Many of us can wax lyrical about that once-in-a-lifetime stadium experience. It is the making of childhoods, the rite of passage into adolescence, the entertainment folly of adults and the bonding of families.
For me, my all-time favourite stadium experience coincides with my worst – the 2007 AFL grand final watching my beloved Port Adelaide Football Club enter a heaving arena for the big game before an ultimate thrashing. Before the goals started raining down for Geelong, and even during, the experience was amazing and reinforced in me how special live sport at a full stadium can be. Imagine if my team performs better next time.
Stadia are structures of steel, glass and concrete, but on match or event day, they breathe, scream and groan. Starting as a blank canvas, once the gates open, a stadium fills with an overwhelming energy. Bursting with tens of thousands of sports fans or show lovers, all chanting and cheering, the intoxicating atmosphere that is created is what we love as fans and what stadia engineers, architects and operators strive to achieve when their work of art comes to life.
I am not only a fan, but also an engineer designing stadia; I still make memories, but I also look at the venue through a different lens.
This lens is not just the stadium form and function and how it makes me and others feel, but also how it enlivens and embraces the character of the surrounding precinct and contributes to the social fabric of the city or town in which it proudly stands.
As games and events were cancelled, postponed or scaled-back, we all retreated to our loungerooms, having to be content with streaming our favourite games and entertainment online. At the now-historic Tokyo Olympics, athletes had to be content performing in front of empty stands, with onlookers at home and in the streets, watching from afar.
Big-name music stars, used to year-long, globe-trotting stadia tours, have been entertaining us from their bedrooms, and our favourite sports teams have had to operate in quarantine ‘bubbles’, playing games far away from their hometown crowd, in front of empty seats.
As some people yearn for what they’ve missed during the pandemic, others have become comfortable in their loungerooms, watching games on their big screens, and wonder if ‘live’ sports and entertainment will ever return to pre-COVID times.
Will stadia be able to compete with home streaming services and high definition screens for our attention and attendance in the future? How will they need to be designed and operated to entice people back into their welcome embrace?
To find the answers to these questions, I undertook a research study of stadia stakeholders, as part of the Aurecon Design Academy, to find out how the pandemic would influence stadia design and operation in the future.
More than 100 online survey responses were received from an open-source invitation to global stadia operators, designers, event organisers and spectators. Survey respondents ranked the most important factors for a successful stadium, and how they viewed stadia in the context of a city or region’s design.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, and consistent with long-standing stadia design principles, the three most important design factors for respondents were (See Figure 1):
These responses highlight the importance of stadia design to create experiences for spectators, from the moment they leave their home to the time they return, and everything in-between.
It also highlights the importance of how individual stadia activate their precinct – facilitating activity before and after an event and on non-event days, connected to other activities and experiences. Public transport accessibility, surrounding family-friendly activities, and other nearby sporting infrastructure were the top three developments that survey respondents valued most around a stadium (See Figure 2).
Over a three-week period, the online survey was complemented with interviews conducted with prominent stadia engineers, entertainment managers, stadia operators and architects, to gauge their insights on how the themes of the pandemic and rising security threats were impacting stadia design and operation.
Their views were consistent in stating that, when spectators and patrons attend live events from now on, they’ll encounter a rather different experience. However, they overwhelmingly want to offer a full experience – from arrival and pre-event to the event itself and then post event and departure.
Interviewees suggested that human-centred design, ease of accessibility to the venue and the type of original interactions on site (retail, food, car park) will draw people out from their loungerooms and back into a stadium. A well designed and well positioned stadium also acts as a catalyst for the precinct and surrounding area, helping to attract people locally, and from abroad (when travel reopens), and has significant associated engagement for neighbouring facilities.
Stadia design now must look inwards towards the playing surface as well as increasingly be open to the outside to harness the 24/7 experience and flexibility expected by patrons.
A successful stadium design can attract public praise, entice patrons to the venue, and be a source of pride and economic prosperity for the local community and beyond.
While accessibility, activation and fan experience are key, the ever-evolving nature of security threats was also identified as an issue by most of the interviewees, given the dynamic and ever-present nature of this hazard.
Security used to be a simple high-level bag check. While this remains important, the evolving nature of terrorism incidents around the world has broadened the security threat impacting stadium arrivals as spectators undergo more thorough checks.
Security protection solutions are operable, however stadia operators and event promoters are conscious they don’t want the security check process to negatively impact a spectator’s experience before they even see the ground or stage.
Design solutions need to therefore look at behavioural aspects of stakeholder interactions as well as processes and operational guidelines, and new and adapted physical infrastructure and plant.
