Will packed venues lose out to virtual fans?

Video: Coliseum Global Sports Venue Alliance (YouTube)

‘Coliseum’ met up with the connoisseurs of renowned design practices to find out if the pandemic will have any impact on sports venue design in the future. The discussions revealed that there will be an additional ‘layer’ of health checks and sanitization before getting into a stadium, and most of the celebrated architects likened it to the additional ‘layer’ of security introduced right after the 9/11 terrorist activity which struck the United States.

What was intriguing is that the common thread through most of the deliberations with the architects was most of them compared the situation arising out of the global outbreak of COVID-19 to the 9/11 terrorist incident. They said that the pandemic was a similar ‘event’ impacting the sports venue world. Several opined that the focus will be much more on the ‘virtual’ fans all over the world rather than on the fans present in the stadium.

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Coliseum GSVA Giants of Sports Venue Architecture - Mark WilliamsImage: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

Renowned architect Mark A Williams, who spearheaded the design of the opulent SoFi Stadium in California, United States, talks about the ‘3 Buckets Strategy’ vis-à-vis the pandemic and states that “one will be looking at two at least for a very long time due to COVID-19”. During the conversation, he also points out how important the virtual world has become as a result of the global outbreak of coronavirus.

SoFi Stadium is an unprecedented and unparalleled sports and entertainment destination being built in Inglewood, California (US) by Los Angeles Rams Owner/Chairman E. Stanley Kroenke.

Williams says that due to the global outbreak of coronavirus, the spotlight has moved to safety and security in venues – “The first one (read the ‘First Bucket’) is more predictable – what will the future design of buildings be or adapting existing buildings. How do we respond to the protocols and procedures associated with the pandemic?”

Comparing the pandemic situation to the post-9/11 world, he said that after that ghastly terrorist incident, the United States specifically “added a lot of security and X-rayed people when they were coming through airports or venues or any public place. Magnetometer machine and other kind of high-security stuff was layered into the building just for safety.”

Williams added, “One of the things that we have been hoping with leagues and teams is how do we package food, do we have paperless transactions, do we provide another layer of temperature checks, will one go through a temperature check before one goes through the machine, things like that we are helping with that is a part of following the protocols which is a part of the greater good public safety recommendations when the venues reopen for fans.”

Williams said that the whole thing was “tricky” because the facility could be admitting supporters at reduced capacity or it could be a “full house”. It is a very wide range as he puts it, “The building type is not set up to do this. Just think of any other place where 70,000 people literally are shoulder to shoulder, screaming, yelling, eating, all going to the bathrooms at the same time, means with that scale that’s a very tricky thing – This is Bucket 1.”

Talking about ‘Bucket 2’, he stated, “We have spent a lot of time looking at the virtual world – we are trying to create physical environments that equate to the emotional memories and experiences people have with this building-type. The same thing is happening for many years now in the virtual world. So, there’s a whole segment of the population whose prime desire is not necessarily to go to the SoFi Stadium (designed by HKS) physically, but their desire is to have a virtual connection to SoFi Stadium. That is prime on their minds. But, it is not feasible for all to physically go into the building. So, we at HKS have been trying to put our heads together as regards how to take these buildings, these events, these experiences and making those so that it is a virtual connection.”

On a match day, he pointed out that majority of fans would want to connect to SoFi Stadium, connect to that event and experience it in a much different way – “It could be actually a virtual experience or it could be just have the ability to sit in the seats, ‘someone paid for it and it is occupied, but I am sitting there and I am experiencing and seeing things and choosing on what information I want to pay for and get or I get for free because I bought access to this and I can pick what I want to see and I can go back and look at it again and now I have connections to find out more about Mark Williams who designed SoFi Stadium and you can go on and on and on just like we do with other stuff’.”

To drive home the fact that how important and powerful the virtual world had become, Williams also pointed out that 94 percent of the people – which means a huge segment of the population – enjoy English Premier League, National Football League (NFL), majorly baseball, never go into a stadium, or they never have entered a venue as they do not boast financial wherewithal – “They don’t have the means, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the access, they don’t live in a town, they just don’t go there. Now, that person may sit and watch New York Yankees’ every single game on TV. And, if you gave them this expended ability to experience the Yankees in a different way, they would probably pay for it. Because they can’t do that, they can’t get on a plane and fly down to New York but maybe they could sit in their bedroom and be connected to the Yankees.”

He explains that ‘Bucket 2’ is to take the existing venues and enhance the experience for not only the players that are in there and or the event that’s in there. But, also for the supporters who are not being able to enter venues because of protocols in place for COVID-19 – “So, you don’t feel like you are playing in an empty stadium or you just have the connectivity and it sounds and feels like ‘I know I am not there, this is a great experience I am connected to and I feel like I am sitting on my seat, this is really a good experience for me and I feel like I am right in the stadium. That’s the best I can have’. That’s Bucket Two.”

Bucket Three, explains Williams, is the whole virtual connection to the event. It is a broad thing – “ ‘Bucket 1 and Bucket 2’ is for people for the first time you know in your life and my life saying ‘Well we want to have the soccer match but I am not sure we can have people in their’. That’s my whole intensity of the spotlight on that has risen because of COVID-19.”

Coliseum GSVA Giants of Sports Venue Architecture - Ryan SickmanImage: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

Ryan Sickman sounded very positive all along the interview as he stated that some of the changes that have been put into place due to the global outbreak of COVID-19 is something of a very “temporary reaction”.

As he puts in, “I think that some of the things that we are seeing will be instituted into place to try to get people back to some semblance of normalcy before we return truly to normal mode as a society. The impacts that were seen with respect to social distancing, health medications that you can put in as entrances to the sports venues, are some of that stuff one will get to see long-term. I think social distancing in a seating bowl for instance, that’s a temporary measure, the second a vaccine comes out this whole arrangement will disappear. You are going to see people going back and filling in the City bowls at 100 percent capacity.”

