Earl Santee, Populous founder and senior principal: “Architects are really good at ideas. We could have 1,000 ideas a day and our hope is that if we get one that we could execute, we’ve done a good job.”

Populous lays out ways venues can adapt for the return of sports

Populous, the world’s biggest sports architect, is consulting with dozens of big league teams and colleges during the pandemic to come up with temporary solutions for games without fans and with partial crowds.

For Populous and other design firms in Kansas City, the home of sports architecture, it remains largely a guessing game for how things will take shape when sports events return to arenas and stadiums after a lengthy shutdown of public assembly buildings. 

The new model is essentially “managed segregation,” said Earl Santee, Populous’ founder and senior principal.

“We’ve talked to probably 500 to 600 people,” Santee said.  “The problem is some teams are proactive and some are waiting for the leagues to make a decision. It’s a dynamic process. We don’t know where it’s going; we don’t know if they’ll let fans in or not. If we can’t help teams on the revenue side, we’re trying to help them on the cost side, to make it as easy a transition as possible.”

Santee’s comments came after he laid out initial concepts for how sports venues could adapt in the COVID-19 era during a webinar organized by the Stadium Managers Association, a trade group for those building types. The presentation used diagrams applied to Arrowhead Stadium and Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. 

Populous’ events division, the firm’s Denver-based group heavily involved in logistics for the Super Bowl, Final Four and College Football Playoff championship, plays a key role in the process based on its experience developing temporary structures for those high-profile productions, Santee said.

Jim Previtera, the Tampa Bay Rays’ senior director of security and stadium operations, joined Santee on the webinar. For the past three months, the Rays have worked closely with Populous to retrofit Tropicana Field for when the indoor stadium reopens for business. 

“Baseball still has no conclusive plan to start the season, but it does appear to those of us involved in the game that it’s coming,” Previtera said. “The Florida governor (Ron DeSantis on June 3) announced entertainment venues could open with 50% capacity. The question is whether baseball is under that umbrella.” 

Populous is using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s official guidelines as the foundation for instituting protective measures at sports venues, with a focus on 6 feet of separation between all occupants. Under that advisory, arenas and stadiums would fill 17% to 20% of their capacity depending on the building, Santee said.

Several design firms have presented images of staggered seating bowls with spacing between groups of two, four and six seats. That’s the least complex piece of the postpandemic puzzle to resolve, Santee said. It’s all the other paths of travel that connect with the bowl that bring challenges to the aspect of social distance design.

“The rules are limited and there’s not a whole lot of movement (in the bowl),” he said. “We can model it fairly quickly. The parameters are not that complicated. (Most important) is, How do we get people to the seats? Do we have timed entry and exit? Same thing with concessions. It’s about the outcome of everything else you do.” 

The need to create buffer zones for greater protection is another issue, which Santee said has not been discussed that much as teams remap their facilities, Santee said. As part of Populous’ plan, the first three rows of seats behind home plate would be vacant to protect players when they leave the field of play to chase foul balls near the stands.

“That’s a critical factor,” he said. “Concourses must also have a buffer because people are circulating through the cross aisles. We have produced dozens of seat kills during phase one of (limited seating).”

The phrase “touch points” has become a popular term during the pandemic as teams reduce the sources of infection during the “fan journey,” as Santee described it. Condiment pumps, restroom fixtures and countertops are just a few of the examples. There’s a lot to figure out.

“We did an exhaustive study identifying touch points and came up with 52 of them,” he said. “It’s remarkable when you think about it and all of those have to be treated with the same amount of care … for when and how fans use their hands and how we have to protect them.”

Suites bring another challenge. Those premium spaces are unique because they’re self-contained boxes. It’s critical real estate for producing long-term income for teams to pay construction debt, but the way they’re laid out, potential revenue could be restricted to 50% due to social distance measures, Santee said.

In general, suite levels alone have up to four times the square footage per patron to move people around compared with public spaces, which makes things easier to manage. For MLB parks, the challenges come in the lower bowls and their 15,000 to 20,000 seats, he said.

For games played without fans, Populous is studying the use of green-screen technology for sponsor activation between the dugouts that’s visible on television broadcasts. During the presentation, Populous displayed one image of Kauffman Stadium that shows the brands of Royals sponsors Pepsi and regional grocer Hy-Vee superimposed on screens extending down the foul lines.

It would help teams recoup a portion of the game day revenue they’ve lost from not playing games.

Another option for teams is to project images of cheering fans on those backdrops, Santee said. 

“Our goal was to create a more interesting fanless perspective for broadcast, which could include the use of rented videoboards,” he said. “MLB is dictating how it turns out.” 

In terms of other technology, contact tracing has been an “intriguing conversation” with teams to help them gain control over a crisis situation involving staff and game day workers. The system tracks individuals to see who they have been in contact with before diagnosis. There are mobile applications on the market that could be used at sports venues. Contact tracing could also be part of an RFID chip built into a credential or wristband, he said.

Drones or maybe even robots delivering food as part of in-seat delivery are potential solutions for concessionaires as they move toward a model involving less contact for general concessions.

It’s all part of an extensive list of temporary solutions for teams to consider over the next year, Santee said.

“When we first started this (evaluation), there was no standard here,” he said. “Even if you came up with a plan, the question is whether the CDC is going to approve it for fans in stadiums and arenas. They could come up with a different set of standards in the next few weeks. Architects are really good at ideas. We could have 1,000 ideas a day and our hope is that if we get one that we could execute, we’ve done a good job. We’ve got a tremendous amount of feedback on stuff and that’s what we’re using for now.”