Modern-day fans visiting sports stadiums want a flexible seating bowl, family seating amenities and a design that capitalizes on transit trends, according to a study conducted by design firm Populous and Nielsen Sports.

“You can’t prepare for the future without taking stock of the present,” said Brian Mirakian, senior principal with Populous Activate. “We wanted to research and identify what earns fans’ entertainment dollars, what’s missing in the marketplace, and use the data to create actionable design ideas that drive revenue and keep fans coming back.”

“We’ve seen so many shifts in fan behavioral patterns over the last few years, and we decided we needed data to help us start understanding what the customers want when they go to a venue,” he said. “People are grappling with media consumption, and the in-home experience, and we really thought it was the time to dive deeper into solving the problems we hear about from our customers to create data-driven design solutions.”

The results were startling. “What we found out was that today’s event attendees don’t just want a ticket to sit in a seat and be a spectator. They want to participate,” Mirakian said. “People want to choose their adventure and have an individual experience. Seventy percent of the survey responders said the single most important thing to them was having an experience.”

Populous and Nielsen Sports started the study in January 2017. It included 1,000 consumers, ages 13 and up, who regularly attend professional sports games. Quotas for age, gender and region were put in place to ensure a balanced sample.

“We worked together to develop a custom research project to uncover what attendees of various games/events and fan profiles expect when it comes to the arena/stadium/ballpark experience,” said Ibrahim Koese, senior director of market research at Nielsen Sports.

Fans of the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Hockey League (NHL), esports and Major League Soccer (MLS) were among the respondents, who were recruited from a national online panel.

“The study is nationally representative for sports fans regularly attending at least three or more games or events in professional ‘stick and ball sports,’” Koese said. “We have added esports as an additional segment. … It provides robust insights for attendees nationally.”

Mirakian said that one in three of surveyed fans thought the future of entertainment would be found in a virtual world but that “two of three would still rather experience a concert or sporting event in person. Past decades have taught us a big lesson when it comes to the live experience: The game itself will get you only so far. It’s time to think beyond filling seats. Fans want to get up and explore the live experience, not sit idle from the sidelines.”

“Younger fans have led the charge, but the behavior spans multiple generations,” he said. “These days, fans of all ages bring these expectations into your venue. They present an opportunity to redefine ‘premium’ and apply it to new price points between the cheap seats and front row. Diversifying your venue’s inventory of experiences gives it longevity.”

Surprising to Mirakian is that two in three fans want a unique experience — and are willing to pay extra for it.

“The survey showed that nine out of 10 people are willing to pay more for a ticket if they can move around the venue and change seats,” he said. “This sort of data suggests we have the opportunity to fundamentally shift what the in-venue experience is for the next-generation fan.”

Another surprising data point? Fifty percent of fans surveyed said that they’d be willing to pay an extra $25 a ticket if they had a power outlet to charge their phones next to their seats.

Another interesting data piece, according to Mirakian, is that “family friendly atmospheres are in demand. A venue’s appeal to families is uniquely influenced by the events it hosts. On one side of the spectrum lies baseball with its family-friendly amenities, fresh air and 18 convenient breaks in the action. On the other end is soccer, which requires your undivided attention for two 45-minute stretches.”

Koese said MLS fans are more likely than others to be interested in entertainment and family zones.

Said Mirakian: “Our research suggests sports can appeal more to families by removing the obstacles in their way. One in four fans take their children to sporting events a majority of the time. Concerns to them are safety; nothing for the family members to do; and it not being worth the money.”

The study suggested that family amenities fans desire include play areas, changing stations, pumping rooms for nursing mothers and babysitting services.

“For the parents, it’s having the peace of mind to know the kids are safely occupied while the game unfolds directly in front of them,” Mirakian said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for sports that do not draw a family crowd, such as the NFL and NBA, to redesign and adjust to the modern sports fan.”

Premium clubs are another part of the new-age-fan puzzle. “To cater to the next-generation consumer we need to really reinvent the wheel,” suggested Mirakian. “Today’s fans want to migrate around the venue and get two to three different experiences, such as having a drink in a premium club in one area of the venue and then wandering to another premium club, with a different viewpoint.”

The study, and the significant shifts in the wants and needs of the fan, will all be taken into consideration when Populous designers draw blueprints for new venues.

“The way we design buildings going forward will be to design not just for the spectator but for a participant in the event,” he said. “The expectation now is to interact and have many different types of experiences. This will change venues as we now know them.”

“Less seats and more social experiences are going to be the new normal,” he added. “Viewing the action is just going to be part of the in-venue experience. This is a fundamental shift.”

Another component of the survey addressed parking and transit, two items that fans want improved above all else.

“The traditional model of venue parking — a sea of parking lots surrounding a suburban venue— was likely front and center in their minds when responding to our survey,” Mirakian said. “It doesn’t lend itself well to diffusing bottlenecks and creating an enjoyable pre- and postgame atmosphere outside of tailgating. Many popular venues still reflect this model, but their numbers are shrinking. Taking your personal car to a venue is decreasing [in popularity] while public transportation and ride-sharing numbers are going up dramatically.”

Another interesting aspect of the study was that for esports fans, the importance of “traditional” aspects of the experience such as view of play is lower, likely because the action is on screens.

“However, other activities and options around the esports competition itself, such as interacting with other fans or visiting sponsor activations, were more important to that audience,” Koese said.

“The study shows there is no standard recipe or silver bullet,” he said. “Venues will need to assess carefully the audience they are targeting and understand how to best cater to them. Flexible configurations are going to become more and more important.”