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At the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, which opens in March, two night club-type areas cantilever over center court. Renderings courtesy of Populous.
At the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, which opens in March, two night club-type areas cantilever over center court. Renderings courtesy of Populous.

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Introducing the stadium of the future, where technology is king

As football playoffs last month whipped fans to a fever pitch for the forthcoming Super Bowl 50, the NFL decided to look back. As part of the half-century anniversary of the big game, the league dug through its film archives to pull together a "new" broadcast of its first-ever championship game, spliced together from existing sources. The grainy footage of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers battling in the inaugural Super Bowl, looks its age, a slow, plodding Super 8 film compared to today's hi-def, camera-hopping coverage. Pregame entertainment on January 15, 1967, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum included a marching band performance and a pair of guys wearing futuristic jetpacks circling the arena.

The absurdity of two men hovering above the gridiron in white flight suits showed the leaps we've made in gameday entertainment, and, by giving the cameras an excuse to pan over the crowd, demonstrated just how much the stadium experience has changed in a half century. The LA Memorial Coliseum, a cast-in-place concrete bowl designed in the '20s by the father-and-son architectural team of John and Donald Parkinson, is a model of classical grace, with sloping rows of grandstands slowly descending to the field. Its crisp lines and monumental arches strongly suggest its forefathers, the stadiums of the Greeks and Romans. Fans, fixed in place in ascending rows of seats (the old-school benches were swapped out in 1964), simply sat and stared at the field, an experience not all that different from Romans cheering for gladiators centuries before.

The first Super Bowl.

Next Sunday at Super Bowl 50, the Denver Broncos will play the Carolina Panthers at Levi's Stadium, the $1.3 billion home of the San Francisco 49ers that opened in 2014. The mechanics of the game today aren't radically different than what was seen a half-century ago. But the gameday experience in the stands might cause a fedora-wearing fan from the '60s to flip out. From a Super Bowl app (which lets you watch commercials in the stands during forced commercial breaks) to expected record-breaking wireless and wifi traffic, even those with a ticket to the year's biggest game may spend most of their time staring at a small screen.

Smartphone-enabled fans can connect to a system of wireless beacons from any seat in the stadium and order food for delivery; lazier ones can even check the bathroom line. With ApplePay mobile payment enabled, all a fan needs to enjoy the game is a smartphone and a ticket. And it doesn't stop there. Fans can access in-stadium broadcasts from their phones. Every seat in the house can pull up replays, shot from four different camera angles, and question the refs seconds after the whistle is blown.

Levi's architects and designers at HNTB drew inspiration from Roman amphitheaters, creating a wide lower bowl of seats and open concourse to connect fans with the field. But the new factors that shaped the way fans will experience the game were likely developed in nearby Silicon Valley. Technology and the mobile phone, above and beyond advances in building technology, play an increasingly large role in determining how fans experience the next generation of stadiums.

"I always use the Roman Colosseum to Lambeau Field comparison," says architect Mark Williams, a principal and Director of Sports & Entertainment Business Development at HKS, a multinational firm that specializes in stadium design. "In a lot of ways, they're not very different. For centuries, we've built stadiums with a field, a few seating rings, space for concessions, and a support space behind it. In the last few decades, we've updated that concept and built stadiums that are high-performance machines."

In recent decades, architects and builders have used lightweight new materials and sustainable technologies to create a soaring new generation of athletic facilities. The Minnesota Vikings's new, under-construction U.S. Bank Stadium utilized a translucent composite called EFTE to create a clear roof that lets the sun shine on the field—in Minneapolis—in the dead of winter.

But in more important ways, especially as far as fans' attention and team owners' bottom lines, stadiums are slipping. As one of the last live, of-the-moment events in a fragmenting, streaming, and decentralized media world, the live game experience faces a lot more competition.

Rapid shifts in mobile technology and media consumption have forced these increasingly expensive stadiums and arenas, once the centerpiece of the gameday experience, to compete against home viewing for mindshare and money. A Cisco study from 2012 found that 57 percent of sports fans prefer watching the game at home, and research from sports demographer Rich Luker suggests Millennials won't automatically fill seats vacated by their parents: the greatest decline in avid sports fans in the last decade has come among 12- to 17-year-olds and 18- to 34-year-olds. In talks with more than a half-dozen designers from top architecture firms including HKS, Populous, HNTB, and HOK, everyone spoke of the challenge of the couch.

