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NFL stadium designers look to social media, youth to guide next wave of new facilities

  • Stadium design influences now include fields such as sociology and anthropology
  • In-venue fan migration, common in other sports, now impacting football stadium design
  • Delivering an Instagram-ready moment at all times a key priority

The latest National Football League stadium building boom – highlighted in the last half-decade by new facilities in Atlanta, Minneapolis, a substantially renovated site in South Florida, and forthcoming new facilities in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Inglewood, California – has brought with it not only bold new thoughts on how to arrange steel and concrete but a sharply heightened focus on fan psychology and what now appeals to younger audiences.

In each instance, deep troves of social research have become their own cornerstones in creating a set of facilities that in short order have dramatically reshaped what it means to attend an NFL game.

“We don’t start as architects on our projects,” said Bryan Trubey, executive vice president for HKS Inc., and chief designer of US Bank Stadium, the new home of the Minnesota Vikings. We have a team researchers, some are sociologists, some are anthropologists, some have psychology backgrounds. We did a huge amount of research on the culture, the city, the people that live in the area, and how they value things. That is what helps us create an iconic mage that is represented in the culture.”

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The heightened focus on psychological data presents a dramatic change for a sport of football that even after the prior new stadium wave in the 1990s and early 2000s has been still largely built for fans only leaving their seats at halftime.

But the accelerating trends toward constant fan migration that have transformed baseball in recent years have made their way to football, and designers are paying close attention.

“Now we have young fans that don’t really care about sitting in their seats anymore,” says Bill Johnson, design principal with HOK and architect for the Atlanta Falcons’ two-year-old Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “They want to walk around. They want to have an Instagram moment with their buddies. Go have a beer in one corner then go to the upper deck in the video lounge. Then they want to go to the post-game concert. It’s not about sitting there with ticket in hand. People don’t do that anymore. So it’s all really breaking down that idea of how one wants to interact with the sport.

“One thing for sure it is going to be on the young fans’ terms, not on the terms of the organization that sold them the ticket,” Johnson says.

The issue is particularly salient as the NFL, like many other US pro leagues, has seen its in-game attendance ebb in recent years, falling in 2018 to its lowest level since 2010.  And like every other major sports property, the NFL urgently wants to develop a new generation of fans and use modern facilities to help reverse an aging fan demographic that saw the NFL’s average TV viewer increase from 46 years to 50 between 2006 and 2016, according to data from Nielsen and Magna Global.

Because of that, architects of the new facilities are seeking to design for not only the current, evolving fan needs, but also project what fan patterns will look like in 10 to 15 years. It is a tricky balance indeed. And further challenging that delicate balance are oft-divergent desires and approaches from each of the individual teams and their respective ownership groups.

“A decision [an owner] has to make is ‘is it more important to us to restrict views at the concourse to keep the in-seat atmosphere that we really want to maintain?’ Well, the instant you open it up and people see the game from up there, the less enticed they are to have to go back down to their seats,” says Keith Robinson, project director of Manica Architects, designers of the new Raiders stadium, to be called Allegiant Stadium, opening next year in Las Vegas.

Central in that conflict is balancing the comforts of viewing a game at home while still having the communal element of a live entertainment spectacle.

“One of the things I felt we did well in Vegas [was that] we developed some things that we fed and were backed by market research,” Robinson says. “In a way, we are pulling from the conveniences from what a fan would expect from their own home, but couple that up with the live atmosphere and getting the best of both worlds.

“A more relaxed seat, better high-end service, great views, and the drama of atmosphere of the stadium. You will never experience the roar of the crowd the same way you would from your home. We’re just trying to find ways to make it more convenient for the fan like in-seat food services. To give them something that feels more high-end. A premium, upgraded experience within a highly charged unique atmosphere they couldn’t get sitting in front of their TV set,” Robinson says.

Johnson is even more blunt on this point.

“The league [has] made the broadcast and online content so good and compelling that they have kind of cannibalized the gameday experience in person. So this is a monster that they have created,” Johnson says. “Now what the venues are being asked to do, and people like me that design them, is to create spectacle. It is on us to create something that is so compelling, that drives the fan to say, ‘I want to get off the couch, fight the traffic, spend 50 bucks for parking, and brave the weather because I can’t not be there.’ ”

Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. The stadium’s designer, Bill Johnson, says, “What the venues are being asked to do, and people like me that design them, is to create spectacle.”

The environment Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke envisions for the forthcoming Inglewood stadium, now to be called SoFi Stadium, is more of an open atmosphere, something that reflects the open-air, breezy lifestyle of Southern California and Hollywood’s eternal pursuit of youth, while still featuring some of the largest video displays of any American sports facility. And like MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, it will also house two NFL teams, as both the Rams and Los Angeles Chargers will call it home.

But the most noticeable design feature of the 70,000-seat stadium, set to open next year, is its expansive, transparent roof that at once allows sunshine in, keeps rare rains out, and covers not only the entire playing field and seating bowl but also an adjacent pedestrian plaza and smaller 6,000-seat venue capable of hosting high-profile events such as the Academy Awards.

“Mr. Kroenke wanted to create something that captured Southern California and a key was that indoor-outdoor feel,” says Jason Gannon, managing director for the LA Stadium and Entertainment District at Hollywood Park.

Privately funded and located at the site of the former Hollywood Park racetrack, the 298-acre mixed-used development will feature retail and commercial office space, a hotel, resident units, and outdoor park space. And it is those outdoor components that Rams executives and designers believe will help take the gameday experience to a new and different level.

“This venue is designed to broaden the expected fan experience,” says Mark Williams, who led the design effort with the Inglewood stadium for Dallas-based HKS Architects. “Part of this is the way the site activated above and beyond what is simply inside the stadium. There are distinct environments adjacent to the stadium as fans approach. From American Airlines Plaza to the Performance Venue and Lake Park – each with targeted programming and amenities that create a spectacle for the senses.”

Like balancing ownership objectives, Gannon says that the new L.A. stadium is also seeking to strike a delicate equilibrium between being a social media-friendly facility with lots of communal areas while keeping the game the center of the action.

“We designed this stadium not only for spaces with the seat itself, but also all around the stadium so as you get that Instagram moment, you’re also still connected to what is going on, on the field at any given time,” Gannon says.

Looking ahead, facility architects predict that social metrics and youth attitudes will play an even greater role in their planning and design work.

“[It’s about] creating spaces to adapt as a way not only to reach the younger generation being influenced by technology and social media to experience it in a way that is very relevant for them, but at the same time, preserving the integrity of serving the product in traditional ways,” Gannon says. “[We want to] find that balance to where fans can enjoy a traditional atmosphere while simultaneously having the option to venture into new ways of taking in a game.”

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