He asserted that it is on the technological front where one is going to see the maximum long-term changes starting from bubble ticketing – “It doesn’t matter who you are or what level of sports you are hosting in your venue, what level of team you are putting into your venue, no one will have a paper ticket any more, ever. It will be 100 percent mobile ticketing as an industry and that’s just the way it is, we will never go back.”

Sickman added, “You start to think about the implications of that technology – concessions and ordering, retail, you are going to see some adopters of that technology like ‘I want to order my food and have it ready for me so that I minimize my amount of time I am on the concourse or out of my seat and not participating in the venue’. I think that makes a huge deal dependent on the sport. With American football, baseball, for example, there are a lot of stoppages in play, so I think in those situations with those fan bases, even if they have to go to the concourse and wait in a line and come back, they are not missing a huge chunk of the game. For continual play – ice hockey, soccer, you know those sports, or even entertainment – live concerts, the last thing one wants to do while going to a live concert is miss two songs and maybe potentially your favorite song, because you are going to a concession or you are going and having a beer. It is here that technology will come into play when everything will become in-seat ordering.”

Fans are slowly going to adapt to the technological changes necessitated due to the pandemic. He pointed out that in Europe, fans do not want to miss the game, they are there to see the game, so they look for in-seat service even – “The technological benefits of having to order something and you get it right at your seat, geo maps for location to your ticket, to your system, personalization of your experience, they bring you your beer, that’s what you are going to see, the technological events will stay long term. You start to think about even retail – customization options for retail. I think you are going to see in these venues change long-term. You will walk to the store, touch stuff, something which might not go down well with people in a COVID environment. I think we will have to wait and see how people react.”

Sickman averred that the most important aspect was how fans would react once they are allowed back into the venues – “We really don’t know how people are going to react right now. And they are going to react in a couple of phases – there’s going to be an initial phase with partial occupancy, there is going to be sort of a maximum social distancing occupancy and then you are going to have full occupancy post-vaccine. And, again, we really don’t know how people are going to react at those levels. I think you start to come back, the fans that come back first are attuned to each phase are going to start to acclimatize a little bit more. But, if you are going to get a fan who adopt a wait-and-watch policy and want the coronavirus dust to settle down, their first reaction coming back to the stadium is going to be very much on edge – they are not going to be ready for those kinds of measures with respect to the health monitoring at the entrances.”

Sickman tried to drive home the fact that there will be different schools of thought among fans as regards the measures taken in arenas as a result of coronavirus outbreak. A section of fans will question whether measuring temperature at the entrance will help at all because their argument will be that there will also be a lot of asymptomatic patients walking into stadia. Then there will be another section of fans who will feel that all the stringent safety and hygiene protocols being put into place in venues is the right thing to do.

He likened the situation to post-9/11 when very tough security measures were introduced in airports and people were so scared and terrified after that terrorist incident that even if an alarm went off, “everyone around stepped back”.

Sickman noted, “Now, people are much more at ease in airports with so much of security in place and they have got used to it. The alarm goes off every five seconds for someone or some reason and nobody thinks twice about it anymore. So, I think we are going to see a similar situation with the health screenings. There will be a lot of people who will be on an alarmist mode, take a step back even if you are socially distanced behind them six feet, and the alarm goes off before him or her, it’s going to put them on the edge.” He reiterated that slowly people will adapt themselves to the post-COVID measures.

“We as humans have an innate desire to be around other people for all of time. Think back to Roman times, to Egyptian times, whether it is for sport, entertainment, justice, political reform, religion, we have an innate desire as human beings to be in large groups of people for a common theme. Those themes can change, but we want to be around people, we want to surround ourselves with people, we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and sports just gives us a great avenue for that and that’s what I think when I say we get things under control, say vaccine is issued, say it starts to get distributed, I think you are going to see people come back to a sense of normalcy because they crave it,” Sickman noted.

He cited the pandemic-delayed Olympics to further drive home his point – “You think about the Olympics being delayed, it is devastating to the sporting world but, when it comes back to be honest, making people wait another year for it might make it the best Olympics that has ever been.”

Coliseum GSVA Giants of Sports Venue Architecture - Matt RossettiImage: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

Matt Rossetti feels that there are many things involved with the pandemic. The big picture he says is that the industry is “obviously decimated and we are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year”.

He pointed out that the sports and hospitality industry is all about congregation – bringing people together. But, thanks to the pandemic, Rossetti stated that to bring people together has become a dangerous proposition. Against this entire COVID-19 backdrop, the top gun stated that one will have to see what are the opportunities that can arise out of this pandemic situation – “What are the things we can change now that have a major impact on other things like control and security.”

Like most of the other eminent architects, Rossetti likened the impact coronavirus is having on the sports venue sector to what the airline industry faced after 9/11 – “Prior to 9/11, in United States one could just walk into the airports, no id check or other security procedures. Okay, what happened was very bad – people got on airplanes and took them over. So, the industry is always worried about that – bad people find their ways to sneak in and do whole lot of things.”

The architect tried to put across the fact that before COVID-19 struck, cleanliness and sanitization in venues or in every other aspect of our lives was not ‘The Important’ factor. But, post-COVID-19, putting into place strict hygiene measures in sports venues or in any other entity has become imperative – “I think the pandemic provides an opportunity for the leagues to create something similar to what has been created by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in US – some guidelines against arresting the spread of germs – we get away from paper tickets, its solely knowing and using yourself for data to know who’s in your building and frankly have continuous facial recognition around venue – for both security and also for frictionless and touchless transactions. Because touchless is sanitized, safe right now, so, let’s call it touchless for that purpose. In reality it’s also frictionless since it is easy to pay such like swipe right for Amazon. Since it’s easy to pay, the tendency is you are going to buy more. It’s just human nature.”

