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Whether it be weddings on the hallowed turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, or afternoon tea in Lord’s Long Room, venue operators are looking for ever more creative ways to turn their sporting structures into fully operational commercial venues, open for business 365 days a year. Kevin Roberts provides a definitive guide to turning your white elephant into a home-for-all-occasions, as he finds out the most effective methods and common pitfalls of making your sports stadia about more than just sport.

Whoever wrote the line ‘build it and they will come’ was missing the point.

Sure, they’ll flock to arenas and stadia on event days. But what happens when the full-time whistle blows and the lights go out? How do professional sports organisations ensure their facilities continue to drive both revenue and awareness when their superstar athletes are not there to draw a crowd?

The ability to sweat what is generally an organisation’s biggest and most under-used asset is becoming increasingly important as clubs and venue owners look for every opportunity to create sustainable revenue streams from nongame day activities. For some it’s about simply balancing the books and staying afloat, while for others it generates a financial contribution which ultimately contributes to success on the field.

It’s hardly a new phenomenon and sports stadiums have, for example, been staging nonsports events for decades. When the Beatles hit the big time in the United States it was their performance at the New York Mets’ Shea Stadium that sealed the deal with the American media and public, and concerts remain an important source of non-sport revenue around the world.

 

Innovative pitch management and flooring systems together with flexible seating have become the rule in newly-built facilities, offering huge opportunities to broaden the scope of events that can be staged at an individual venue to maximise use.

However, for most the search for new ways of raising additional cash continues. After all, the notion of a multi-million dollar building standing idle for over 300 days a year, demanding maintenance and not delivering a single extra penny in revenue is enough to have CEOs and their finance directors reaching for the Valium.

Received wisdom has it that need drives innovation but, according to Nicholas Reynolds of stadia architects and consultants Populous, genuine innovation is hard to find when it comes to secondary use of sports facilities.

“Business knowledge has increased over the years and there is more awareness in the sector about what can be done and people tend to stick to tried and tested routes. Innovation is really quite rare here,” he said.

“So much is dependent on location and the appropriateness of a particular venue. The use of stadia for a range of other activities is down to footfall and being connected to the urban fabric. If you look at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium that works as a venue for conferences and other events because it is not just a great venue but it is connected to central London. It naturally has far more potential than an out-of-town venue.

“You need footfall and so many attempts to generate secondary use fail if that’s not there.”

“In football, for example, the opportunities for developing secondary revenue streams differ depending on the size and ambition of the club itself. If you are in the English Premier League with the massive revenues that delivers, the revenues from a hotel on-site may not be as important as they are for a club further down the pyramid.

“Some clubs have a different way of looking at the business of football. At (second-tier Championship side) Milton Keynes Dons, the business is based around stadiummk and the surrounding site. That drives revenue rather than the football club which is seen as a loss-leader. However, most clubs do not have that luxury.”

Sport and Retail

Reynolds sees a future in which a sports club’s stadium is increasingly the focal point for a global match-day audience who absorb the experience through creative use of digital media.

The fact is that the modern stadium is becoming a shopping mall with a pitch

That, he believes, puts the emphasis on the stadium being designed to be a ‘visual representation of the brand with the players as content’.

He sees the stadium as being a critical element to building global fan loyalty which will be the key to major revenues streams in the years ahead, and is concerned that the inappropriate use of stadium sites for retail developments, hotels and other leisure facilities could ultimately compromise the ‘classic’ revenues.

He points to the Stade de Suisse in Berne, Switzerland, as an example of good practice.

There is a retail mall of 36 stores that has been built beneath the stadium, maximising use of the site while not impinging on its visual identity.

The retail component has become an important consideration in stadium projects from Taipei to Ghent in Belgium where the 20,000 seat Ghelamco Arena, includes a gym, supermarket and offices.

“The fact is that the modern stadium is becoming a mall with a pitch,” said Jos Verschueren, Director of Sports Management at Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.

“In five years or so technology may well have changed the ways people relate to stadia, enhancing the fan experience within and outside the arena. But there is a need for stadium owners to find ways of making the best possible use of their venues and that is unlikely to change,” he told SportBusiness International.

“It is now common place for stadiums to host conferences, concerts and to be the venue for wedding and even funerals. But we are also seeing new approaches to staging events not normally held in stadium settings.

“The Veltins Arena in Schalke, Germany, which is best known as the home of the Schalke 04 Bundesliga team, was converted into an ice hockey venue for the 2010 World Ice Hockey World Championships.

“They closed the roof, created ice and while skiing elements were held outside and watched on big screens, the 25,000 crowd saw other disciplines inside the stadium in comfort. That’s an excellent example of creative crossover.”

Of course not every innovation pays off. The Cleveland Indians MLB team turned its Progressive Field stadium into a Winter Wonderland with artificial snow, ice rinks, slides and rides during the 2010-11 off-seasons but canned the idea as interest dwindled.

While that idea may not have worked, many others do. From jobs fairs to farmers markets, sports facilities and their surrounding infrastructure provide accessible space for the broadest range of activities.

That understanding, driven by the economic imperative to maximise revenue for hugely costly assets, has changed the way stadia are designed, managed and viewed by the public.

So build it and they will come: shopping… working out…getting married…watching bands and, occasionally, to cheer on their team.

 

To continue reading SportBusiness International’s sector focus, please click the links below:

1. Profile: The Jockey Club

2. Case Study: Croke Park

3. Case Study: The Ricoh Arena 

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