and ribbon boards; replacing wooden benches with vinyl-clad bench seats; improving the Wi-Fi network and existing sound system; and renovating restrooms, concessions, lighting and signage. "The student ballroom is also the club space for the premium seating, so that space has a life outside the seven home football games."
Back in Seattle, Erickson said Husky Stadium and its premium areas are available to rent. "We host numerous private events such as auctions, luncheons and galas. We also annually host UW commencement, Beat the Bridge (an annual road race), a four-game high school football jamboree, and a company picnic for a local tech company, to name a few. The new stadium has given us tremendous resources, and we're committed to making them available to the public."
Additionally, part of the renovation included a new Football Operations Center with locker rooms, meeting rooms, training rooms, and coaching and administrative offices. Plus, a retail component and the University of Washington Sports Medicine Center are open to the public, promoting year-round activity within the stadium.
Staying Safe & Other Challenges
And what about safety and security concerns—are these areas getting more attention lately? Bechtold and Appleman said absolutely—that it's critical to understand Homeland Security recommendations for these bigger assembly spaces.
"So being mindful of how you treat these buildings in terms of secure perimeter, service and vehicular access, etc. And then from a design standpoint, the physical things that you build in that help to create the areas for screening in a timely fashion. So how do you provide safety while still providing a pleasing game day experience?"
They explained how training facilities are even exercising tighter security measures these days, mentioning the Clemson facility as an example—especially now that the Championship trophy sits in the lobby.
"Even that building has high security to the extent that they've got biometric screening where you've got to have your thumbprint to get in the door at all times, or you have to be accompanied by someone who's in that database."
Fatovic pointed out that the extensive placement of security cameras and facial recognition technology can be a tool later for any charges or prosecution, while Erickson said that daily security at Husky Stadium is much improved. "As part of the renovation, card readers were added to specific points of entry and within the Football Operations Center."
Sustainability issues are also a major priority, with many colleges committed to incorporating sustainable mechanical systems, materials and practices within their institutions. "It's really always a baseline anymore; it's something where the clients really want to hit that certain level of sustainability, whether it be LEED Silver, Gold or Platinum. It's more about responsible design for us," Bechtold and Appleman said, pointing out that there are huge challenges associated with accommodating 60,000 to 100,000 people. "So, how do you provide those environments that are going to sustain that type of event not only on game day but outside of that, become something that can return and give back to the community in some capacity?"
The LEED Silver-certified Husky Stadium also received Salmon Safe Certification through the Pacific Rivers Council, recognizing UW for its transformative land management practices, including pollution capture, storm water capture, reducing construction pollution, and maintaining a green infrastructure buffer. The upgraded stadium boasts a 40 percent reduction in water consumption, and the new design links the stadium with the new Sound Transit light-rail station—a popular transit service for Husky fans.
Storage is another big component in venues now, according to Bechtold and Appleman. They explained that student-athletes now have way more gear than in the past, especially with sponsorships, often using multiple pairs of shoes, gloves, uniforms and helmets. "The high-density rolling storage has really been huge, so they're not just having rooms with shelves packed in them."
Fatovic added that teams are also travelling with a lot more gear these days—for instance, the sports-medicine guy might travel with several crates—and that all needs to be stored somewhere.
Another constant challenge is parking and traffic flow, entering and exiting an event. "Those are all things that people are paying close attention to in the site planning and site design of these facilities—making that first experience and that last one as good as they can be. That's been one of the biggest challenges in our industry over the last several years is getting people to that event. If someone has a bad experience, they likely aren't going to travel out and continue to take that on," Bechtold and Appleman said.
Moving forward, Fatovic believes facilities should cater to an older demographic as alumni age, pointing out that they don't want to climb a lot of stairs, with some using walkers or scooters. Seats are becoming wider and more comfortable, and wheelchair areas are common. But they also need to consider the younger population, who demand the newest technologies and innovations, since they will hopefully be the future season-ticket holders.
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