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that has authority over the security of the traveling public in the United States. It was created as a response to the September 11 attacks.

Rossetti wanted to put across the fact that just like the TSA ensures the security of flyers, the stadiums and leagues should also do something similar to keep and make fans feel secure and comfortable in stadia in a coronavirus world.

He also pointed out that touchless transactions will also ramp up F&B and merchandise sales. Before the scenario was such that prior to buying clothes one would go to the shop and try them out in the trial room to determine which fits best. This is a very dangerous thing to do today in the pandemic world. “When COVID has forced everything to go virtual, we know by the click of a mouse whether we want any clothes in medium or large. The whole process is touchless and safe. Even for lockers or places, you are able to get access to from facial recognition or scans or other things. So, that’s one kind of an opportunity that’s created,” Rossetti explained.

Rossetti added, “And the second thing is types of mind about these stadium operators, team Presidents, team owners is the difference between temporal changes and permanent changes in the future we will never want to do again. We know that eventually we will put people right next to each other again, we are going to pack our stadiums just like we did before. People will forget about the disease, and then very likely another pandemic will come along. Once the virus is back, we will do the same thing, we will scatter and we will create these short-term seating solutions, putting 25 to 35 percent people back into venues. And putting up guards and things like that, they will go away. Those are things we see as short-term. Long-term things like sanitization, turning cleanliness and sanitization into hospitality we see as a permanent solution.”

He tried to highlight the fact that only with squeaky clean venues and strict hygiene measures can we keep the fatal virus at bay. He reminisced about the whole cooking procedure 20 to 30 years back in restaurants – everything was done behind a wall. But, now, in most of the eateries cooking is done right before the customers’ eyes and “you feel like the food is fresher. One can see it and knows it’s good because somebody is making it in front of you”.

Rossetti stated that the same thing applies to the cleanliness and sanitization procedures in venues – it’s a behind the scenes exercise right now. But, with the pandemic, venue operators could very well think of carrying out this entire operation right in front of the spectators – “it could very well be something that we could see in the future”.

Coliseum GSVA Giants of Sports Venue Architecture - Christopher LeeImage: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

As COVID-19 continues to pound the world, the new catchword says Christopher Lee is health, wellness and sanitization. Sounding a note of caution, he noted that the pandemic has sent out a message loud and clear – “It probably is not going to be the last one. Looking at how we have been increasingly encroaching on natural habitat and across movement of viruses between animals, we better be prepared next time.”

Lee also maintained that as a design practice, they would be designing space in and around sports venues keeping in mind the health and hygiene factor in a big way just like “security threat checking which 10 years back was confined just to airports but now is very much part of our lives”. He wanted to underline the fact that COVID-19 has brought into huge focus the need to maintain cleanliness just like terror acts over the years has tightened airport security as well as security in other venues.

“Our job in design is to how we can incorporate the hygiene quotient seamlessly and painlessly for our consumers. Regardless of pandemics or security threats, we still want our fans to have a great experience and we still want them to feel that a particular stadium is a great place to come, where ingress and egress are a smooth affair. So, it makes it more complex for designers to incorporate more and more of that into our buildings, vast keeping experience. But, I think the cleanliness and sanitization part is definitely here to stay,” Lee observed.

To further establish his point, he stated that in UK every eatery will have to display a sanitization or hygiene standard in the frontal window whether it is clean or not clean. It would be the same in the case of sports venues “at least in the shorter term if not in the longer term. In the longer term, maybe we will want to see cleaning cruise, we want to see things being wiped out, and we want to feel that our space is clean”.

The pandemic, Lee asserted, has also brought technology into sharp focus – “Our clients around the world is interested to know in a COVID world how we can integrate more meaningfully a remote audience into a live event and this blurring of live and virtual and remote and present audiences has been kicked on enormously and is here to stay. This video conferencing and virtual reality will become a much more integrated part of the live event industry.”

He found it “very interesting” how people were connecting and envisaged more of that merging of real and virtual in the live event industry.

Lee also asserted that the biggest impact on sports and entertainment venues due to the pandemic is not only giving prominence to health and wellness, but also sustainable and green technology – “A focus on the wellness of the space itself. We will start seeing much more sustainable technology, cleanliness, and wellness. People will focus on things like what’s the quality of the air in the space. Is it naturally ventilated? How can I get natural daylight and how can I build these buildings on a much more sustainable footing. They are not directly related clearly to pandemic and viral spread. I think there is a movement there that we want a cleaner, safer, and better environment.” ‘Staying safe and clean’ is the biggest lesson which the global coronavirus outbreak has taught mankind.

Coliseum GSVA Giants of Sports Venue Architecture - Alastair RichardsonImage: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

Alastair Richardson stated that the deadly bushfires sparked in September 2019 in Australia caused large-scale destruction and has brought the country more harm than anything else.

A prolonged drought that began in 2017 made 2019’s bushfire season more devastating than ever. Months of devastating fires in Australia left at least 28 people dead, about 3,000 homes destroyed and up to a billion animals affected. All bushfires in the State of New South Wales finally got extinguished in March 2020.

Stating that the impact from the bushfire was huge, Richardson waxed eloquent on the same, “Certainly, as a result of the bushfires, there is a far more awareness on the entire concept of climate change. So, the issue of how buildings address climate change is becoming more crucial because by 2050, the State Governments want to be carbon neutral. So, put aside what the Federal Government says, the States say we want to be carbon neutral.”

