A rendering of BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. (Courtesy of Populous)

Facing limited budgets and fewer projects, architects are out to impress sporting fans with stadium improvements and builds that take advantage of the latest technology, while capitalizing on America’s obsession with social media. Although there continue to be fewer collegiate stadium projects due to the difficulty of state and public institutions raising the necessary funding, there are still a number of new venues being built and others undergoing renovations.

 In 2012, Venues Today is reporting 26 projects under construction, worth a combined $3.6 billion. In 2011, our research turned up 30 stadium projects worth $5.3 billion.

 “Across the board, colleges and pro sports are riding the wave,” said Chris Lamberth, principal at 360 Architects. “This segment is being very cautious with financing. As a result, there are not as many opportunities as we’ve seen in the last three to five years. Everyone is being more selective.”

 Today, it’s rarer for a Division I school to build a new stadium, since most are either landlocked or lack the finances to support it.

 Like many U.S. firms, 360 Architects has increasingly explored overseas opportunities, finding prospects in the Middle East in the last four years.

Much of the activity also comes from the large inventory of professional venues built in the last 10 to 15 years that are in need of renovations and updates.

“When the NFL was facing a lockout before the start of last season, some of the teams were talking about options, stadium plans and innovations,” Lamberth said. “We started to see an uptick of existing football teams, in particular, exploring master plans for future renovations.”

In the last seven years, Major League Soccer has been outpacing other major league sports in terms of opening new venues.

360 Architects has its stadium designs in place for the San Jose (Calif.) Soccer Stadium, home of the Earthquakes, and Populous expects to complete the BBVA Compass Stadium, newly-named home of the Houston Dynamos, this year.

“These clients want stadiums that are purpose-built for soccer, which comprise about 25,000 seats, depending on the market,” Lamberth said. “They want venues that sell their product, and cavernous stadiums don’t do it. But they also seek to bring in other revenue-generating events, such as concerts and [American-style] football games.”

ROI and Branded Sponsorship Help Recoup Renovation Costs 

The focus on return on investment (ROI) continues, as stadium designs include features intended to boost the bottom line.

Brand activation is another hot topic in today’s new and renovated stadiums. Instead of utilizing applied signage or fixed signs, designers are creating experiences using branding.

“For example, the Louisville Arena is incorporating local whiskey into its lounges with the reclamation of distillery barrels that the alcohol was aged in,” said Greg Sherlock, Populous designer. “The barrels then become a part of the décor, with the whiskey name prominently displayed on the outside. It’s more of an experience than just a sign. It’s a way to exploit brands and find suitable applications within facilities.”

Rossetti Architects creates Return on Design (ROD) evaluations early on in its projects, which is geared to identify revenue-generating features, such as special seating sections, social zones and branded entries.

“We look at the potential revenue and compare that to the cost of the build, then decide whether to add it based on the payoff for the investment,” said Jim Renne, principal at Rossetti. “This helps the owner understand that the design matters and can translate to revenue.”

Amenities are still an important aspect of stadium rebuilds and renovations. Designs are incorporating a variety of price points and types of eating areas to increase the average spend.

The advent of more social spaces has cut through all sports at different levels, as more teams and owners seek to enhancefan experiences.

“For the last three years, maintaining fan bases and attendance has been the focus,” said Renne. “Teams do not want to lose the fan dollar.”

Unlike in the past, the shift has been to focus on typical fan bases, as opposed to high-income fans. Younger audiences coming up through the ranks have different expectations and interact on an entirely different level due to social media.

“[In our stadium construction and renovation projects], we’re spending time looking at keeping these fans engagedalmost in a social way, creating social interaction zones similar to a chat room on the Internet,” Renne said. “They are looking for places to come together and interact. It’s not really about providing luxury but, instead, engaging people.” 

College and Minor League Explore Improvements 

Although professional sports stadium projects have grown at a slower pace, there are major builds in the works, including the new Florida Marlins Ballpark, scheduled to open this year. In the last 10 to 15 years, minor league teams have been mainly exploring facility improvements due to lack of funds.

