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A Whole New Ball Game

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Peanuts and Cracker Jack aren’t the only things that take fans out to the ball game these days. There are interactive LED screens, sustainably sourced concourses, and highly customized seating options drawing spectators, too. According to Jon Knight, senior principal at Kansas City firm Populous, designing large-scale sporting and event arenas today, as his company does, requires a fresh perspective. “I think a lot of it has to do with the additional entertainment and hospitality that’s become part and parcel of the experience of a sporting event,” he says. 

The Populous team has dreamed up stadiums and arenas from Miami’s bold new Marlins Park to the dramatically curved Olympic arena now under construction for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. With each new design, holistic visitor experience is the top priority. A decade ago, design choices may have revolved around technical and traditional considerations like good sight lines and layout, but now contemporary design puts a premium on creating an immersive visit “from parking lot to seat,” Knight says. 

At the Kansas City Chiefs’ home turf, Arrowhead Stadium, for instance, he and his colleagues turned a nondescript entry ramp in the five-decade-old building into what Knight calls a “fan activation space” with a band platform, interactive video screens, and light and sound features. “Instead of just the leftover space, it’s become a focal point during the process of moving from your car into the stadium. It’s about creating those points along the way, rather than having nothing in between your car and your seat,” Knight says. “We’re putting those interactive zones between us and the field.” 

Another example of an unexpected detail that has made a big impact can be found at the new Marlins Park, where a wall of plastic bobblehead figures is rigged to be in constant motion. “It doesn’t matter what inning it is, there’s always a crowd of people around that,” Knight says. “These are the kinds of things we’ve learned over time to include.” 

That focus on all-encompassing fan experiences extends to offering guests more sustainable venues as well, even if the guests can’t actually see the green elements. “So much of what we do is really about the technology of mechanical systems: how we heat and cool, how we recycle and collect water, and how we filter water and reuse it. Those things are a lot more difficult for most people to see and understand,” Knight says. But Knight doesn’t think that will always be the case. As these kinds of practices become more mainstream, he predicts more visible systems like solar panels and green roofs will gain popularity. 

A more obvious (yet persistant) challenge is the fans themselves, who keep turning up in even greater numbers . “It’s pretty crazy stuff when you start talking about designing an arena for 22,000 people or a collegiate football stadium for 50,000 students or a convention center that’s going to turn 100,000 guests over three days,” Knight says. His firm relies on years of research and observation of human behavior and patterns, as well as special software, to dictate the way their plans will accom- modate such volume. 

“You have to pay a lot of attention to how people move through spaces, how to make them stop when you want them to stop architecturally, and how to keep them moving when you want them to flow,” he says. Moving forward, Knight thinks event venues will become increasingly personalized. In years past, a typical stadium might offer 80 suites, 10,000 club seats, and 50,000 general admission seats, Knight says. Today, those numbers are drastically different—five or six types of suites or club seats, and a variety of other options for fans to choose from, are common.

“We really started paying attention to who’s coming to the game,” Knight says. “You can be cynical and say we’re thinking about the fans as customers rather than fans, but you could also say, I bet the fans are happier because we’re now giving them more exactly what they want.” 

Perhaps just as important as people is place. Because these types of structures often serve as a symbol of a city or its team, there’s a lot of added pressure to get the personality of the design just right. “The only thing that’s consistent with different soccer stadiums [for example] is the size of the pitch,” Knight says. “But after that, it’s all about the place and the personality of the team, what their goals are, what they’re trying to attain, how they want to build their fan base, and how they want to build community.” 

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