He continued on the ‘bushfire’ topic, “We are seeing the beginning of far bigger interest in what design means, how do you achieve those cause of carbon neutral, what innovation can we bring in to help the carbon neutral cause, so that’s certainly as a resolve to the bushfires. Though the bushfires have gone relatively quiet, there is a massive recovery going on out in the rural areas, where fire was significant. However, we don’t see any evidence of the bushfires in the cities now – in Melbourne, or in Sydney or in Brisbane or Canberra.”

The design practice top gun stated that at the receiving end were the tourist destinations along the coast, mainly between Melbourne and Sydney – “Those communities suffered the most. So, a lot of money is going into rebuilding those communities.”

Talking about the global outbreak of COVID-19 which is the biggest debacle to strike mankind, the top executive noted, “COVID has been an interesting journey for us in that we sat on an advisory body about how to get people back into venues. Because, obviously, mass attendance of events certainly stopped and at the end of the day the buildings and the stadiums that we designed was for mass assembly, they were not designed for putting one person in every four meters – it is for the crowd. So, we have been looking at and looking with venues how we can do that, and there are some interesting ideas about how one can get smarter platforms in for grouping people together, monitoring people and assessing how ticketing can work in clusters rather than individual seats. So, that’s been quite an interesting piece.”

Richardson added, “I think the impact from an industry point of view here in Australia from COVID-19 will be as significant as the terrorist activities have been in the sense that both of them influence safety. What we will see is a lot of the backroom staff in a stadium, a lot more about technology, about social distancing, about touch-free environment. We will have to take every other seat out.”

Speaking in terms of Cox Architecture’s sporting clients, he said that due to coronavirus, the work that they have been doing for the clubs have been “put on hold because the clubs’ revenues have been absolutely smashed and they are still paying players’ salaries but they got no revenue. The TV revenue has been absolutely decimated because the value of the products is the same and, of course, there are no crowd attendances because no people are going to the games. So, what we have seen is quite a harsh comeback in expenditure by the clubs because they have essentially seen about 40 percent of their revenue disappear.”

The positive part – amid all the doom and gloom – he acknowledge was that in Australia and New Zealand, the venues are generally not funded from private equity, they are funded by the respective Governments, because they are viewed as stimulus projects. This is the reason why the Sydney Football Stadium (designed by Cox Architecture) work is still carrying on amid COVID-19, because he informed that it is “absolutely now seen as one of the Government’s stimulus packages that has to keep on going. So, our team of 60 people are all working remotely from home, but all connected. So, we are delivering it, coming out of the ground right now, so, but still happening.”

Comparing the global outbreak of the fatal respiratory disease to the Great Depression (2007-2009) when key businesses collapsed, huge decline in consumer wealth estimated in trillions of US dollars, Richardson commented, “The hit, we have got a planning imposed for COVID-19, like 9/11, but the financial impact is like the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2009, in fact, in some ways, worse. So, unlike 9/11, which didn’t really have a massive financial impact, the GFC did have a massive financial impact, particularly on the large financial institutions on what they could spend in products going to matches and stuff, then what we have got is all those companies have got serious financial issues they will be redressing before they spend money on hospitality.”

He mentioned about “A very interesting paper because it said that with no crowds in, basically, home ground advantage disappears. There isn’t any advantage, it’s the crowd that makes the home ground advantage and the statistics proved it. There was a win/loss ratio, it was 50-50, with no fans around in the home ground, and the win/loss ratio stands at 60-40.”

Coliseum GSVA Giants of Sports Venue Architecture - Russell LeeImage: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

Russell Lee started off by mentioning that Cox Architecture was working with one of the national sports bodies – Football Federation Australia – which had unsuccessfully bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup™ which finally fell in Qatar’s lap.

Though the design practice had finished their work, but an unprecedented global health emergency in the form of COVID-19 hit, and 70 percent of Football Federation Australia workers were laid off.

Stated Lee, “The Government has so many other issues on their head, and now they are just struggling to tackle with the problems arising out of COVID-19. Sports, unfortunately, had a hard fall. Every sport entity – including National Rugby League (NRL) and Australian Football League (AFL) – want to get back on the field and play and the Government thinks they rather not.”

Lee said that a number of these sports bodies are “quite concerned about their cash flow as sports events, especially international events being held in Australia – are often their major finance generating activities. However, there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment amidst the pandemic as to the financial position. The Super Rugby competition started in New Zealand on June 16th, 2020, but as one can’t cross international borders, so their revenue generation is going to be less.”

Super Rugby is a professional men’s rugby union international club competition involving teams from Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

The top executive informed that a “lot of entities are going cashless but that will be almost mandatory because people won’t accept hard currency or transactions. So, one of the other things we will see is that technology will also step in and it will be all about hygiene, touchless facilities, wherein cutting-edge technology will play a key role. I think we will see in food and beverages, there is going to be an uplift in the use of technology. Some of the newer technologies will come into play as well.”

Talking about the devastating bushfires in Australia, he said that the fires had caused a lot of anxiety and distress to people and they were looking for a kind of break in sports and concerts. But, coronavirus striking with full force, even entertainment activities stopped – “If one can watch entertainment acts like sports or concerts that make a lot of positive difference. If you can’t, I think it is double the sort of pain these people were in due to the bushfires. And, the Government’s priority was more on how to bring the economy back on track which had been totally decimated due to the deadly virus. The Government’s scheme of things was how to get people within the countryside in the economic gain. So, it’s been pretty tough for people residing in those areas where the bushfire caused maximum damage.”

Lee added, “Even though the Cities at the moment did not actually suffer directly from the actual fire, we actually suffered a couple of weeks of very high levels of smoke in the air and it suddenly brought harm to everyone leading to realize that how delicate the environment actually was and that hints the major push towards more sustainable environmental responses than previously and that really brought it home.”

