Hyperconnected Transformer Stadiums Are the Future for Football Fans

Joe Svetlik@joesvetlikContributor IJuly 11, 2017

Tottenham are in the process of building a new stadium.
Tottenham are in the process of building a new stadium.Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

For most football fans, the stadium experience still means sitting in traffic and finding somewhere to park. Queuing. Then after the game, rushing along with thousands of others to get out and get home. When you have a 4K TV at home equipped with split-screen viewing, plus your smartphone for seeing betting odds and other updates, why would you bother going to the match in the first place?

That's the challenge faced by team owners all over the world, and it's kick-started a revolution in stadium design that is coming to the Premier League.

Stadiums of the future will be hyperconnected, multipurpose venues; in fact, they'll be comparable to Transformers, with removable pitches and seats and retractable roofs. They'll be as happy hosting football matches as music concerts. Your match-going experience will be personalised to your requirements, whether you're a diehard fan or just a casual punter with a passing interest in the game.

Rather than seeing technology as the enemy, teams are making it work for them. They're keeping tech at the forefront of their minds when designing new stadiums. Used the right way, the same conveniences we enjoy at home can encourage people to come to the stadium. Just ask Sean Kundu, vice president of new ventures for the San Francisco 49ers.

When conceiving the team's new venue, Kundu was only too aware of the challenge posed by home viewing.

"Our primary competitors weren't other sports teams in the area or even other events," he says. "Our primary competitor was the couch."

Levi's Stadium in San Francisco is putting fans first.
Levi's Stadium in San Francisco is putting fans first.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

In designing Levi's Stadium—a 75,000-seat arena that hosted the 2016 Super Bowl—the team reimagined what a stadium could do. Its focus? Improving the fan experience.

The fun starts before you leave home. Thanks to the paperless ticket on your smartphone, you receive notifications about everything from the traffic en route to the stadium to which food stand has the shortest queue. The app also allows you to order food delivered to your seat, lets you collect loyalty points to spend on merchandise and will even tell you if a fight has broken out nearby (though it'll advise you to take a certain exit, rather than where to go to get the best view).

The infrastructure required is ridiculous. Levi's has 400 miles of cable, 1,300 access points and over 2,000 location beacons spaced 10 meters from each other so fans can use the app to find everything in the stadium.

"It's like Google Maps for buildings," Kundu says.

Rather than technology being added as an afterthought, it was baked into the initial plans. It's a seismic change in how stadiums are designed, but it's necessary to keep step with consumer trends.

"Today, everybody is checking the score of every game, following social media and generally sharing the match-going experience," says Dan Meis, founder and managing principal of Meis Architects, the firm behind AS Roma's forthcoming Stadio della Roma. "In designing a stadium, it's vital to improve that technology, to make sure that people are always connected so they can easily share the experience."

Inroads are being made in the UK as well. Brighton & Hove Albion's Amex Stadium has an app that stops mobile reception from dropping out (as it often does when thousands of people in a small area try to use their phones at the same time). And the English Football League recently signed a deal that brings free in-stadium Wi-Fi to every club in the Championship, League One and League Two. Though, just like Brighton & Hove's technology, it can only be used to access the teams' official apps, not the wider internet.

Still, it's a start.


Today's stadiums are used for a lot more than just football, because it's not cost-effective to use the stadium only twice a month for home games. Take Tottenham, for example, who have signed a 10-year deal to host at least two NFL games per season at their new stadium in London. Spurs' new home—due to open in 2018—will feature dedicated NFL facilities, including space for the legendary "tailgate" pregame parties. It will be the first stadium in the UK with a retractable football pitch, under which will be an artificial surface for NFL games, concerts and other events.

To most, this might seem positively space-age, but it's quickly becoming the norm for high-budget stadiums.

"Nobody's just making a football stadium anymore," says James Keen, group marketing manager at Tripleplay, a digital signage and IPTV company that's kitted out the stadiums for Chelsea and Manchester City, among others. "Everybody's got their eye on other opportunities."

More facilities means the stadium needs more space. Hence, lots of stadiums are being built out of town as part of leisure complexes, with hotels, cinemas and restaurants attached. The stadiums are becoming destinations in their own right instead of just venues. Inevitably, this gentrifies the surrounding area, as has occurred in Stratford from the London Stadium used in the 2012 Olympics.

"It makes the public investment more valuable," Meis says.

But what happens after a big event like an Olympics or a World Cup? What's stopping these vacant premises from becoming expensive white elephants? That's the worry about Qatar, which will host the 2022 World Cup: Does such a small country that doesn't have a rich footballing heritage really need all those massive stadiums?