"We think the industry needs to reset," says Bill Johnson of HOK, a global firm that specializes in stadiums and transportation centers. "We're hearing the NFL say that we need to get fans to re-engage with the sport and get out of their mancaves. Since technology has made it so easy for people to engage with the event in their own way in their own space, it's easy to disengage from the live event. We're competing against the cost of gas, parking passes, tailgating, it goes on. [The NFL league average ticket price has jumped from $53.64 in 2000 to $85.83 today.] There's continuing pressure on the design side to create venues that are more flexible, more amazing, and can one-up what you can get at home."

That's why the 49ers invested so much in Levi's technological infrastructure. It starts with the 40 gigabit wifi network, the most powerful in any stadium in the world. John Guillaume with Comcast Business, who provides the network for Levi's Stadium, says someone standing alone in the stands could download a 5 gigabit movie in seconds. Over 70 miles of cable will connect roughly 1,300 access points spread across the stadium, some spaced roughly 100 feet apart (many are placed under the seats, to be as close to spectators and their phones as possible). Saying this Super Bowl will be the most wired in history is akin to saying Apple will be the most profitable tech company next month: it's pretty much assumed.

"With tailgating, going to a football game can be a six-hour experience," says the 49ers Chief Operating Officer Al Guido. "And the real, live action takes between 25 and 30 minutes. People want to see more content and strategy. We think it's enhancing the gameday experience. But a mobile device can never enhance the camaraderie, sights, and sounds of the stadium."

Higher-tech stadiums are not just a requirement for football. Even classic buildings, such as Wrigley Field in Chicago, considered a paragon of the baseball experience, are getting updated with huge video screens. In the NBA, the Sacramento Kings forthcoming Golden 1 Center, promoted as a "21st century Colosseum" by owner Vivek Ranadivé, will boast the fastest wireless network in sports when it opens, and include a data command center and numerous sensors to continually track fan sentiment during basketball games and adjust building conditions.

One of Johnson's current projects, the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Atlanta Falcons, could be seen as a new salvo in the arms race for bigger, better, and more amazing. In the last two decades, nearly every pro football team except the Falcons has renovated or built a new stadium, so it's fitting their new home aims to take a leap beyond the competition. The centerpiece, an "oculus" retractable roof system composed of eight separate panels, slides to create a circular opening above the field in a mere seven minutes.

But the real visual firepower is located just inside the rim. A ring of 58-foot-tall video screens encircle the opening, 1,100 feet in circumference, creating the largest screen of its type in the world. It's even larger than the massive video scoreboard at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home of the Dallas Cowboys, a monstrosity as big as a house that hangs from the roof (and is occasionally struck by particularly high punts). Along with a 100-yard bar perched in the upper concourse that runs the length of the field (a graphic showing the line of scrimmage moves along its surface during the game), the immense, high-resolution screens at Mercedes-Benz Stadium will, hopes Johnson, offer a spectacle that can't be matched at home.

"We want to design features that excite fans the second or third time they come back to the same building," says Johnson. "The built environment is becoming more and more activated with technology, where it was static before."

The Falcons' 100-yard bar may seem like a gimmick, but it's just the latest in a series of gathering places being grafted into stadium designs that recreate the community aspects of watching the game at home or at a sports bar, while also offering a unique vantage point and bragging rights. Demand for high-end suites, once a prime consideration when going over a potential stadium design, is quickly being superseded by social spaces.

"Twenty years ago it was all about the in-seat experience, but for the next generation of consumers, it's more about a choose-your-own adventure-type experience," says Jeremy Krug, a senior associate and project designer at Populous. "They're in their seats for a play, then they're watching the game from different vantage points, socializing … It's all geared towards making it more friendly, more high technology, and more immersive."

