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.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Event Center officially opened on Feb. 3, 2018, as the UMBC men's basketball team hosted Vermont before a capacity crowd. The new facility—a CannonDesign project—is home to the UMBC Retrievers men's and women's basketball teams and women's volleyball team. The venue is designed as one of the premier mid-major NCAA Division 1 facilities in the country. The center has seating capacity for 5,000 in its stadium bowl and an additional 1,000 on the floor, and is also used for commencement, concerts and public speaker events, and is equipped with concessions, catering, hospitality, team store, administrative and coaches offices and security and guest services amenities. Situated on the third floor, the Retriever Room is a 2,100-square-foot multifunctional space serving as a VIP area for games, providing great views of events held at the stadium. It's also available to rent for banquets, meetings and other events.
"It feels like we've arrived for college basketball and volleyball," said Thomas Mandato, associate athletic director, internal operations at UMBC. "The building by far surpasses all expectations and is top of the line in the America East Conference."
Mandato said that the old Retriever Activities Center (RAC) was beat up and worn down, and the new Center gives credibility to UMBC and the events taking place. "Sight lines are great, it's intimate and the acoustics are very good."
Mandato added that at last season's final two home games, attendance was close to 2,500. "If we saw more than 1,000 in the RAC, it was a solid figure."
Technology has been upgraded at the new venue as well, according to Mandato. "It's a true arena with ribbon/video boards, lighting and sound. The video board alone is fantastic for both fans and players. The teams really appreciate all the board can provide, from marketing to general info, stats, awards, etc. The possibilities for interconnectivity are great." He added that the TVs in support areas are also being utilized well, and those areas have been upgraded with more room, better finishes and better amenities.
Einhorn said that designing multipurpose spaces helps maximize their long-term return on investment and value. And while they designed the UMBC Event Center mainly for sporting events, they equipped the building to host other events as well. "As a result, UMBC has a remarkably versatile building that will benefit their campus and community for decades. Moreover, it helps them engage diverse members of their community and alumni network continuously."
As with many facilities these days, an outside company now manages the Event Center.
"Our Notre Dame project is really unique in that they folded together student life, academics, athletics and premium seating into one project," said Appleman. "They created so many spaces and opportunities within the building for hospitality or conferences that they actually created their own management company called Venue Notre Dame that manages the facility. So they're constantly hosting events within that building—small, medium and large ones."
For example, Appleman mentioned a recent Garth Brooks concert there, or the annual viewing of the movie Rudy from the field. "So there's all these different events that schools are tapping into that are unique to the culture of the school itself that are for the fans, but also beyond that to bigger events that can host anybody that's interested."
What are some ways that facility designs are benefiting athletes, both on and off the field or court?
Einhorn points out that the same desire fans have for technology and connectivity is shared by players. "We're now seeing locker rooms designed with individual iPads or monitors in each locker. This appeals to athletes and also empowers coaching staff to push out training plans and other key information to keep student-athletes on track."
Roy explained how venues are implementing technologies that focus on athlete comfort. "For instance, smart HVAC systems keep players' lockers ventilated as well as help keep an optimal temperature in the arena, which can impact player performance."
She mentioned how varying levels of restricted access are imposed for players, storage, medical and public areas. "For NBA players and certain members of the Milwaukee Bucks staff, for example, biometric iris recognition and fingerprint scanners grant access to defined locations."
At UMBC, Mandato said the new locker rooms are bigger, modern and in excellent condition. "The practice court is a game-changer for us. The ability for one team to be in the main bowl and one team to be in the practice gym simultaneously gives us a huge advantage when it comes to scheduling."
Appleman discussed the difficulties student-athletes face in terms of balancing time commitments with athletics and academics. "So anything we can do as design professionals that makes their day easier, more efficient and more convenient only benefits the collegiate experience those kids have. It's about teaching kids, and about getting them stronger and faster and if they get injured rehabilitating them. Coaches and administrators spend a lot of hours there too, and they need to have a building that promotes wellness for them in their lives. So that all folds into the flow of the facility."
