Today’s post is courtesy of guest blogger Scott Radecic.
The fan experience is evolving and no one can deny it. Survey after survey shows that fans are less likely to attend a game and more likely to enjoy it from the comfort of their couch, where they can keep their eye on their fantasy football statistics and other games at the same time. Why you ask? There are more NFL, MLB, MLS and NHL fans than ever before with more access points- including television, the internet, smartphones and tablets. To be a fan, you don’t have to have season tickets; you simply have to have internet access. While this accessibility has allowed many sports to reach a record-high popularity, it has also left architects, stadium managers and owners exploring how to entice fans to return to the stadium once again. And they’re finding innovative ways to do it.
Now, architects and teams alike are taking cues from what fans enjoy most about the in-home experience – the unparalleled access to information and the comfort factor – and finding ways to transform their live in-game experience accordingly. In response to the current conditions, a number of stadiums have recently undergone large-scale renovations or simply built new, with the primary focus of these facilities being creating an experience that is intimate, driven by access to technology and other fans and in turn, providing clear value for the ticket price.
One of the best examples is at Sporting Park, home of the MLS’ Sporting Kansas City. The facility has become a benchmark for how to create an experience worth leaving the couch …and they’ve done it quickly and for a reasonable price. When Sporting Park opened in 2011, the team’s average attendance per game more than doubled, they went from being last in new season ticket sales to first in the MLS and went from last in merchandise sales, behind even generic MLS gear, to the top five in the league. Part of the success can be attributed to well-contrived rebranding plan and part of the credit should go to a strategic new stadium that encompasses the best in sports technology and creates an environment that is far and above the experience you would get from your recliner. Fans in Kansas City are suddenly re-energized and Sporting Kansas City has sold out nearly every game in their new facility.
The lessons learned at Sporting Park are ones that carry over to every sport- from Major League Baseball to hockey. Stadiums, in many ways, present teams with the opportunity to re-define their organizations and set a clear path toward long-term sustained growth and success. Coupled with the impact of the power of technological innovation on the long-term success of a facility, it is easy to understand teams’ and cities’ desire to renovate or build. They are aiming to create awe inspiring experiences that set a new standard for the fan experience and re-energize their teams. And at the end of the day, we know the intangible quality of experiencing a game among an energized crowd in a facility that offers the best of the best can keeps fans coming back and revenue coming in.
But what does this entail? This conversation is a constant in the lives of sports architects. How do you create that intangible feeling and what do the coming years have in store for the sports stadiums of the future? Sporting Park is a great example of where things are headed and there are a number of key factors that will impact new builds and renovations over the coming decade, including:
1. Fan Engagement
Fan engagement and the evolving expectations of the modern fan are undoubtedly at the core of the innovations we’ve seen in professional sports. We ask ourselves how can we capture the fans’ attention when they reach the stadium? How can we engage them outside of the game? How can we provide a memorable experience that makes it worthwhile to attend a game? There are a lot of ways to answer this, but it comes down to providing exclusive content, exclusive access and exclusive experiences. Architects are planning for bigger scoreboards and videoboards with clearer pictures. Teams are finding ways to improve the WiFi availability within stadiums so fans can stream content, monitor their fantasy football team and share their experience via social media all without losing track of the game in front of them. In addition, fans are looking to feel like they are part of something more intimate. They want to be able to share that they’ve seen or experienced something no one else has, so teams are adding smaller neighborhoods of seats within the stadium, from loge boxes to club seating, and as time and technology progresses, those fans may have access to athletes and to exclusive locker room, pre-game or sideline coverage.
Beyond just the technology being used, the way a fan actually engages with a game socially is becoming essential to the design and renovation of stadiums. Part of this is allowing for an intricate, extensive WiFi system, but it doesn’t stop there. There has to be serious consideration given to the behaviors of fans and how they’ve evolved. Fans now want to share what they are doing simultaneously and there is no indication that this is slowing down; therefore teams will likely adopt systems like the one at Sporting KC, where they are able to share videos and pictures in real-time that stream on one of the massive video boards in the stadium. In addition, access to apps that allow for concierge style service, instant replays and loyalty programs will be key. Further down the line, augmented reality and technology like Google Glass will allow fans to overlay information and perhaps even feel like they are on the field. In turn, specific spaces may be designed to accommodate this and the access to stats and data that fans don’t get at home will be sure to draw fans to the stadium.
3. Social gathering spaces
By repurposing currently under-utilized areas of the stadium, teams can create unique experiences that rival and exceed what you may get at home. This is done in a variety of ways, but most prominently by creating social gathering spaces, branded environments, various premium seating options and engaging sponsor access points. These social gathering spaces become experiences in themselves functioning as destinations within the destination. This may include a full-service sports bar with clear sightlines and a close proximity to the field or a technology hub, where fans can stop in and check stats, plug in their phones, browse the web and monitor other games all without losing site of the game in front of them.
This, of course, is just the beginning. There are no limitations to what the stadium experience may become over the coming decade. One thing is for sure: finding ways to create high-quality, technologically advanced and unique experiences is a never ending quest for architects and teams. Whether through branded social gathering spaces or the integration of the latest technology, creating destinations that draw people together and provide exclusive access will make the in-stadium experience something worth leaving the house for.
Scott Radecic is a Senior Principal at Populous, a global sports architecture firm, and a former NFL linebacker with the Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs. He currently oversees collegiate and NFL projects for the firm, providing strategic planning, budgeting and project management services.