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Designing the Fan Experience

05.31.12 / Jonathan Quinn, LEED AP

Photo of Fenway Park taken by Jonathan Quinn

As a person born and raised in the Boston area I have an unhealthy affection for my sports teams, and as an architect, I have a more healthy affection for great architecture. This combination along with the recent 100th anniversary of Fenway Park has me thinking about the current state of sports arenas and stadiums.  Although Fenway Park is loved more for its historical significance than its architectural significance (see Grandstand Section 20, row 2, seat 1), it is an excellent example of how the fan experience can lead to the success of a sports venue.  My question is: Can architects have a greater role in creating this experience by changing the current focus of stadium design?

With ticket sales falling throughout most of sports, it may be time to reevaluate how we think about designing arenas and stadiums.  I know it is hard to believe, but outside of Boston there are places in this country where you can go the day of the game and purchase a ticket, for face value!  Although the economy has affected ticket sales, the diminishing fan experience, I believe, is a bigger factor.  HD TV technology has made it so, that staying home to watch the big game can be better than spending the time and money to go to the game.  Therefore, attending a game will only be worthwhile if it offers a unique and greater experience than what you can get at home.  With rare exception, stadium designers have most recently responded by building large arenas that are as much amusement parks as they are sports arenas.  The emphasis seems to be put on size, technology, and amenities, rather than the experiential space.

In my opinion, architects need to follow the example of some of the more successful stadiums and build venues where good design is the emphasis, and the fan experience is built on the game being played rather than the restaurants inside.  Not just architecture junkies are drawn to architectural monuments.  We can look to some recent football stadiums such as Cowboys Stadium and University of Phoenix for the type of design that can set a stadium apart as an architectural icon.  If the focus is placed on designing an interior that improves viewing the actual game, and an exterior that is a monument to its community, the fan experience will be enhanced.  Even though most teams are private enterprises, they have always been associated with the communities they play in.  This intrinsic feeling makes the sports arena the perfect opportunity for a designer to create something that is not just a part of the community, but also represents it.  Architects can enhance this feeling by providing stadiums that have a sense of openness and connection to its surroundings.  This can be seen at Camden Yards in Baltimore where its connection to the city and transparency can be felt inside and outside the park.  Fenway Park is another great example, the improvements made on the interior have created a much more enjoyable fan experience and the changes to the outside have connected the stadium to the city like never before.

To achieve these design qualities the focus may need to move away from size and amenities.  This change of focus would allow architects to create efficiently designed buildings that are iconic, innovative, and beautiful.  I believe this can, as it has in the past, draw people in search of the ultimate game day experience to a stadium.  Sizing an arena for its fan base can also create the energy and enthusiasm that enhances the experience for everyone in attendance.  In doing this, architects could play a crucial role in bringing back the home-field/court advantage lost in many stadiums and arenas.  It is well documented that this type of atmosphere at your home stadium can contribute to a team’s on-field success.  One example of this is Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.  It is not just interesting architecturally, but is an excellent model of a stadium’s design contributing to a team’s home field advantage.  With this I believe arenas and stadiums that are well-designed and admired can by themselves increase ticket sales.

Naturally, a fervent fan base is needed for a good fan experience, but I believe most cities have this, although not always as large as those in a city like Boston.  Any arena can create a great fan experience if it is done right.  I know I would be more inclined to buy tickets if every game felt like a sellout crowd, each seat was thoughtfully planned, and the architecture not only complimented its city, but the players and fans that make the game possible.  Maybe a decently priced beer would help too.

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