“Those who can’t afford to build new are exploring ways to increase revenue by creating different price points, adding group and hospitality areas and increasing seating,” Lamberth said. “There’s more master planning, rather than jumping right in to create a new stadium. People are taking a step back and being more cautious.”

A bright spot is college builds and renovations, which have remained steady for high-revenue sports like football and basketball facilities. Much of this is attributed to staying competitive in terms of player recruitment. 

The University of Washington’s $250-million Husky Stadium renovation, for example, includes plans to substantially improve many areas of the venue, including adding new seating, club level seating, a suite level and a new football operations building. At press time, most of the demo work was complete and the foundation was being built.

“College stadiums are focusing on recruiting, so many facility improvements may not be obvious to the public because the money has been invested in training areas, meeting rooms, study lounges and other player areas,” Lamberth said. “Even dental clinics for custom-molded mouth pieces are being created. It’s the sport that drives the amenities.”

By the same token, older ballpark facilities are focusing on clubhouse renovations, adding more space for training, upgrading locker rooms and focusing on player areas to keep affiliates happy. By updating these facilities on a three-to-five year cycle, clubs are able to compete on different levels and make investments that show returns.

360 Architecture is currently working on a renovation for the Single A Dodgers, a minor league team in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., to upgrade its facilities. A master plan also is in the works to improve revenue generation inside its stadium.

“Everyone is looking closer at the bottom line and revenue-generating components, whether it includes more club space or more suites,” Lamberth said.

Rather than more expensive premium seating, the trend is to build loge boxes. These suites without walls provide a more financially accessible option for those who want an upgrade, but can’t afford the high pricetag of a suite.

“These may include catered food, table space to put drink and food down, more leg room, wider chairs and more amenities within the seating bowl,” Lamberth said. “These fans are willing to pay a little bit more, but traditional suites are out of their price range.” 

Focus on MultiDestination Complexes 

Much of Rossetti’s focus has been on designing stadiums that are a part of mixed-use developments. The goal is to capture revenue outside of the gates by controlling the real estate outside of the venue. This helps encourage pre- and post-event spending, while creating more of a destination around the stadium.

“Just having a game to go to doesn’t cut it with most fans these days,” Renne said. “It’s more about creating a synergy between what’s in and outside the gate to continue the social experience. The game then becomes just a part of the event.”

Rossetti is currently working on Sungui, a soccer stadium in Korea that will be integrated into 600,000 sq. ft. of retail development. Along with a large parking lot integrated into the base of the venue, there will be three mini towers that include housing and office areas.

“With these types of projects, you have a captured audience,” Renne said. “Still, there are challenges, such as funding, land control issues and dealing with problems presented by municipalities and the public.”

As a result, stadiums in mixed use developments typically take longer to come to fruition.
In addition to mixed developments, stadiums are becoming big components to help reclaim and repurpose urban areas more so than in the past.

“We’re taking what would otherwise be abandoned regions within urban districts and adding stadiums as an anchor so cities can refocus on centralized business districts,” Sherlock said. “An example of this is London’s Olympic Stadium.”

In new and renovated stadiums, technology is an important aspect of the overall experience, with wireless now considered a standard amenity that can be used as a marketing tool.

Whereas in the past, arcade rooms or Hall of Fame areas were gathering places in stadiums, now there is more of an effort to create a link between social zones, with the goal to encourage fan interaction.

Another aspect being explored in today’s stadium projects is tying the technology together on a broader scale. This would encompass linking various pieces of technology like tying scoreboards into electronic billboards on the highway or linking concession stand menu boards with way-finding video boards.

“If a certain event has buzz behind it, teams can exploit this and create a synergy to express and broadcast information to a greater extent,” Sherlock said. “This is a trend we’re trying to exploit.”

Interviewed for this story: Chris Lamberth, (816) 472-2000; Jim Renne, (248) 262-8300; Greg Sherlock, (816) 221-1500