Similar setups in current and proposed stadiums seem straight out of a luxury hotel, exemplifying how fans are tiring of single-seat experience, or going for an experience above and beyond the game playing out in front of them. The Jacksonville Jaguars have poolside cabanas above their north end zone. The Miami Dolphins may be jumping the shark with high-end "living rooms," premium seating packages that include recliners and televisions in the stadium. In the forthcoming T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas designed by Populous, which opens in March, two nightclub-like environments will cantilever over center court.

"It's a really cool vantage point, socially and millennial driven, and very Las Vegas," says Krug.

The Falcons's new, high-tech home also exemplifies the economic factors behind the progression of stadium design over the last half-century. Greg Otto, a principal at the structural engineering firm Walter P. Moore, points to his firm's first foray into the field, the Houston Astrodome, as the beginning of the modern age of design. Built in 1965 and nicknamed the "Eighth Wonder of the World," the concrete-and-steel structure, the world's first enclosed dome stadium, was built at a time when labor was relatively cheap, so teams and developers could spend extensive amounts of money on materials.

Due to cost and complexity, stadiums like the Astrodome, or Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, built in 1970, were envisioned as multi-sport facilities. But over the next few decades, as revenues rose, owners increasingly sought out purpose-built stadiums for specific sports. In Kansas City, Arrowhead Stadium, a football stadium built for the Chiefs, and Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals baseball team, were constructed next to each other in the early '70s and share a parking lot.

But that specialty era was relatively short-lived, as the economics of sports and fans' desires changed the equation. The demand for more revenue made the purpose-built stadiums, used for just a handful of home games, seem luxurious. Increasing material costs meant massive concrete-and-steel shells became a luxury (the relatively svelte Levi's Stadium looks like a seating bowl propped up with an erector set in comparison). The value and revenue potential of luxury suites made their inclusion in any new stadium layout imperative (in the NFL, luxury suite revenue is exempt from the league's revenue-sharing agreement). And the aforementioned competition with home entertainment meant new stadiums needed increasingly expensive video screens, and eventually wireless networks. The result today, a flexible and high-tech stadium or arena, has a much lighter footprint.

All these trends find their apex in the proposed L.A. Rams football stadium, the new home for the formerly St. Louis-based franchise. Designed by HKS, the first new home for LA football in decades won't open until 2019 and hasn't even broken ground at its site in Inglewood, running with the working title City of Champions Stadium. But with a record-breaking price tag expected to top $2.6 billion, and a unique indoor-outdoor concept, it's already being viewed as visionary.

The centerpiece of the design is the curved roof, a layer of transparent EFTE plastic meant to recall a sail, that appears pinned to the corners of the site. Sculpted in response to extensive climate studies, the clear roof will catch breeze and capture the California sun, all while providing enough cover to shade fans and give the facility 365-day-a-year usability.

Williams, the lead designer, says even on the massive scale of a professional sports stadium, the design exemplifies the indoor-outdoor ideal championed by the region's architects. Immaculately landscaped grounds surround the stadium, linked to the outside with a series of "canyons," sculpted pathways connecting the stadium with its surroundings that were modeled after natural paths found on the California coast.

"I think it's a profound step in the evolution of a flexible building," he says. "Stadiums started as open-air buildings that worked as long as the weather was great. Then we went to venues that were enclosed. Then we tried venues that transform themselves with retractable roofs. I think we did that best with AT&T Stadium in Dallas [another HKS project]. Now, this Rams stadium has taken it to an incredibly more sophisticated level."

Like the Falcons's new home, this venue is completely wired. The seating bowl of the stadium is "immersed in the technology world," says Johnson, with multiple, 360-degree rings of video boards and large, two-sided screens in the middle of the field. It has the hardware to compete with any venue in the NFL, he says, with enough screen surface area that patrons are surrounded everywhere they look. "The design fits with where we're at as a society, the connected-at-the-hip reality of the modern world," he says. "You won't be able to understand the full impact of it from the renderings, but when you see it in person, you'll be blown away."

The forthcoming Rams stadium may sound way too extravagant for just a handful of football games every year, and the designers would agree. With billions at stake, the stadium isn't just an end in itself—it's meant as a catalyst for real estate and neighborhood transformation. The entire 300-acre complex includes housing, office space, retail, a hotel, and a lake, an anchor for a hoped-for property boom.

