THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME: Children play ball during a game at Virginia Tech’s English Field at Atlantic Union Bank Park, designed by CannonDesign. (Courtesy CannonDesign)

COVID may have distanced us, but venue architects say their clients still want to bring us together

COVID-19 brought “social distancing” into the world’s vocabulary, but it has done nothing to change a trend that was already running strong in the design of sports and entertainment venues.

The idea of keeping people apart was an essential part of coronavirus mitigation strategy when the pandemic forced the closure of public spaces in spring 2020 and again as limited-capacity games and concerts led the way back. It has returned in a more limited sense as the U.S. experiences another wave of infections.

But for architecture firms that design arenas, stadiums and related buildings, a familiar message from clients continues to reverberate: Fans want to break away from their seats and suites to mingle.

It’s rooted in the belief that the days of social distancing will be put behind us and that, perhaps now more than ever, the desire to connect with others has grown stronger for many after months of working at home and avoiding crowded spaces.

“What lessons can we learn in designing spaces for large groups of athletes and spectators alike that are incapable of distancing themselves due to the nature of team sport?” asked Doug Osborn, senior associate at Crawford Architects, who like others offered comments by email for this story. “If we are being honest, one thing has gotten us this far, one thing is what drives us to get back to that point of social interaction: We’ve gotten this far together and need to be together.

“Technology will constantly advance, and allow us to do things unimaginable, but nothing will be capable of replacing face-to-face interaction.”

Don Barnum, a principal at DLR Group who leads the firm’s global sports practice, said, “Fans continue to crave social spaces and open concourses that allow them to interact with their peers and fellow spectators, while also staying connected to the game.”

A new generation is helping drive the change, especially in sports, said Jonathan Emmett, design director and principal at Gensler. “A younger generation of fans is increasingly looking at sporting events as a truly social experience,” he said. “The reason to leave their living room and big-screen TV is to come together for a human experience and meet up with their friends.”

Project Log:
SCI Architects

Client: Delaware North
Venue: TD Garden
Completion Date: Fall 2022
Cost: $100 million
Project: The firm is lead architect on the 50,000-square-foot “Legendary Transformation,” including expanded
concourse areas, new locker rooms, and exclusive premium hospitality.

“The legacy of sports in Boston is a sacred one. We are honored to work with Delaware North to redefine and elevate the fan experience while celebrating the history of the building, the teams, and the city. This modern cathedral of sport, in conjunction with the Hub on Causeway development, reinforces the importance of the arena in the city and its position in the revitalization of the neighborhood.”

— Tone Frisina, Project Director and Architect, SCI Architects

Project Log:
Crawford Architects

Client: Minnesota Vikings
Venue: TCO Performance Center
Completion Date: 2018
Cost: $90 million
Project: The Vikings’ campus includes 270,000 gross square feet of office and training facilities, four outdoor practice fields, and an indoor practice facility with a 100-yard field with a 95-foot interior clear height. An on-site
6,500-seat stadium is capable of accommodating a variety of community events.

“It’s incredible. I’ve seen a lot of training facilities throughout my career, and this one certainly tops every one of those.”

— Kyle Rudolph, former Minnesota Vikings tight end, now with the New York Giants

DLR Group

Owner: University of Southern California
Venue: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (renovation) 
Completion Date: August 2019
Cost: $315 million
Project: The Coliseum renovation includes new fan amenities, seating upgrades throughout, game entertainment improvements, premium revenue-generating hospitality spaces, restores the iconic peristyle, and maintains the historic integrity of this renowned stadium. The seven-story Scholarship Tower is embedded seamlessly into the upper half of the south seating bowl and features event viewing opportunities for spectators.

“The new Scholarship Tower impacts less than 15 percent of the existing seating bowl and positions premium seating closer to the field, creating some of the best views in college football. Plus, the iconic peristyle has been improved by removing all signage, advertising, and screens that were added over time.”

— Don Barnum, principal and global sports leader, DLR Group


So creating more room for people to mix means building bigger facilities to accommodate those spaces? Perhaps.

On one hand, last year’s three big major league stadium debuts — Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas (HKS); SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California (also HKS); and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas (Manica Architecture and HNTB) — all featured plenty of premium options for socializing, and none of those buildings would be mistaken for cozy. Globe Life and Allegiant are both nearly 2 million square feet, and SoFi comes in a whopping 3.1 million.