Interviewees conceded that stress levels are still high for stadia design and operation, given that the pandemic has led to widespread closure or scaling back of stadia attendance almost overnight.
As games and events begin to re-emerge, new health screening overlays will face fans. Interviewees highlighted how important it is in stadia design and operation to satisfy fans that their health and well-being expectations are being met.
In this aspect, stadia, and event organisers, should be well prepared as the design and operation of stadia has long focused on the user experience and how to positively impact and influence that experience to promote attendance and revenue.
For many in the community, the ability to be part of the crowd, feel the atmosphere and witness sporting and entertainment at the highest level, is part of what makes life enjoyable.
Safety and security must therefore be integrated and considered at the earliest stages of stadia design, following a 'security in depth' approach, but remembering a certain amount of flexibility will be required that allows for different security circumstances that will arise in the future.
The bigger legacy may well be a focus on health and well-being and, by default, sustainability. Stadia developers are becoming more interested in aspects such as natural ventilation and sanitisation. As spectators and patrons need to feel safe and secure when attending events, these elements will be more closely considered.
The amount of space around a stadium may have to be more generous to enable people to enter safely. Venues may also need to reconfigure their public and office spaces to offer more generous spacing to the movement of guests.
Parametric modelling to define seating configurations to maximise crowd attendance while satisfying social distancing presents an opportunity. Future designs could provide more variety, particularly if the future planning for pandemics includes a demand for more personal, socially-distanced spaces. More personalised spaces may become available, such as offering families theatre-style viewing boxes, or swapping some areas to safe standing zones.
The importance of community vaccination is an emerging trend in future stadia management. Most governments appear to be striving for a 70-80 per cent full vaccination rate with varying levels of compliance and urgency amongst the community. The production of a vaccination passport is under consideration for many venues with the ability to vet attendance to those fully vaccinated.
Other governments are steering away from vaccination passports where community vaccination rates exceed the targets that the health infrastructure can support. What is clear is the response of stadia and event management will need to remain agile for some time in the response to the pandemic with different jurisdictions likely to have different regulations.
All stakeholders interviewed agreed that engineering design in tandem with architectural design, attraction and user needs are going to be important when designing the stadia of the future.
Technical challenges of stadia design are generally well documented – venue sight lines, egress times and approaches, fire evacuation, structural stability, stormwater design and management. Human-centred, experience-based design, and understanding how fans interact with the venue, will evolve to incorporate more flexible responses to security and safety.
These solutions are defined by the journey map of the stakeholder experience through all interactions with the stadium, the precinct, and how they travel to and from the venue. This re-energising of stadia design lies in a whole-of-life approach through Aurecon’s stakeholder 5E methodology (See Figure 3):
Not all these phases are under the control of a stadium operator or event organiser, and interviewees recognised that collaboration with other parties was important to be able to influence a successful series of solutions. Agility and flexibility will also be demanded as the solutions are highly likely to continually iterate to ‘new normals’.
Design trends that will accelerate include digital screening technologies and contactless technology, not only in terms of moving people through spaces, but engaging with guests while they’re inside the stadium – again a tactic to draw people out of their loungerooms. Previously, this might have been considered as ‘a nice to have’; now it will become more essential.
The stadia experience is paramount and resonated strongly through the industry interviews. Integration with the precinct is a key method to improve the spectator experience with the flow-on benefits to decrease peak demands on arrivals and departures by smoothing the timing and duration of attendances. The public domain area surrounding a stadium has to offer the best possible experience for visitors.
A vibrant precinct that entices people to visit, by engaging with the local environment and connecting with local businesses, further activates a stadium and generates economic returns.
Incorporating security and health and safety measures will be non-negotiable and will need to be designed in such a way as to not adversely impact the fan experience. In fact, enhancing the experience will be essential.
People are social beings, and many are yearning to return to large crowd events to cheer on their favourite sports team or enjoy a performance. Televised broadcasts don’t transmit the liveliness and unity experienced inside a great stadium. While a sports game can be watched from a loungeroom, for many that dims the experience and makes for faded memories.
It’s human nature that people will still love to experience a game or performance inside a stadium, so the theme of ‘you had to be there’ will retain its value.
Garth Rowland uses his experience in structural engineering design of stadia, leisure facilities, and long span structures, to deliver value for clients, cities and communities. His designs have involved construction in structural and architectural steelwork, composite construction, reinforced and post tensioned concrete, precast and masonry. He has worked on iconic projects such as Bankwest Stadium, Adelaide Convention Centre and Adelaide Oval Redevelopment.
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