Rossetti is working on a way to convert the Detroit Lions’ Ford Field into a soccer venue. (Courtesy Detroit Pistons)

As stadiums in other leagues are shrinking, MLS franchises are looking at adding seats

Oh Atlanta! The huge success of Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium culminated in record attendance for the 2018 MLS Cup. More than 73,000 fans packed the stadium Dec. 8 to see #ATLUTD beat the Portland Timbers and win the cup. It was the largest crowd in the league’s 22-year history.

It’s not an anomaly. Atlanta United recorded crowds of 70,000 for some of its bigger matches over its first two years in MLS, and it has caught the attention of U.S. pro soccer teams developing new stadiums in Austin, Cincinnati, Nashville and Sacramento, among other markets. They’re all taking a closer look at whether the typical soccer-specific model of 20,000 seats best fits their markets.

The upstarts in Atlanta are not alone. The Seattle Sounders, another MLS team playing in an NFL stadium, averaged 40,641 at CenturyLink Field in 2018, placing second in the league behind Atlanta United’s 53,002. The Sounders have consistently drawn crowds of about 40,000 since the team started MLS play in 2009, despite covering the upper deck with a tarp for most matches at the stadium.

MLS attendance was down 1 percent in 2018, the league’s first drop in five years. Still, 10 of the 23 teams averaged more than 20,000 fans, including Los Angeles FC, a first-year club at Banc of California Stadium.

The uptick in MLS is one of several trends to watch in stadium development in 2019, according to sports architects. They also addressed further segmentation of the premium seat market, providing closer access to players at event level, the evolution of videoboard technology and the flexibility to convert stadiums to fit other large-scale sports events such as the Miami Open tennis tournament at Hard Rock Stadium.

In general, downsizing has been the trend for MLB and NFL facilities, both in new builds and renovations. MLS is the exception. No other league is building more new stadiums, and in a sport where most MLS teams debuted in NFL stadiums in the mid-1990s before moving to soccer-specific venues, could there be a shift back to bigger buildings? Perhaps, depending on whom you ask among designers and builders of sports venues.

In the early days of MLS, playing matches in an 80,000-seat stadium retrofit that looked empty was discouraging, said Bill Johnson, a design principal with HOK and leader of the firm’s development of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In Atlanta, HOK designed a building for both the NFL and MLS with a custom half-house setup for soccer that’s more than just a big black curtain hanging from the roof. It blends into the bowl seamlessly for most Atlanta United games, which draw 35,000 to 40,000. For rivals such as Orlando City SC, the upper deck stays open.

Atlanta United FC recorded crowds of 70,000 for some of its bigger matches over its first two years in MLS, drawing the attention of others in the league. (Courtesy HOK)

“Coming off Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a lot of people have looked at it, almost everybody in the NFL,” Johnson said. “The surprise there was Atlanta United; they’ve almost taken it over. We’re getting a lot of questions such as, ‘OK, so in my existing stadium, what can I do to learn some lessons or modify some things to bring it up to this new expectation?’”

“I feel bullish on the whole soccer conversation,” he said. “You’re going to see existing soccer venues start to add seats in some cases. When you start to get up to 30,000 to 40,000 seats and you can block off the upper deck, it feels good. As those lines start to cross somewhere in the middle, it’s going to be more acceptable for soccer to play in NFL venues. If you’re competitive, soccer is going to draw the crowds. The other thing is, it’s more affordable.”

The one thing that sets Atlanta and Seattle apart is the strong cultural aspect to the city and community buying into the sport’s traditions, Johnson said.

“The whole ‘march to the match’ concept in Seattle where you have this organic grid that happens out of the bars and into the streets and into the stadium is something we talk about a lot in terms of development strategy for new buildings,” he said.

In Detroit, design firm Rossetti is working with the owners of a proposed MLS team to find a solution for converting Ford Field, the 65,000-seat home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions, into a soccer venue. To date, MLS Commissioner Don Garber has criticized Detroit’s plan for playing soccer indoors on artificial turf. League officials prefer an open-air facility with natural grass.

“The league is not keen at all on an indoor stadium, but we propose the idea of opening the roof,” Rossetti principal Jim Renne said. “It comes down to making it feel like a soccer stadium that’s not fully indoors. If you look at Atlanta (and its retractable roof), what if somehow this market could do the same thing? At what point do you accommodate these venues where if you’ve got the market, maybe it really makes sense.”