The original proposal had an ingenious solution. After the tournament, certain seating sections would be taken out of the stadiums and donated to less prosperous countries in Asia. That way, the less well-off would benefit, and Qatar wouldn't end up with half-empty stadiums. Now, those plans seem to have fallen by the wayside. But downsizing stadiums is a real possibility.

Mark Sheldon is a technical director at consulting engineers Aurecon.

"For the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006, we incorporated some temporary grandstands into the main swimming pool to increase the capacity," he says. "The facility didn't need 10,000 seats sitting around empty forever and a day. The seats from the Sydney Olympics were also demounted and reinstalled at a suburban rugby ground. Basically, if there's no ongoing demand for those seats, they shouldn't be there."

If you need the seats one week but not another, one option is to simply cover them up. That's what the Mercedes-Benz Stadium—home to the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United—does.

"Sometimes 80,000 seats is too many," says Bill Johnson, design principal at HOK, the firm behind the stadium. "So, we have a deployable scrim that covers the seats in the mid and upper bowls. It's like a curtain coming down in a theatre."

If you're looking at where stadium design is going, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium is something of a paragon. It is the first in the world with a 360-degree halo screen, which wraps around the inside of the roof, meaning no matter where you sit, you'll get a perfect view of the replay.

"Our aim is to deliver technology in a unique way you can't get at home," Johnson says. "We'd say they've certainly done that."

Then there's the roof. Designed to look like a falcon's wing, it's made up of eight triangular panels that close in unison, creating an oculus effect, like a camera's aperture. Peter Sorckoff, chief creative officer for the Atlanta Hawks (whose stadium is a four-minute drive from Mercedes-Benz and will, inevitably, stand somewhat in its shadow), described it as the eighth wonder of the world.


Most teams can only dream of such architectural marvels. But as technology becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous, one thing will be consistent whichever stadium you go to: You'll be able to dictate what kind of experience you have.

"The owners recognise not everyone is a purist fan that really cares about the game for 90 minutes," Meis says. "That's where the food experience and clubs and the rest come into play. I know people who go to NBA games who don't even watch the game. Owners have to think: Do they only want the hardcore fan, or are they after a much more diverse group?"

The smart money is on appealing to everyone.

"Dramatically shifting consumer patterns, a better in-home viewing experience and changes in the way the content is being consumed have all had a dramatic effect on the way that we're designing the built environment," says Brian Mirakian, director of Populous, the firm that designed the Millennium Stadium's retractable roof.

"When you look at how we designed these buildings 10 to 15 years ago, it was predominantly about an in-seat experience," he says. "And now it's completely changed. Now it's about choosing your own adventure as soon as you enter the building."

This is different for everyone.

"You get hardcore fans and casual fans, and both want a very different experience," says Michael Conley, vice president of digital for the Cleveland Cavaliers. "We want the flexibility to let each individual fan dictate their own experience."

This is possible thanks to the mobile technology mentioned earlier. Having a paperless ticket on your phone lets the clubs' owners find out all sorts of information about you and your movements, which lets them customise the experience. Make no mistake, if you use a paperless ticket, the club knows everything about you, including where you commute from and what food and drink you like to buy at the stadium. It puts all that into making the matchday experience as convenient and enjoyable as possible.

For example, the Hawks are working on installing facial-recognition software in their stadium, Philips Arena. Then they can count how many people are at a certain location in the venue. Using this information, they can send fans a notification to tell them how long it'll take to get to their seat based on their location. The technology can even let fans access the video feed from a security camera, so they can see for themselves if another route is less crowded.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium is an impressive sight
Mercedes-Benz Stadium is an impressive sightJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

Such information makes people feel empowered.

"It creates a sense that the customer is actually in control of their journey, instead of just being in the stream," Sorckoff says.

This glut of information could even influence how future stadiums are designed.

"This data-rich environment lets us crowdsource information to generate a feedback loop back into the design process," says Jonathan Mallie, principal and director at Populous. "We can use it to predict certain behavioural patterns, which helps drive our design of the next stadium we work on."

Away from the phone, there are plenty of exciting design extras on the way. Sheldon tells of a standup bar behind the interchange area, so fans can almost reach out and touch players as they run onto the pitch. Or seating right next to the coach's box, so you can hear every word they say. (Let's hope they're not losing.)

"We're also designing a stadium for an AFL team with a bar above the team's warm-up area," he says. "It'll have a glass floor, so you can watch them warm up while you warm up with a drink. These kinds of things give fans a better insight into what goes on behind the scenes. A lot of people are happy to pay extra for that kind of experience."