Coliseum GSVA Giants of Sports Venue Architecture - Andy SimonsImage: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

With COVID-19 almost sounding the death knell on the planet, everybody is being impacted by the coronavirus situation and the going is anything but smooth. The sports venue sector has also been hit hard by the pandemic and has suffered huge losses. Stadium architect Andy Simons – who leads key projects in the sports sector – stated that the lower league teams are “extremely concerned about their future” as a result of the pandemic.

He commented, “Any club below the Championship level are facing a real threat because most of their revenue comes from the gate on a match day unlike the Premier League that have the cushion of income from SKY/BT. The media rights is an important component but it cannot compensate for the experience and income of a match held in the presence of fans in stadia.”

He praised Sky Sports, the official broadcast partner of the Premier League for their incredible production values and commented that they are doing a “spectacular and amazing job” in lifting the Premier League to its current position.

Andy outlined that for the Premier League clubs, match day revenue is a minor component of the overall but still very important. Crucially, it is the crowds that are the backdrop and atmosphere of the SKY/BT production. He said that closed-door events will not last for long “because behind closed doors production is poor, isn’t it?”

He was surprised that US design practices like HKS and Gensler was comparing the pandemic to 9/11 and begged to disagree and termed it as an “American-centric perspective”. Strongly opinioned, Andy stated that the virus is here to stay – “Unfortunately something like this is going to happen more and more again. The world is pretty messed up and this may just be a dress rehearsal for something even more serious. I do not see this as a one-off event. I was optimistic originally that it would be short-lived but it is clear we will have to find a way to live with COVID-19 for quite some time.”

Andy added, “I would compare COVID-19 more with HIV rather than 9/11. I appreciate the comparison as a game changing watershed event but COVID-19 kills worldwide and indiscriminately and is still with us. Something that you have come to terms with. We can’t cure it if it potentially mutates and it can still continue killing and we have to live with it somehow. We just need to get better at on how we deal with it, how quickly we react to it and how we recover from it with a much better lifestyle approach potentially.”

Talking about the new normal on the stadia, Andy opined that soon stadia will be “full houses again because, it’s the only way stadiums can function”. He referred to stadiums as the nucleus of a tightly packed group social event. Clearly they are a high risk environment needing extensive management but test events with incrementally increasing crowd numbers are already beginning in UK stadiums from the end of August up to 25-30 percent under recent SGSA guidelines.

Andy added, “We talked with various clubs about all the intermediate positions they could take before they can have full capacity. And, none of them are actually credible economically, they are just stepping stones. Ironically, we have been fostering shared and sustainable transport just to get to the stadiums for years. So, even getting to stadiums in packed buses and trains in a COVID environment is a challenge per se even if we had measures in place at the arenas.”

He continued, “No clubs want to sell a season ticket for one in four games. You can’t have 25 percent capacity for long. Who would buy a season ticket to go and see one in four games? And which big games do you risk missing? Loyalty points and lottery systems will determine the lucky ones. Do you miss the Liverpool game, do you miss the Man United game? Socially distanced chequerboard seating arrangements in the actual stands can work but everybody goes to and from the concourses through key pinch points and mingles, it’s largely unmanageable although the clubs must manage it with even more stewarding costs. So, I think we are in a situation where the new normal is right back to normal. It’s just a question of when.”

Most of the big design practices said that they no longer care about full venues anymore. To buttress their point, these firms stated that if 2 million people are visiting Manchester United physically in a year, there still remain 600 million Manchester United fans around the globe. Their argument is that ‘we are going virtual, there is much more money into that’.

However, Andy said that he couldn’t “disagree more” on the new normal being virtual. He stated that UK’s pay-TV networks – BT Sport and Sky Sports – was “absolutely predicated” on what one is watching on the Premier League matches.

The virtual world is no comparison to what you experience at a live match in a stadium packed with supporters – “The close fans-players engagement, the genuine crowd noise, fans in total focus with players, getting that direct link. As you see the players gearing up to take a corner, all the fans in the background gets ready for that action going ecstatic. You just don’t get any of that in the virtual world. Sky doesn’t invest in 36 cameras per game for the fun of it. That multifaceted, totally engaging product is where the money comes from. No, I don’t see the virtual mode being a relevant model at all,” Andy asserted.

As far as the new standards of hygiene in a COVID-19 world is concerned, Andy said that he does not envisage a scenario where all fans will be wearing masks inside a stadium bowl. It is something which cannot be effectively “policed”. Intervening for actions like racial abuse, still sadly present in football, would be impossible in a masked spectator crowd.

He questioned, “How can one imagine asking two or three stewards to force their way into a packed stand and to physically remove somebody because he or she is not wearing a mask. It goes against all the ideas of what we are trying to avoid.”

However, Andy noted that there will clearly be an “massively increased cleaning and hygiene regime, but it’s still within a busy stadium”.

Coliseum GSVA Giants of Sports Venue Architecture - Robert C. Mankin, Jr.Image: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

Prior to the global outbreak of COVID-19, everything about sports venues was focused on introducing cutting-edge technology and providing fans with an amazing experience while they are at the stadium. In the COVID-19 environment, the hot-button topics in venues are social distancing, hygiene, touchless entry and ticketing. Is this trend here to stay and will there be real changes in the architecture of venues or is it just something momentary? Robert Mankin feels that the world might not go back “to the way it was. But, I think at the same time we have to tell our clients that sporting venues aren’t going away. People still want an experience, there are still going to be the authentic experience of going to an event. The teams and clubs themselves want people in the stands, they derive some sort of energy from that. So, I think the idea of this sporting venue, it’s not going to go away.”

