Can you have a sporting spectacle without spectators?

Martin Fowler Martin Fowler
Technical Director, Structures – Asia
23 June 2020
6 min read

In 1966, Wembley Stadium had its most famous pitch invasion. With seconds to go, a jubilant crowd burst onto the pitch and instigated the world's first commentary soundbite: "Some people are on the pitch, they think it's all over, it is now". Sports broadcasting had taken its first steps into the modern era: the technicolour crowd stopped being the rumbling audience and became a front-of-stage player in the television production.

In 1911, the first sports 'broadcast' was made to a crowd of 1000 fans by telegram. It was a mechanical reproduction of a US football game played out like a game of chess.

For the next 100 years, the crowds of broadcast sport continued to grow, with match spectators becoming part of the spectacle and their Mexican waves, vuvuzelas, French horns, drunkard nuns and beer snakes. At home, we crank up the TV volume as the anthemic chorus breaks out and the home team makes one last emotion fuelled push for the line.

Now in 2020, we're sitting on our balconies singing La Marseillaise and The Fields of Athenry, hoping for our freedom and liberty. With our boredom-fuelled expanded waistlines (or, as the Germans call it, Coronaspeck), the last few months have made many of us realise how much we miss and value sport.

Over the coming months, sport is going to realise how much it values and misses its spectators. Will 2021 be the loneliest year for our sporting superstars? How will a gold medal moment compare in front of 80 000 empty seats in Tokyo? Where will Europe's greatest footballers run to wave their shirts?

Home advantage?

Home advantage is a term commonly used in the circles of sports design. Architects and engineers have long known the symbiosis between the players and their fans. Through good design, we can bring fans back to a stadium, create an electric atmosphere, and success on the field.

Without this force multiplier, who will be the relative winners and losers: smaller teams without their close intermediating crowds, or bigger clubs without their numerical advantage? As action restarts, will we be discussing lockdown advantage?

With stadiums sitting empty, clubs and operators are going to have to compete that little bit harder for the attention of the newly-freed paying audience. How will clubs replace the drama and performance enhancing effects for their ego driven star-players?

Even the most tranquil of sports, English county cricket is considering piping in spectator cheering and clapping (and the members' snoring) back to its unloved cricketers. Will we see an inversion of the media flow? As social bubbles are re-inflated, will living rooms across the world become micro-stadiums, broadcasting their noise back to the excitement of the players?

Just imagine the Zoom stadium. Instead of grandstands, giant media screens feeding the players live images of tens of thousands of lockdown fans across the world. In a truly globalised spectator sports market, with no home fans, how will smaller clubs and franchises differentiate themselves?

With the world's attention concentrated on the big few, perhaps players, who formerly commanded huge salaries, will now have to pay to turn out for top performing global clubs in order to sustain their individual digital following.

Phase 3.5

When stadiums reopen how will operators use design and technology to protect their assets from the next emerging crisis? The design and commercial operation of airports fundamentally changed after 9/11. Extra security measures meant more time queuing for scans, whereas e-tickets reduced the time taken to check-in.

By pushing the balance of a passenger's time from landside to airside, airports created a bigger captive market opportunity to sell a wider range of products. The next 20 years of aviation saw massive global expansion in air travel and defied commentators' fears in the aftermath of the tragedy. Markets have grown with greater passenger revenue enabled by lower upfront ticket prices.

Many outdoor and endurance sports are Phase 3.5 and social distancing ready. At 3500 km long, the Tour de France has space for 3.5 million spectators. By comparison, tightly packed stadium operators must think carefully about how to minimise lost seating and so re-engineer their viewing areas, facilities, wayfinding and spectator journeys.

After this watershed moment, seating and access aisles will almost certainly need to become adaptable to grow and shrink in-line with the latest medical guidance. Likewise, toilets, turnstiles and checkpoints need to be dispersed wider (or virtual) and connect directly to digital wayfinding apps like Waze.

Less fans, more money

Luckily, many stadium operators have been increasing the digital connectivity of their stadiums. But for those that haven't, the need to digitally track tens of thousands of spectators will be a catalyst for the expansion of digital services. In the pursuit of event atmosphere and trending presence, operators will use mobile devices to track acoustic and online noise. Can this data be analysed, and artificial intelligence harnessed to identify, attract and incentivise the most valuable fans?

Of course, fewer spectators means lower ticket revenue, but across entertainment industries the concept of missing out, scarcity, and clever digital marketing has led to higher ticket prices and more revenue per customer. Stadium designers know that spend per head increases where there is more concourse space for the club to curate a better service offering. With capacity cut, existing stadiums will have more space to sell higher value experiential services.

Back at Zoom Stadium, the operators may have taken a lead from e-gaming and online commerce to create a wider audience base. Without the travel risk of infectious disease transmission and logistical burden of shifting thousands of spectators into large grandstands, stadiums could be adapted quickly to host multi-events and 24-7 live, elite-sports broadcasting.

Rather than having a plethora of stadiums across a city or nation – do we invest in one truly scalable multipurpose arena that has a mixture of virtual and real-life spectators; watching everything from badminton to Aussie rules football?

A global response. New markets, new fans.

Sport has become more than a sign of cultural strength and social bonding. It is aspirational, and for many governments, sport is an opportunity to project wealth and a continuing rise in living standards. The newly prosperous economies of the east have been investing to attract top sports and spectators alike. Apart from the cricket loving nations, cultural uptake has been low. Perhaps part of this is the psychological scars left after the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak.

The COVID-19 outbreak is an opportunity for both the wider sports industry and the nations of South East Asia to help rethink the approach to sports spectators. Indonesia is set to become one of the world's major economies and badminton is currently the #1 participant sport. If established global sports like football, rugby and cricket are going to grow in these markets, is it time for architects and engineers to stop the neocolonial practice of transporting copycat European and American stadiums?

Over the last 30 years, sports venues have made a great design leap in the attempt to address gender inequality. Perhaps, it is time to start thinking and learning from what motivates non-western people and cultures. Activities that can be enjoyed by family social structures need to be better understood, so that new stadium environments can be crafted to capture the imaginations of new markets.

The current global pandemic is a problem shared by all. Now is the time to learn from all and start developing stadiums that are neither self-glorifying white elephants nor loss leaders for the benefit of TV audiences. At the same time, we must keep elite sport elite and aspirational. After all, without the motivating effects of spectator sport, how will any of us lose our newly formed Coronaspeck?

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Martin Fowler
Written by
Martin Fowler

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