As a premium perk at GMHBA Stadium in Australia, fans can look down into the home team’s locker room. (Courtesy Populous)

Has the phrase “premium seat” become a dated term in today’s sports economy?

As the customization of fan experience continues to expand across sports and entertainment and the lines blur for what’s considered a seat upgrade, it’s a good question to ask architects.

“Teams are spending a lot more time wanting their venue to reflect the diversity of clientele that comes to them,” said Byron Chambers, design director and principal with Populous. “I’m not even sure if premium is the right word. Instead of using it to describe a suite or a loge box, you’re seeing social spaces a big part of it as well. It’s not actually a seat. It’s an environment.”

“Social gathering space” has been the buzz phrase for about five years now and even it sounds a bit dated, but standing-room-only hangouts tied to food and drink are still working for teams. For stadiums, whether it’s an extension of a club lounge or a platform in the upper deck, architects say it’s that feeling of exclusivity that teams are increasingly looking for as they split the ticketing market across all demographics.

“Authenticity comes to mind, giving people authentic experiences,” Chambers said. “People want something of and part of the local community. The Heineken rooftop bar at Audi Field is one example. It might actually be the best view of the entire stadium. It’s not associated with a particular seat, and thinking that way is very important.”

Some are taking the next step. In their talks with MLB teams, Populous officials came up with an intriguing concept they call “one ticket, three ways.” Under that scenario, the fan’s game-day experience is split into three-inning increments, say, a prime seat for three innings, followed by a visit to the park’s microbrewery for the middle three innings and culminating with a standing-room perch over the team’s bullpen for the final three frames.

It’s something the Tampa Bay Rays have considered for their potential new stadium as they work with Populous on the project. In the leisurely sport of baseball, the concept is basically driven by people who prefer to roam the park while introducing a variety of premium seat options over the course of time, “so they can kind of see their path to a better experience,” said Gina Stingley, the architect’s marketing director for the Americas.

“We’ve tested it with a few teams,” she said. “It’s kind of like a tasting.”

The taste for getting as close to the players as possible without invading their space, typically a premium perk, is trending to the point where one Australian Football League stadium has a glass ceiling over the home team’s locker room. At GMHBA Stadium, home of the Geelong Cats in a city 75 miles southwest of Melbourne, it’s part of the “Ultimate Fan Experience” package. The team has control over when fans can peer into the locker room, Stingley said.

Along the same lines, big league teams could learn from NASCAR and some of the things it does, such as allowing fans to pay more to rub elbows with drivers in the garages before big races, Rossetti principal Jim Renne said. Over the past five years, his firm has worked for International Speedway Corp. to design major renovations to tracks in Daytona Beach and Phoenix.

“We can do more with that,” he said. “We have the tunnel clubs at stadiums, but is there a way to (create) other activities around players? The drivers go into a sponsor’s hospitality space and talk. It’s hard because coaches want to keep (players) isolated and focused on the game. The unique thing about going to an event is the athletes and how can you bring that culture to the fans? We should make that piece more of a spectacle that you can’t get anywhere else.”

At college football stadiums, social spaces are popular at schools such as Kentucky, where the Keeneland Paddock, a patio deck, sits behind a section of new club seats at Kroger Field.

Elsewhere, field-level suites and clubs in the end zones are trending at Washington, Mississippi State, Louisville and Texas. One sports architect doesn’t understand why athletic departments aren’t focusing on the primary real estate along the sidelines to develop new premium spaces.

“They’re electing for the easy solution in the end zones,” said Gerardo Prado, HNTB’s sports group director and vice president. “The most exclusive and best experience should be the seats closest to the action with the best vantage point. Some schools are deviating from that concept because of the fear of exploring surgical renovations and the complexity of doing it along the west sideline, where the sun is behind you and you’re in the shade for the most part. With the end zones, you’re always going to have that glare during portions of the game.”

The Big Beautiful Game
Stadium construction chart