He says that they, including his clients – are adopting a wait-and-watch policy. Mankin says that they are in no hurry to go for a complete rethinking on the design of venues and would like to observe how the coronavirus scenario plays out in the future.

Talking about social distancing, Mankin maintained, “Two people feel safe sitting in a venue in close proximity to each other. Those who enjoy sitting next to each other will be reluctant to go back to venues. And, for the municipality and for a building operator from a liability viewpoint if you are safe landing people into the venue, then they are going to be reluctant to do that. So, I think that we have ways to go to figure this out. However, the stadium or the arena as an experience from my perspective, it’s not going away. But, surely, it will evolve.”

The architect noted that the pandemic has necessarily started a new trend – “It’s accelerating some trends and slowing other trends. And I think one thing is that you know there was a trend in large-scale venues about maybe fewer seats and more amenities. And I think this trend will continue. In a post-COVID world, going to the venues is going to be an exercise of sitting less in your seats and watching events. Fans are probably going to be more mobile.”

He explained that the entire idea will be about moving around the arena and experiencing the event from different locations – “A client of ours who majorly deals in baseball said recently that they have observed people would walk into the venue and would actually sit in their seat for about half the event, and the remaining half they prefer to walk around the venue and experience the event from different vantage points.”

Mankin further maintained that the entire process of security, concessions, merchandising, and things like that, are all going to evolve – “Here in the US, while getting into a stadium, there is a lot of security check – you have to take everything out, your wallet, phone. What I am trying to point out is that in a COVID-19 ambience, people are not going to do that anymore. I feel already the trend is towards security being more transparent, less intrusive, and more touchless, that’s accelerating already. We see it accelerating in our corporate work, in our healthcare, and I see the same thing happening in sports. So, I think the whole process of entering a venue is going to be very secure and the opportunity here is that it is going to be a lot more transparent and touchless.”

The noted architect feels that the same will apply for food service and other types of places where people start to interact in close quarter. Mankin, who has a keen interest in automation, talked about how 5G and 6G which will follow after 5G, will enable automation not only in terms of automating routine work but also automating aspects like facility maintenance and building operations.

As Mankin puts in, “There will be a lot more automation that people will encounter as they enter a venue. So, I think from that standpoint the experience that one has coming into the building, moving to the concourse, and when they do go to their seats where they are going to watch the event, that’s going to evolve and be very different. And technology is going to enable us to do that over the next say five to 10 years.”

Coliseum GSVA Giants of Sports Venue Architecture - Jon NiemuthImage: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

Jon Niemuth kicked off the conversation by stating that one of the core functions of his company AECOM is disaster response, and they have been into this activity globally. AECOM also got into the act when the 9/11 disaster happened in the United States.

He stated, “We did a lot of recovery and rebuilding work during 9/11, so, when COVID-19 hit the United States, a lot of those contracts we had in place rolled over into alternative care and medical. So, we’ve done a significant amount of work for the US Federal Government, and then we have transitioned that to a number of European countries, to replicate the same model – development of alternative care, hospitals, and field facilities either in existing venues or in temporary facilities. Our company could respond in a big way because we have such a huge practice in certified industry or hygiene industry or boast bio containment engineers, our containment specialists. This is the kind of healthcare and expertise the Federal Government, US Army Corps of Engineers and several entities overseas is looking for.”

Niemuth informed that a lot of venues were looking for global protocols to reopen and his company AECOM was one of their major partners in that – “Through our certified industry bio genus and bio containment engineering practice we created all the protocols that underline that document, underline that approach. It was interesting because if nothing else we were having a different kind of dialogue with our clients.”

He admitted that COVID-19 had created total chaos and just like AECOM, a lot of other companies were trying to understand what exactly was happening and get a hang of things. Everybody was wondering whether competitions could be held in a safe environment amid the pandemic, even if they are held without fans, what kind of a scenario it would be in the training centers, and the like.

“The news was out that the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) were providing bands to all golfers and caddies because it monitors one’s breathing rate, heart rate monitor while sleeping. They sort of stumble out a correlation between changes in one’s heart rate and one’s breathing rate towards an advance warning for someone who may be pre-exhibiting COVID symptoms,” Niemuth informed.

The top executive tried to hone in that AECOM was doing a similar kind of work with the National Basketball Association (NBA). He said that they are adopting the Complementary and Integrative Health (CIH) practices and are ready to work with other leagues, universities, National Football League (NFL) clubs, in this regard.

Complementary and Integrative Health (CIH) approaches refer to the array of products and techniques that are used by the public outside of or alongside conventional Western medicine. According to the most recent report of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 34 percent of adults in the United States use CIH practices.

He said that people have started “realizing that the more this coronavirus goes on, they don’t have the answers with their facility staffs, and they don’t have the answers with their medical training staff and in some ways the industry is struggling to come up with real specific guidance. Well, there are some really interesting documents with the ticket broker groups, some of the food concessionaire groups, but everything is lacking a certain amount of specificity because none of those companies have the CIH and bio containment groups that we have where we can synthesize all that together.”

Niemuth continued that he and a couple of other members in his team deliberated at length and held extensive on-call discussions with health professionals, engineers and scientists “kind of translating sports for them. So, they understand what the chemical and the infectious disease protocols are and we teach them how to talk sports, teach them how to talk COVID, teach them how to talk whatever the sport may be or you know whatever training so that we can provide a more scientific-based sort of guideline principles to teams that are trying to kind of pull athletes back into workouts”.

In this total mayhem which the global outbreak of COVID-19 has caused, AECOM is telling people to be patient, not to take any big decisions probably for the next 12 months and they are also trying to handle the disinfection part.