Those decisions fit into the recent trend of diversifying the premium experience and adding more pricing options for potential buyers.

“Where there was once three or four levels of premium experience, now there are a dozen or more, with options for every age, income, social group, and level of fan engagement,” said Ernest Joyner, director of operations and principal at Perkins & Will, which he sees as part of the effort by designers and their clients to appeal to a diverse population.

Terry McIntyre, head of sales at Shawmut Design and Construction, said, “Venues are creating and offering more types of premium experiences with increasingly more opportunities for multiple clubs at various price levels.”

And putting fans as close to the action as possible, a premium concept entering its 20th season in the NFL, continues to grow in importance as part of those offerings.

“The most active trend we are being asked to look at from clients is finding ways to create exclusive premium hospitality on the event level and bringing the premium fan closer to the action,” said Tone Frisina, project director and architect at SCI Architects.

The importance of creative, attractive premium areas benefits entire facilities, Frisina said. New York City-based SCI, an extension of Canadian firm Brisbin Brook Beynon, is involved in projects at Boston’s TD Garden and Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, both of which “intend to redefine the social experience for fans and alleviate loads on the concourse by creating new premium spaces throughout the building.”

Likewise, making premium areas exclusive but not hidden is a great way to recruit new members.

“Clubs and lounges are positioned and designed with areas that open out to the concourse, allowing for fans walking by to get a taste of the premium amenities, acting as a selling tool,” said Shawmut’s McIntyre.

But does it always add up to bigger buildings? On the contrary, architects say some clients are taking a smaller-is-better approach.

“To steal a quote, fewer clients are trying ‘to build the church for Easter Sunday’ and they’re realizing fewer seats with increased amenities can be a better equation for them and the fans,” said Mike Cornoni, vice president of CannonDesign.

Gensler’s Emmett said, “Many of our clients are looking for smaller, more intimate venues than had typically been the case before. It is less about packing as many people into an event as possible, and more about curating an experience for guests.”

 As an example, he pointed to the firm’s Q2 Stadium, the new home of Austin FC of MLS, a 20,700-seat venue in a league where new soccer-specific stadiums have begun to push toward 30,000 seats in recent years.

“I think what we as well as our clients have learned is that we can do more with far less,” Crawford’s Osborn said. “Quantity of space is no longer as important as the quality of space.”

Project Log: 
Generator Studio

Client: Seattle Kraken
Venue: Kraken Community Iceplex
Completion Date: August 2021
Cost: $80 million
Project: Generator Studio is lead design and architect of record on the project. The training center for the NHL’s newest team and community hockey center has three NHL-size rinks, 12 locker rooms, two meeting rooms, a bar and grill, a team store, a training facility and offices for the team, a Starbucks Community Store and a medical pavilion. 

“The opportunity to make a training center far more than just a team’s practice home is on full display with the Kraken’s iceplex. It is equal parts community center, home of hockey in the Pacific Northwest and beacon of inclusion. Never was there a doubt with Kraken leadership that this building would be about more than themselves —it would set the high mark for how to impact a community on and off the ice.”

— Tom Proebstle, co-founder, Generator Studio

Project Log:

Client: Austin FC/Precourt Ventures LLC
Venue: Q2 Stadium
Completion Date: June 2021
Cost: $242 million
Project: Gensler Sports worked alongside Precourt Sports Ventures to design Q2 Stadium at McKalla Place in Austin for the city’s first professional sports team, Austin FC. Built to accommodate 20,500 soccer fans, Q2 Stadium capitalizes on its natural landscape, the city’s cultural heritage, and its tech-forward growth. Open concourses and standing areas allow fans to move around and socialize or visit local food vendors. Fans come together in the multiple, landscaped outdoor spaces which surround Q2 Stadium, including an outdoor amphitheater and stage for live music, and can host a range of activities for both matches and non-game days.

“The venue has a casual, comfortable feel, yet provides an intense and exciting atmosphere for the fans and players. With a wide variety of seating types and social gathering areas with a view of the field, the venue offers something for everyone.”

— Jonathan Emmett, principal and design director, Gensler

Project Log:

Client: Texas Rangers
Venue: Globe Life Field
Completion Date: March 2020
Cost: $1.2 billion
Project: HKS designed MLB’s newest ballpark as a flexible stadium with a Texas backyard feel. The 40,000-seat stadium boasts the only single-panel retractable roof in the sport. 