A lot of stadiums are also looking at upgrading their lights to LEDs, or light-emitting diodes. It might sound like a small change, but it'll make a big difference. Current lighting setups take a while to warm up and to get to full brightness. That's not an issue when they're switched on hours before the match starts. But if there's a power cut, it delays proceedings further. LEDs can also flash in time with music, which could make for a much more immersive experience.

Virtual reality could even have a place inside the stadium. A number of broadcasters, leagues and teams have been experimenting with VR, both for the at-home viewing experience and at the stadium. No one's suggesting people at the match should strap on a headset and watch in VR instead of with their own eyes. But elements of the technology could certainly enhance the game-day experience.

Once the headsets stop being so cumbersome, and expensive, and shrink so they're indiscernible from a pair of normal glasses, they could become standard at stadiums. You would watch the match and use augmented reality to add extra information to your view—things like the game clock, score and statistics. You could then personalise this to your liking.

"I can imagine the day where you're watching a player and his stats appear and float above his head while he's playing," says Jeff Marsilio, vice president of global media for the NBA. "Or maybe you choose to augment the experience with comic book 'pow' and 'bam' effects. You could even give them big heads like in NBA Jam. With this technology, anything's possible. It's just a question of what the fans want."

VR could extend the experience beyond the walls of the stadium. Fans in other countries could gather, don their headsets and enter a virtual stadium with thousands of other fans to watch the match.

"It would let fans watch together," Mirakian says. "To be able to export that live experience to thousands of people around the world would be very powerful."

Not to mention profitable, judging by how many Manchester United fans there are around the world.

Virtual stadiums are already a thing. Firms like AltspaceVR and LiveLike let you watch sports with friends in virtual reality. It's not quite the same as being there in the stadium, but it's pretty impressive, given how young the technology is.

"One of the first big events we had was us all watching the [2016] Super Bowl together in VR," says Bruce Wooden, head of experience at AltspaceVR. "There was a huge, Jumbotron-size screen showing the livestream, and about 200 people watched it with us."

You can almost smell the hot dogs.

A woman attaches a 'IDEALENS K2+' VR device presented by VR Japan at the VR/AR World Exhibition as part of the Advanced Content Technology Expo in Tokyo on June 29, 2017.  / AFP PHOTO / Kazuhiro NOGI        (Photo credit should read KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Gett
KAZUHIRO NOGI/Getty Images

Then there's esports. The pastime of watching people play video games has been growing at a phenomenal rate of late. So much so that the owners of the Philadelphia 76ers—who are also investors in Crystal Palace—recently bought two of the biggest esports teams around: Team Dignitas and Apex. Dutch football team Ajax signed a deal with Koen Weijland, five-time Dutch champion in FIFA (the video game), and hosts esports nights at its home ground, the Amsterdam Arena.

"Maybe one day the computer game will be more popular than the real thing," says Henk Markerink, the stadium's CEO.

In which case, expect a complete overhaul of the stadium's layout, including breakout rooms complete with VR headsets.


So where does all this leave football purists? Will these new stadiums Americanise the beautiful game, with all the razzmatazz and hard sell that encompasses? Thankfully, the stadiums are in safe hands. For all the potential technology brings, the clubs still want fans focused on the action on the pitch, not looking at their phones. That's why some teams don't use their apps to deliver content like replays but instead to help facilitate the match-going experience.

"We don't want technology to get in the way of the game-day experience," says George Scott, general manager of digital media for the NFL. "The app should get you from your driveway to the game to the postgame and back home. It should enhance the experience but not obstruct it."

Architects and designers want to leave the in-seat experience alone and not build stadiums around mobile apps. Technologies come and go, after all, and what's standard now will be antiquated in five years. Experts agree that while they should embrace technology, they need a healthy respect for the traditions of the game. Otherwise they might turn off fans entirely.

"There has to be a delicate balance between that in-seat experience and all the peripheral stuff that happens before and after," Mallie says. "The challenge is to create an architecture that allows these two aspects of the experience to occur."

Meis, who designed the legendary Staples Center in Los Angeles, thinks technology will serve the live event, not the other way around.

"I believe people will always want to be in the live experience, and they'll want to see it for themselves," he says. "The biggest difference is that now we can instantly share it with friends through social media. And that's very compelling."

Mirakian agrees.

"You have all these technological changes and influences affecting the design of the buildings, but they'll always be places where people come to experience an event together," he says. "Things will change physically, but it'll always be about the fans first."

    

Sean Kundu, Peter Sorckoff, Michael Conley, Jeff Marsilio, Henk Markerink and George Scott spoke at the 2016 Future Stadium Summit, held by sports events organiser Leaders.

All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.