Niemuth commented that venues around the world do a lot of security checks like bag screening and now they will have to add disinfection and sanitization to their operating protocols – “Before venues swing a hammer and a crowbar to their buildings to make big physical changes, we can chart out the path for them. There will also have to be a lot of advances around optical ticket scanning, and touchless ticket scanning.”

He pointed out that just after 9/11 happened in the US, the immediate reaction in the days and weeks after that event was to overcompensate for security and screening, lot of barriers. Though people were a flustered lot in the beginning, soon they came to terms with the whole watertight security procedure in the airports of US and started viewing it as something more “rational”.

“Now, we are comfortable with metal detectors wherever we go. We are comfortable being in that screening line, being a certain distance away from the stadium, like they are just things now we accept when we go to live entertainment or music or whatever that are the outflows of events like terrorism,” he maintained.

Niemuth compared the post-9/11 airport scenario to what happened in the global marketplace, say from incandescent light bulbs to LEDs – “We were right from traditional light bulbs to fluorescent to everything is LED now. And some of that was you know energy providers, global energy initiatives and all these things which expedited that transition of technology to everything. I don’t know whether we are going to get that kind of quick sea change in sports but I definitely feel like touchless, mobile ticketing, mobile ordering, not like in-seat ordering but being able place an order maybe from a phone and then have it go through a concession stand, and you go pick up, ways that we can disperse the lines a little bit will be more into vogue. You may see some of these virtual queuing for a little while where people arrive and wait and again theme parks have been doing this for a long time and things like Disney with fast passes you show up within a certain time so you manage the line and you are not waiting in the line but you are doing something else to spend money at their park. So, I could see virtual queuing, virtual arrivals, kind of take off for a little while, I don’t know whether that’s going to be a forever thing but definitely touchless, touchless mobile, feel like anything you can do to eliminate touch just as a concept is good.”

Further stressing on the touchless quotient which is the safest mode during these times of coronavirus curse, he explained, “I mean your phone is your phone, my phone is disgusting, but at least it is my phone and I know that it’s mine – my germs and my virus on it. I think that eliminates a lot of the risks, touchless for water faucets, flushing and a lot of that stuff in bathrooms they spend around. The one thing that we are kind of curious about is handwashing. I think the priority in venues should be a whole lot of handwashing stations all over the place. I know a lot of people are renting these portable plastics that you see in music festivals. I think you are going to see a lot of those things the next year or so.”

Niemuth said that people will have to get the handwashing concept ingrained into their minds and their consciousness – it will have to be something like taking one’s shoes out or pulling out one’s toothpaste or deodorant and having them scanned separately during stringent airport security procedures post-9/11. Handwashing in the similar way should kind of come naturally to people no – something like second nature.

“I think there is going to be a push to make handwashing more of an influence behavior just like putting on your seat belt when you get on a car. Because a lot of things can happen when people start washing their hands more. Those are the things I would probably say are going to be more reasoned, outflows of this pandemic. I don’t know about stadiums with video screens that simulate fans. I think we are all going to be willing to accept a lot of weirdness for the next year or even in the next season. We want sports to start playing. It is such an important part of our culture and our identities,” he observed.

He added that the pandemic has thrown up a lot of challenges, “In our economies, we will be willing to tolerate some things but, is that the future going forward, I think eventually like I said there will be a scientific and a medical answer to all of this or what figured out other protocols. It’s a challenge because even some of the venues which are aging, you may not have the room to create a space necessary for social distancing. Lot of buildings in the US are old enough that their restroom capacity is just not adequate. So, even on a good day, having long lines in the bathroom is normal. But, now we are trying to eliminate stuff like that and the building just may not be capable of supporting that stuff. We had clients who were trying to explore more of what I would describe European models – to restrooms, to individual compartments, make almost everything gender neutral, handwashing becomes more of a public act than an act associated with going to the restroom. I don’t know what it takes to implement those kinds of changes in buildings because that’s some of the most expensive infrastructure to fix.”

Niemuth stated that when COVID-19 was at its peak in the US, every day a new concept would come up surrounding the fatal respiratory disease –“Everything we hear was true on Monday, was different on Tuesday, and another version on Wednesday. Like every day what you believed to be fact was either refuted or had evolved so much that you had recalibrated to a new truth.”

Coliseum GSVA Giants of Sports Venue Architecture - John RhodesImage: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

Celebrated architect John Rhodes says that in a COVID-19 world, the entire business scenario is mixed in terms of progress of projects and work flow is “a bit slower than it could be”. A connoisseur on sports venue architecture, Rhodes says that the real impact will likely be felt next year and the status of a couple of future projects still looks very fluid. He wondered if the Level A clubs will still enjoy the financial muscle to spend on a couple of projects looking at the huge impact the pandemic has had on the sporting calendar as well as the sports venue sector.

Rhodes feels that the market will polarize and the small festivals will do better than the big-ticket events. He says that the healthcare professionals as well as scientists are pulling out all stops to find a solution to make people feel safe in a post-COVID environment.

As far as the demands for sports projects are concerned, Rhodes observed, “There is a resistance to commit. Venue operators are taking steps to make amendments, to change building structure to align with the COVID environment. There is a nervousness to commit to something which hopefully will go away by the end of the year.”

He was optimistic that the above scenario will not remain for a long time and there will be a whole campaign to pull people back to venues after the coronavirus smoke clears. It will depend a lot on the public relations (PR) strategy and venues will have to initiate steps to make everything contactless to make people feel more safe and comfortable. And that, he feels, will be “very interesting”.

The top executive said that if the pandemic is something “we need to consider in the future”, then the pandemic will definitely have an impact on the design of venues of the structure itself – “There are serious steps we need to look at in venues – the density on concourses, crowd management especially in case of queues and at the venue ingress points and the density of buildings will also have to be managed.”