“At the height of the pandemic in May 2020, the stadium hosted more than 60 area high school graduation ceremonies. The stadium has hosted multiple vaccination and mask distribution events. It served as the neutral site for the National League Championship Series and the World Series. Wider concourses and an operable roof were certainly benefits that made Globe Life Field … an attractive and safer option for the Fall Classic.”

— Fred Ortiz, director of sports, HKS


With the pandemic providing a fresh lesson on how quickly things can change, flexibility has become an even more important commodity in the marketplace of facility design ideas.

Tom Proebstle, co-founder of Generator Studio, said that COVID had dramatically affected his firm and that designers must be quicker to adapt and understand the significant changes to sports and entertainment venues on the drawing boards right now, especially the technology effects but also changing traditional design thinking to that of maximum flexibility and inclusiveness at every level of the building. 

Matt Taylor, design principal at Rossetti, said: “Today’s venue must be adaptable and hyper-flexible in order to provide unique guest experiences while maximizing return on investment. Event centers of every scale must serve multiple programming. … Even the unexpected needs to be considered today, such as usage for emergency shelters and vaccination sites.”

Telescopic seating, large scale operable partitions, and theatrical rigging are components necessary to provide this functionality, he said. He pointed to the firm’s concepts for esports arenas in Texas and the Middle East that “incorporate large scale operable partitions that split the seating bowl into many different scaled venues from a 1,500-seat intimate hall to a 10,000-seat arena.”

“Flexibility may start with the main arena, but it permeates all facets of the event center from how the concourses become their own unique venue, to hospitality offerings that transform in scale and function depending on immediate need,” Taylor said.

Crawford’s Osborn said today’s architecture is about flexibility and adaptability in design, providing clients with “programmatic solutions that allow the use of any one specific space that we have designed for them to be multifunctional.”

Osborn pointed to The TCO Performance Center, a training center and headquarters that the firm designed for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, as an example.

“As you can imagine, training and performance centers, both for professional and intercollegiate athletes, can grow to be quite large facilities,” he said. “Looking for commonalities in building programs and ways to share space is key to providing a tight and efficient floor plan.”

Project Log:
Perkins & Will

Client: City of Savannah, Georgia
Venue:  Enmarket Arena
Completion Date: February 2022
Cost: $165 million
Project: Perkins & Will is the design architect, architect of record, and master planner on the 9,500-seat arena that will host national touring concerts, family shows, minor league hockey and other sports, and other live events. The arena will feature two premium clubs, 12 suites, a party suite and 725 club seats.

“It will change the face of Savannah forever. It will shift everything to the west, away from downtown in the sense that we are going to develop areas that have never been developed.” 

— Eddie DeLoach. Savannah mayor


Client: Jacksonville Jaguars
Venue: The Sports Performance Center
Completion Date: 2023
Cost: $120 million
Project: The Sports Performance Center will be an efficient tool for winning. Meaningful design strategies will prioritize players’ health and wellness throughout the facility to create a culture of excellence exemplified by a timeless modern aesthetic. The performance center will embody the future of downtown Jacksonville by being a catalyst in creating a new destination and public realm. 

“We are excited to work with the Jaguars to redefine how a facility like this can serve the wellness of professional athletes while simultaneously contributing to the downtown Jacksonville community with a sustainable engaging asset.” 

— Matt Rossetti, president, Rossetti

Project Log: 

Client: New York State Olympic Regional Development Authority
Venue: Lake Placid Olympic Center (renovations)
Completion Date: 2022
Cost: NA
Project: Renovation of The Olympic Center in downtown Lake Placid and the Mount Van Hoevenberg Base Lodge in preparation for the January 2023 World University Games. 

“Our team is thrilled at the opportunity to contribute to such historic sports venues in Lake Placid and prepare them to best serve new generations.” 

— Colleen McKenna, director of CannonDesign’s Sports, Recreation and Wellness Practice


Sustainability: “Owners are recognizing the importance of investing in sustainable facilities,” said Rossetti’s Taylor. “As design leaders, our role is to prioritize sustainable strategies and their associated investment.”

