Standing Ovation

Rory Squires finds out how, and why, Orlando City plans to create a vibrant atmosphere with a safe-standing section in its new stadium from 2016.

Whereas safe-standing areas at stadia are commonplace in mainland Europe, in the United States, such facilities are an extreme rarity in professional sport. However, that could be about to change.

Orlando City SC – which will enter Major League Soccer (MLS) this year following its USL (United Soccer League) Pro inclusion since 2010 – plans to move into a new $110 million venue in 2016; Populous, the design company for the 19,500-capacity stadium, has incorporated a safe-standing area into the plans.

If the area meets the necessary building regulations and approvals, Orlando City will have the first such spectator facility in the league, stoking what the club will hope will be the best atmosphere of any stadium in north American soccer.

The terracing will also be installed so that seating can be placed directly on top of it if safe-standing permission is rejected.

“Standing is what the fans want to do, and they do it anyway,” Orlando City president and founder Phil Rawlins told SportBusiness International. “If they are going to stand, let’s put them in an environment where they can stand safely and enjoy it so they’re not endangering people around them.

“We haven’t really looked at whether there will be a positive or negative financial impact by having a standing area. We simply believe that it is the right thing to do for the fans. Having the safe-standing section has been our stated goal from the beginning and we’re working though the approvals process with the relevant authorities right now.”

Though Populous senior principal Bruce Miller admits approvals for the concept are yet to be granted, he says preliminary discussions have been well received.

“We are hoping for some positive news before construction begins this spring,” he told SportBusiness International. “Part of the planning is that we have traditional tread depth in the terracing so seats can be installed, but we are very confident about the plans from a safety standpoint.”

Fans First

The club and Populous drew inspiration from venues such as Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion in the German Bundesliga – home of the famously fervent 25,000-capacity terrace known as the Yellow Wall.

“We looked at the Bundesliga and how they did standing,” adds Miller. “In Orlando there will be a rail seat and a cup holder, so it will be very convenient for the spectator and much safer than benches, which are common in north America. We hope it will become a model of how to do it in the United States and possibly further afield. In this country I’m sure they will become more common.”

The 1989 Hillsborough disaster – where overcrowding on a terrace led to the deaths of 96 Liverpool away fans at Nottingham Forest’s Hillsborough stadium – led to an eventual ban on standing areas at football stadia in the top two divisions in England.

However, in recent years, a safe-standing campaign in the country has won the backing of numerous fan groups, even though any momentum for political support has been stuttered. A common argument from those who back the safe-standing campaign is that the traditional matchday atmosphere has suffered due to the introduction of all-seat stadia.

According to Rawlins – who last year sold his shares and resigned as director of his hometown English Premier League team Stoke City to concentrate on Orlando City – the idea of building “an authentic soccer stadium” rather than a standard United States “bowl” was central to the proposal for a standing area. He also says the design has been crafted to “appeal to the senses”.

“We have all seen documentaries about the Hillsborough disaster, so this proposal is not something that we take lightly at all,” adds Miller. “However, we believe that we’ve come up with a great way to do it, that is safe, and will enhance the experience for the fans. It will also benefit the players, who will react to the atmosphere and the energy from the stands.”

Focus Energy

The new stadium will also feature a roof that covers every seat, and will be lower than other venues in the league to contain the acoustics. The stands themselves will be as close to the pitch as possible in an effort to “focus the energy back on the pitch,” according to Miller.

Pedestrians outside the ground on Church Street – Orlando’s main entertainment thoroughfare – will also be given a glimpse of the lush green playing surface even on non-match days, with the pitch having been lowered to 10-feet below street level and the south-east corner having been left deliberately open.

“The impact of being able to look down into the stadium from street level will be pretty amazing,” says Miller. “It’s going to be a magnet for the passers-by as you don’t see much green space in that sort of urban environment.

“We also want to build a stadium that is uniquely Orlando and we believe that the stadium’s south plaza, which will open up to Church Street, will create the buzz we are looking for. Church Street is where all the bars are, so we will be putting it into the traditional English context of everyone congregating at downtown pubs before matches.

“Our cities are not as vibrant as most in Britain, and we are hoping this will act as a catalyst for activity and economic revitalisation of the neighbourhood.”

Magnify Impact

Though the stadium is being designed to leave the possibility of further expansion in the corners and the south-west of the bowl, the initial concept is deliberately intimate, in stark contrast to the cavernous 65,000-seat Citrus Bowl, where the team will play its inaugural MLS season.

“The impact will be huge, simply because when you put soccer in the right environment and arena you magnify the game’s impact on the fans,” says Rawlins. “So having 20,000 fans in a 20,000-capacity arena that is bouncing is very different to having 20,000 fans in a 60,000-seat amphitheatre.”

Aside from the ongoing approvals process for the safe-standing area, the development has not been without challenges. The stadium’s construction site itself was shifted one block to the west, leading to a completely new set of facility relocations.

“We’ve built our practice on creating complex urban projects,” says Miller. “MLS is evolving pretty quickly and I would say soccer-specific stadia are now entering a second generation. The prototype is evolving to meet the expectations of the fans.”

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