He added, “I suspect the venues will be looking to reduce the density in terms of capacity of people in spaces, concourses will probably be little bigger, you will have means of managing seats within venues, spacing seats and such like. And, I think more flexible in the sense that you can adapt the seat coverage for families or for individuals.”

Rhodes further maintained that stadia will have to be well-ventilated – “dropping air on the crowd, drawing air through the building and extracting it out will be seen as a safer means of ventilating these spaces.” He said that as far as the touchpoints are concerned, it will depend a lot on the kind of materials used, whether they can be cleaned and whether termites and such like survive in those materials. The people working in venues will have to feel safe as well and “how well they can engage with the crowd”. The biggest challenge, Rhodes feels, in a COVID-19 world is to infuse the “welcome environment” in a facility.

As they say, the first impression is the last impression. The top shot said that a key point will be the first impressions of the environment – as far as the ticketing check is concerned, it should be a contactless affair.

Stressing on the handwashing factor which is the key mantra to prevent coronavirus, Rhodes stated, “Putting up wash basins and more spaces will have to be provided within the venue for this entire handwashing exercise. It will have to be ensured that fans do wash their hands.”

As far as the whole merchandise business is concerned, it will again have to be more technology-based to avoid queues, he outlined. In a pandemic world, there will be more reliance on technology – “Everybody is now using the Internet to shop and everybody is adapting to the world of futuristic technology. Ordering food from within the venue will also have to be technology-based. People will be far more used to it across the entire demographic population. These are the things we will have to look at in the future.”

Rhodes said that a huge challenge was if one had to strictly adhere to the hygiene factor, venues would also have to go in for reduced crowd. And it is the crowd who keeps the venues financially well-oiled – “A crowd is for many businesses, the core of the business model. You know the numbers in the venue drive the business model, drive the revenue streams and such like. If those numbers are reduced, certainly those business models don’t work. How do we adapt and how do we compensate for the loss of revenue?” he questioned.

The solution lies in chalking out strategies like enhancing the capacity of venues in a safe environment. One will also have to look at diverse business models and how one can make most of the virtual world as well as the physical world to drive those models. Rhodes said that in the wake of the pandemic, people are also losing their jobs and it is not likely that they will frequent venues under such circumstances and during this time of global recession. So, the design of the venues will have to be done in such a manner that even people who visit stadium twice or thrice in a year, can get access to diverse products. And technology will help expedite that.

Rhodes further noted that venues will have to find a way of compensating for any loss of revenue within the facility. He strongly felt that, “Previously, if there were many seats as you could get in those venues, we now need to look at it in a different way. Venue operators can do that by optimizing the seats they have in a venue like hiring more premium products. In States in particular, some of the largest stadiums were taking out seats and putting in a more diverse range of premium offers. More seats being taken out means more elbow room which is a comfortable scenario in a COVID environment.”

The fans will also get to enjoy the experience but the main question, he said, revolves around the authentic fan and how one can try the authentic fan experience.

Like every dark cloud has a silver lining, Rhodes says that it may be possible to find some positive aspects of the pandemic – “You know in particular we are seeing sports club being the focal point of communities and the fact that they are being able to engage with their communities and organize their communities is very exciting and I can see that being a big part of the future. Community sports clubs, rugby clubs and you know the bigger clubs as well have the ability to participate in the community more and I think that is a real positive opportunity in the days to come. Using sporting clubs to actually connect people together is a positive thing. I think the commercial environment is an interesting one where the Governments are looking to stimulate the economy.”

The top gun was optimistic that going by the above scenario, there will be couple of projects coming forward and some projects will again be accelerated to help people get jobs. He said that there are going to be some interesting changes as well in terms of approach to sustainability.

Rhodes ends up on a positive note, “I think people had a lot of time to think about in the last few months and I feel there will be more consciousness in terms of how healthy we are as a population and how healthy we will be in the future. So, wellness and sustainability is going to be the real focal point of design in the future and design of venues as well.”

Coliseum GSVA Giants of Sports Venue Architecture - Mark FenwickImage: MJR Group Ltd./Coliseum

Distinguished architect Mark Fenwick says that in a COVID-19 riddled world, the two key factors to stay safe from the deadly virus is – maintaining social distancing and going in for non-touching options in a big way. As he puts it, “When it comes to stadiums, it will have to be closely monitored through which mode of transport fans arrive at the venue, how they move in the stadium, how they stitch in the bowl, and how we treat that.”

He emphasized that visitors in stadium will have to be highly conscious and alert that they do not touch handrails, desist from touching anything when they go to the toilet, or when they are buying something from the concession. Fenwick said that the ‘non-touch technique’ is what their design practice is trying to bring to the forefront, especially in stadia.

The eminent architect said that in a COVID-19 world, fans will have to make it a habit to keep their masks and gloves on while inside the arena. He opined that new areas could come up in stadiums, and one could look for new commercial opportunities – “There could be special designated areas for people at risk, people over 65, grandfathers who want to visit a stadium but maybe do not want to be in a common area, but in an area which could be identified as a safe spot. I think all these are new challenges that will need to be developed.”

He also pointed out that gone are the days when in Spain people used to arrive in the stadiums just at the nick of time. In a coronavirus world, it is imperative to spread out the time people arrive in the facility, maintain considerable distance in queues, and ensure that access is non-touch. As far as tickets are concerned, he said that everything will have to be done through the cellphone with the help of futuristic technology – “Access to the arena will have to be through the mobile, one cannot touch the turnstiles and just as strict security arrangement is an important component while holding an event at the venue, stringent health and hygiene rules is also here to stay. I believe we are looking at a system where as fans arrive in the stadium, they will actually be disinfected. This is something quite simple to do.”

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