When Kelly Deines, creative director at Rossetti, considers the potential ramifications of designing arenas that are unprepared for the future, he summons images first of shuttered Kmarts and then of the now-abandoned sports venues constructed for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. He speaks of massive, forgotten structures overgrown with trees and greenery, “succumbed to nature.”
“The possibility is always there that fans are going to say, ‘This isn’t fun anymore,’ and just stop coming,” Deines said. “If arenas don’t evolve, they’re destined to fade away.”
As emerging technology and changing fan preferences create rapid transformation in the way that fans engage with live sporting and entertainment events, architects and others in arena design are confronting the impossibility of creating venues that can precisely anticipate the future. For that reason, the word on the tips of their tongues is “flexibility.” Ryan Gedney, vice president and senior project designer for HOK Sports + Recreation + Entertainment, said employing design that provides clients with long-lasting arenas is his most urgent task — one that requires “taking the idea of flexibility to a whole new level.”
“Our charge as architects, particularly of large venues, is designing for several years down the road,” Gedney said. “Or, at the very least, creating a smart infrastructure for an arena to be able to evolve over time in a smart way. Terms like flexibility and scalability have become very important in design, so that we’re never designing just for today.”
Flexibility — in design, in infrastructure, in technology, in fan viewing choices — arose again and again in recent conversations with architects and others in the field as they pondered the future of the arena.
FRESH SPACES OFFER FLEXIBILITY TO FANS
Arena architects and other experts said fans are on the move. No longer do they want to be tethered to their seats or even to private suites — they want options beyond the traditional viewing experience.
“One of the biggest waves we’re seeing in the arena market right now is the growth of different spaces within the seating bowl to give spectators a variety of ways to experience an event,” said Brad Clark, senior principal at Populous. “When you buy a ticket, you’re not just looking at upper versus lower bowl options. Now you have a wide variety of clubs and social spaces available to choose from.”
Marc Farha, an executive vice president with ICON Venue Group, said the earliest examples of these spaces appeared in baseball.
“Now we’re seeing it coming into more venues like arenas,” Farha said. “The challenge is balancing that. We want fans in the seats engaged, providing that home floor advantage, but, at the same time, if their desire is to be standing around with other fans and keeping one eye on the event, then we need to accommodate that.”
Clark pointed to T-Mobile Arena, a multi-use indoor arena that opened in 2016 on the Las Vegas Strip, as an example of the emphasis on offering new ways to experience an event. The arena features two tower clubs located at the corners of one side of the seating bowl on the upper level, extending out to offer an aerial perspective.
“At the heart of this feature is the notion that arenas need to provide a variety of spaces inside their arena, while still allowing spectators to have a view of the event floor,” Clark said.
Ongoing projects show similar efforts. Farha said the under-construction Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center in Milwaukee will have a club space open to all attendees located above the upper concourse. The club will feature an outdoor balcony and a view of the court just below catwalk level. In a similar vein but at a different eye level, the ongoing renovation of Philips Arena, the home of the Atlanta Hawks, features the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) first courtside bar.
Perhaps no area better reflects the challenges of meeting changing fan expectations than technology.
Tim Ryan, president of Honda Center, Anaheim, said he can remember when the Honda Center first began to offer Wi-Fi and it was considered a luxury. Now, he said, “you don’t go to an arena anymore and get excited about Wi-Fi. It’s a necessity. There’s an expectation that there won’t just be Wi-Fi — there will be robust Wi-Fi.”
Jim Renne, sports principal at Rosetti, said, “I think we’re all still trying to understand how do technology and the fan experience merge.” Exactly how technology-based engagement will be shaped is difficult to pinpoint, but experts point to social media and augmented reality as promising tools.
“What we’re looking for is inviting fans into a relationship where they feel like they can be a part of a bigger thing, a bigger happening, a bigger event, a bigger cause, and that they can be real participants in it,” Renne said. “And you have to be able to make this connection in a very authentic way. If you do, that can really strengthen the relationship with fans.”
Deines said the sports venue has been slow to embrace technology as a tool for engagement when compared to industries such as hospitality and retail.
“I would argue that it’s old school to think that we need to pay so much attention to the event, and I think it’s potentially new school to say it’s OK to distract the event and disrupt it so that the fans don’t have to just sit there and be super diligent fans,” Deines said.
Renne said the incorporation of technology and social media into the fan experience aligns philosophically with the move toward common spaces where fans can gather and watch events in social settings.
“It’s about everybody wanting to be together with everybody else,” Renne said.
Brandon Dowling, director of sports and entertainment at Johnson Consulting, wonders if venues will be able to capitalize financially on technology-based fan engagement.
“Will there be a time when technology or technological advancements will allow for an influx of nontraditional revenue streams that can be captured that aren’t being captured today and can help offset the capital cost of funding these types of venues?” Dowling said. “That’s yet to be seen.”
Gedney said increasingly those who design, own and operate arenas are seeing the role the venue plays in the larger community to be a critical component of its long-term success.
“Most of our large venues are trying to position themselves as a catalyst for a broader development or resurgence in their downtown or urban core,” Gedney said.
Clark said this approach offers a way to ensure an arena develops an importance that extends beyond the home teams that occupy it.
“The shared connection of these mixed-use districts between city and arena increases the value of the arena as a community asset,” Clark said.
Facilities set in ambitious “live/work/play” redevelopment projects are generating local excitement. For instance, Gedney cites Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, the new home of the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings and the National Basketball Association’s Detroit Pistons and the centerpiece of District Detroit, a planned 50-block area of businesses, parks, restaurants, bars and other destinations. Similarly, Farha said the Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center will anchor a developing district of nearly 30 acres in downtown Milwaukee that, in addition to food and beverage and entertainment, providers will feature apartments, a training center for the Bucks, office buildings and even a community health clinic.
“It’s filling an important void for this part of downtown Milwaukee,” Farha said. “You can see how transformational it’s going to be.”
Even the renovation of Philips Arena in Atlanta, home of the Hawks, is a sign of the trend, Gedney said.
“That location factor was a big part of why they didn’t want to build a new arena,” Gedney said. “They saw their location as central to an emerging district in the city that they wanted to be part of.”
Experts said arenas will need to be designed and programmed in a way that makes it a vibrant part of the community on a daily basis, whether a major event is on the schedule or not. Therefore, venues are creating spaces that are open to the public when a game or concert or event isn’t attracting a crowd. For instance, the concourse at Little Caesars Arena will remain open year-round. In addition, Clark said he would like to see more arena designs that approach “flexibility and future-proofing through modular design, giving venues the capability to truly transform and adapt over time. Being able to downsize a venue not just by seat count, but by overall volume while also tailoring the seating configuration and sightlines to a variety of events is essential.”
Dowling said that kind of a flexible approach within an urban mixed-use entertainment district development could be a key to an arena’s long-term sustainability, helping it thrive even when the host team struggles through a tough stretch of years on the court or the ice.
“It has the potential to have a tremendous impact on the community by serving as a year-round venue for residents and visitors to gather and be entertained, not just for a sporting event or a large concert but for smaller shows and events,” Dowling said. “It’s going to be exciting to see how that plays out.”