He said his firm’s approach to sustainability takes different forms, from a system of natural ventilation that eliminates the need for air conditioning at the Louis Armstrong Stadium in the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, New York, to repurposing old aluminum bench seating at Phoenix Raceway as part of the building’s facade. 

And while we’re sustaining the earth, why not sustain people, too? Generator Studio’s Proebstle said a client for a headquarters facility asked what could be done by way of doing better for people and the planet beyond LEED certifying its project.

He said Generator recommended WELL Building certification “that puts holistic human mental and physical health front and center in building design.”

“Focusing on direct improvements to natural light access, air filtration, nutrition and mental health among other core tenets of WELL have a direct impact on staff and athletes,” Proebstle said. 

Christina Franklin, the firm’s director of interior design, spoke of an enhanced connection to greenery and wellness. “Access to the outdoors and fresh air have risen as top concerns for fans and athletes alike,” she said. “Clients across the board are looking to understand how these changes can be integrated, particularly with renovations to venues where at first blush access to the outdoors may seem limited or unachievable.”

Touchless: COVID-19 put the adaptation of contactless technologies into overdrive. “Clients are trying to design spaces and paths where spectators don’t have to touch anything while making transactions at the box office, concession stand, merchandise store, etc.,” said CannonDesign’s Cornoni.

Said Perkins & Will’s Joyner: “Grab and go food offerings, automated checkout, and mobile ordering apps have reduced the hassle of food and beverage purchases, and in some cases, increased sales. Our clients are looking for solutions that not only mitigate the effects of COVID-19, but also enhance the spectator experience.”

“The trend of touchless concessions has been gaining a lot of interest from our clients,” said SCI Architects’ Frisina. “The ability to alleviate stress from concession queues, minimize touchpoints for the fans and getting fans back their seats is a strong argument for the success of these points of sale.”

Not every change brought on by COVID will go into the permanent facility design playbook, however. 

“Many ideas and technologies that were beginning to be incorporated into venue design have been accelerated due to a response to COVID. Touchless, cashless environments, and mobile ordering are great for both the health and safety of fans, but are also far more convenient,” said Gensler’s Emmett. But he added, “As we are seeing fans back in most venues, the overall impact of COVID on the design and operation of venues, and the fan experience, has been far less impactful than was initially anticipated.”

Mixed-Use Developments: Chalk it up to providing more ways for people to gather together, perhaps, but the idea of incorporating restaurants, hotels, residential and office space around venues isn’t losing steam.

“Many stadiums also serve as anchors of larger developments,” said DLR Group’s Barnum. “Clients are seeking out DLR Group for its design expertise beyond sports venues when they are looking to blur the lines between living, working, and playing. DLR Group sports design teams regularly engage designers in hospitality and mixed-use venues to bring to life these neighborhood development concepts.”

Riverfront Stadium, a new ballpark in Wichita, Kansas, that the firm designed, is part of such a development.

Authenticity: The idea of bringing local restaurants into arena and stadium concessions stands isn’t new. In fact, it was just the tip of the spear of an authenticity movement in design, the idea that the spirit of the community outside the venue should naturally flow into it.

“A desire for authenticity is becoming a prerequisite in venue design,” Gensler’s Emmett said. “There is a demand that the look and feel of a venue, and the experiences within the venue are reflective of the character and culture of the city and its fan base.”

Regaining Momentum: “When the pandemic started, several projects went on hold, but that’s picked up in 2021 for sure,” said CannonDesign’s Cornoni, echoing the sentiment that the sports and entertainment facility architecture is returning to its normal rhythm.

“We did see many clients hit the brakes on projects that were just starting,” Gensler’s Emmett said. “(But) we have also found that this has been the perfect time for many clients and teams to take a closer look at their venues, operations and the fan experience.”   

Project Log:
Shawmut Design and Construction

Client: San Diego Padres
Venue: Cutwater Coronado Club, Petco Park
Completion Date: March 2020
Cost: NA
Project: Shawmut Design and Construction renovated underutilized space into the premium Cutwater Coronado Club, including an open-air café and bar, on a fast-track timeline during the off-season.

“The Cutwater Coronado Club at Petco Park demonstrates the changing look of premium — the club doesn’t have a view of the field but of the San Diego Bay, providing fans with an experience that highlights the city. It demonstrates the evolution of venues to more than just spaces for hosting games.” 

— Terry McIntyre, head of sales, Shawmut Design and Construction