Having a modern facility is also a great asset when it comes to attracting prospective athletes, and Appleman said that presenting a top-notch, one-of-a-kind venue to a 17-year old can make a very compelling recruiting tool, particularly if the student is already interested in the school. "They know they want to be there and the building reinforces that."
Mandato feels their new Event Center will definitely help recruit athletes. "It's the best building in the conference with respect to being on campus and with all of the amenities offered inside. I believe this gives us a true advantage in volleyball and basketball."
How might designs or technologies benefit venue staff?
Wi-Fi, sensors, Bluetooth and mobile apps can help venues gather crowd-sourced data for real-time insights to track concession stand inventory, crowd flow, foot traffic and restroom cleanliness, according to Roy, enabling staff to fix problems quickly before fan experience is impacted. "Real-time data solutions can monitor the flow of people in and out of specific areas including parking lots, concession stands and venue entrances and exits, as well as the cleanliness of seating areas."
She said these insights can make a big difference during events by allowing staff to address areas in a timely manner. "Even more, this information can be used to make more informed decisions for the future."
Einhorn agrees that collecting purchasing data can help on different levels, whether it's tracking concession stand inventory or sending coupons to fans for purchases they're most likely to make, encouraging them to upgrade or purchase more. "Both of these opportunities help enhance fan experience and maximize revenue for the facility owner."
When it comes to seating, Einhorn said the old model was to locate suites up higher to maximize sight lines and give the feeling of exclusivity, but now they're seeing more luxury seats shifted lower as fans want to be closer to the action and feel more a part of the crowd. Clients also want more flexible suite spaces. "You can leverage these as individual spaces, or combine two or three of them at once to hold larger groups. This allows them to sell the spaces in different ways for different events and adapt to revenue opportunities."
Another trend Einhorn is seeing is better utilizing TVs and screens in club and suite areas. "Owners and teams can now customize advertisements for the specific audiences in each club and/or suite. This allows them to sell all new types and levels of advertising packages."
Sustainability continues to be a driver in facility designs, with many venues striving to achieve some level of LEED status. Mercedes-Benz Stadium is North America's first LEED Platinum professional sports stadium.
A 600,000-square-foot cistern helps recapture and reuse rainwater, helping protect the neighborhood from flooding and providing water to irrigate trees throughout the city, and the site uses more than 4,000 solar panels.
Adopting technologies that reduce energy use and eliminate waste can save money long-term, according to Roy. "When making upgrades to an arena, organizations should ensure there is a network infrastructure in place to accommodate future technologies to further maximize fan experience and building performance."
In fact, many older stadiums are renovating and updating—not just seating or support areas but building systems and technologies too. Roy mentioned Quicken Loans Arena—home of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers—as an example of a venue retrofitting to stay up-to-date with current technology. "This includes implementing smart, connected and sustainable building solutions and technologies, such as HVAC equipment and fire systems."
When it comes to lighting, Roy said many venues are turning to connected lighting systems, which provide value beyond illumination. "Connecting lighting with other building systems and digital assets allows for interaction between the systems to help improve operations."
According to Einhorn, most modern facilities are relying on LED lights as they're much more efficient and can be powered up in a short time. "These give them new levels of flexibility to change the atmosphere for different events or times of day. This has tremendous impact on fan experience as facility operators now have the ability to completely darken the venue and then bring it back to the required illumination for play instantaneously."
With so many entities having a stake in sports facilities both big and small, do design firms engage potential audiences in the planning stages?
Einhorn said definitely, and in more varied ways. "For example, as we designed the University of Southern Indiana's new 4,300-seat arena, we used virtual reality to help athletes, coaches, fans and donors experience the building. They were able to share feedback, ask questions and even shoot virtual free throws. Leveraging this technology enhances communication and strengthens the design process."
Designers have a lot of people to please and factors to consider—safety, support, sustainability, connectivity, efficiency and entertainment. But when it all comes together, everybody is happy. Back at the Super Bowl, Appleman recounted what a great experience it was to see everything working in tandem. "For me, that was sort of a first person 'Hey! That's exactly how this is supposed to work!'"
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