It makes sense, says Dale Koger, vice president and general manager of PCL Construction’s sports group. Over his 40-plus-year career, Koger has worked on five MLS stadium projects, including Banc of California Stadium, plus a dozen NFL facilities spanning both new builds and renovations. The Seattle and Atlanta models are the future of a league still growing in its third decade of operation, Koger said.

“When you think about MLS, it’s still a relatively new league,” he said. “I can see a day where you might build an NFL/MLS combination stadium and make it 50,000 seats.”

For those teams in smaller cities developing soccer-specific stadiums, the tricky part is balancing a boost in capacity against the increased cost to construct bigger, more sophisticated venues. Over the past few years, the price tag for MLS stadiums has jumped from $100 million to a high of $400 million for Audi Field, D.C. United’s new facility, which opened in July.

“I’m a big believer in scarcity,” said Dan Meis, whose firm, Meis Architects, is designing a new stadium for FC Cincinnati, a United Soccer League club that starts play in MLS in 2019. As it stands now, Meis said, the new venue will seat 25,000 to 30,000 for a team that consistently draws those numbers at Nippert Stadium, the University of Cincinnati’s football facility.

“Given that these buildings have become much more expensive than they were five to 10 years ago, we’re a bit careful about that,” Meis said. “Cincinnati is one of those clubs that was able to drive a huge fan base as a USL team. For them, it’s hard not to want to build as big as they can, and we’re pretty confident that it will follow them into the new building.”

Allianz Field, the new home of Minnesota United FC, opens in April with a 3,000-seat supporter section. (Courtesy Populous)

In Washington, Audi Field has 20,000 seats, but building on an urban site and upgraded premium spaces resulted in higher costs. Overall, as the MLS stadium model matures, there’s been a shift to developing a greater variety of club seat and loge box products across the league, starting with Children’s Mercy Park, home of Sporting KC.

Premium seats carry a higher price point, and when tied to long-term contracts, those packages give teams the ability to pay construction debt over time. Sporting KC’s stadium opened in 2011 with five clubs and a field-level lounge tied to the team’s supporter groups. Banc of California Stadium features 114 loge boxes and about 2,000 club seats, plus MLS’s first bunker suites.

In Los Angeles, the finishes in the club lounges at the $350 million facility are on par with NFL stadiums, said Bill Rhoda, president of Legends Global Planning, the owner’s representative for LAFC.

HNTB is studying the capacity issue and the right premium seat mix for a few MLS stadium projects. It’s involved with the Sacramento Republic and the Columbus Crew.

HNTB is also a finalist for the Inter Miami FC project headed by British soccer royalty David Beckham. In South Florida, Inter Miami FC already plans to build a 25,000-seat stadium, matching the size of Orlando City Stadium, which opened in 2017.

“For select markets, higher capacity may make sense, but in discussions we’ve had with several potential MLS teams, they’re still looking at the low to mid-20,000 range for overall seating,” said Gerardo Prado, HNTB’s sports group director and vice president. “What we’re seeing is a higher percentage of premium seating, 14 percent to 16 percent of total seating.”

He said, “If you look at some of the second-generation stadiums, they’re adding more clubs and loges to carve out additional revenue without a significant construction cost. Fans get engaged with the action in club seats with a better product to market [over suites]. Sacramento is asking us to review things in terms of the overall premium strategy and Miami as well.”

For sports architects, the focus is on the MLS general admission customer as well, specifically the supporter sections behind the goals where the team’s most fervent fans congregate. Those spaces are expanding to more than 3,250, which is the case of Banc of California Stadium. Allianz Field, Minnesota United FC’s new stadium, will open in March with 3,000 supporter spaces.

“That’s the heartbeat of the pitch,” Prado said. “Those are the people who elevate the energy level, are always going to be chanting and if they’re not excited and into the game, nobody else really will be. We pay close attention to how we can keep improving the experience for the supporters with their own concourse and club that they can transform into their own space.”

In today’s digital age, where fans can stream more live sports on their mobile devices than ever before, apart from the stadium experience, it’s critical to get those numbers right, Johnson said.

“The buildings can only do so much, and then it comes down to the teams and owners to adapt to the changing market,” he said.

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