As prices for these complexes, and the land they sit on, continue to rise, stadiums and arenas are increasingly being asked to do double-duty as centerpieces for neighborhood redevelopment. The under-construction hockey arena for the Detroit Red Wings, an HOK project set to open in 2017, was designed with a wrap-around canopy covering an "indoor street" of retail; it'll be the focus of a huge 50-block development set to revitalize a swath of Detroit.

"These stadiums are so much more than what they were in the past," says Brian Mirakian, a principal at the Kansas City-based firm Populous. "They're highly dynamic entertainment complexes. More and more, we're asking, how do you extend the experience of the building beyond the walls?"

Mirakian's firm has been involved in developing a new home for the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, featuring a proposed design that positions the arena as a centerpiece for urban development. Part of a proposed large mixed-use district downtown, the concept would include a public plaza, allowing the area to host outdoor concerts and events above and beyond what's on the basketball calendar. In similar fashion, the firm's soon-to-open T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas anchors an open-air entertainment district connected to the Strip, which includes a performance stage.

"We're looking to drive new revenue opportunities in these buildings," says Nate Appleman, a director at HOK. "Premium seating and sponsorships are important, but people are looking for new ways to bring revenue sources to the table to help develop these projects."

Appleman points to the new Notre Dame stadium as a perfect example of thinking beyond the typical stadium confines. The $400 million Campus Crossroads Project will expand the campus's famed football stadium, adding 4,000 luxury seats. But in a bid to activate the site beyond the typical schedule of 10 annual home games, the new structure will include facilities for the anthropology and psychology departments, a student life center, and a digital music center.

Since technology has made it so easy for people to engage with the event in their own way in their own space, it's easy to disengage from the live event.

But academics and researchers, including Stanford economist Roger Noll, have studied the situation and said that local stadiums don't often generate the economic returns they promise, especially in light of the often sizable tax breaks and land subsidies provided by cities as an incentive. Temple University sports economist Michael Leeds has said that a baseball team has the same economic impact on a city as a department store. The only model that seems to make sense, according to Victor Matheson, an economist at Holy Cross, is the Staples Center in Los Angeles, a multi-use facility that hosts events nearly 250 days a year.

"By comparison, other billion dollar facilities—like a major shopping center or large manufacturing plant—will employ many more people and generate substantially more revenue and taxes," Noll said.

Noll, who foresees a future where teams generate more income from media deals, sees the era of bigger and better stadiums potentially drawing to a close. Stung by the high investment costs, owners will opt for smaller, more luxurious, and higher-tech stadiums that function, like many of the stadiums discussed above, as "anchor tenants" in large developments.

Stadiums have always been landmarks, the heart of a team or franchise, but increasingly, they're being asked to symbolize a lot more. In addition to more and more technological demands—many of the designers see a future that may soon include virtual reality, multiple camera angles, in-house content, what Johnson calls "expanding the idea of the event"—sustainability, and its attendant cost savings, are also a focus. Levi's Stadium is LEED Gold certified, and the Falcons are aiming for LEED Platinum. Many believe that lightweight materials, smart building technology, LED lighting, and rainwater collections mean the first net-zero energy pro stadium isn't far away.

With all the tasks being asked of modern sports stadiums, and all the built-in distractions being added, it seems the actual field or court has become less and less of a focus.

"The struggle has been, what is the experience of the game, and what design is most true to that?" says Otto. "I don't think all venues are true to that."

As Guido and the rest of his colleagues gear up for what will almost certainly be the most photographed, broadcasted, streamed, liked, and Snapchatted sporting event in history, he isn't worrying. For him, it always goes back to "The Catch." During the 1982 NFC Championship game at Candlestick Park, where the 49ers used to play, Dwight Clark leapt with less than a minute left to make the winning catch and put San Francisco ahead. Guido knows that only about 70,000 people were at that game. But he guarantees he's met a million in the Bay Area who claim to have been in the stands, hoping to cash in on the cache of having been there.

"The field is sacred," he says. "That's the high drama, and the great part of sports. I'm not going to call it the last bastion, necessarily, but sports can feel like the last thing with real, live drama. You can't play it back and have it be the same. Technology can't change the great game that it is."

Editor: Sara Polsky

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