Getting Back into the Game: What’s Ahead for Sports Venues

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  • Getting Back into the Game: What’s Ahead for Sports Venues
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Daniel Junge


Perspective 2022 vol 1
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From reconfigured seating bowls to recalibrated revenue streams, arena design and operations are evolving.

With the sporting world emerging from a year that saw grandstands populated with cardboard fans, digitized cheers ring through empty arenas, and basketball played in a bubble, the industry is confronting a changed business model, as well as new design and construction priorities for athletic venues.

The pandemic’s effects on the sports sector have been far-reaching. Concurrent with the dramatic slowdown in building activity for stadiums, revenue streams were disrupted. Owners and operators were hard pressed to find favorable financing, as cautious lenders pulled back on extending loans. But the real gut punch came at the gate. In March, Forbes estimated the cost of the shut-down for the four major sports leagues and the NCAA—taking into account lost sales of tickets, concessions, sponsorships, and television broadcasts—at $14.1 billion.

Now, as we move further into recovery mode, the prospects are improving. The construction outlook for the sports sector is solid, as the supply chain is restored, production capacity increases, and material prices stabilize. Stakeholders and communities still have a vested interest in developing these facilities, as they can play a critical role in local economies and cultures. And importantly, fans are ready, willing, and, with attendance limits gradually lifting, increasingly able to attend games in person. The pent-up demand, as reflected by an MRI-Simmons survey, “Sports Fandom in the Age of COVID-19” is considerable; 204 million self-identified sports fans (83% of all Americans) reported feeling sad, frustrated, and disconnected during the pandemic.

Return of fans, return on investment

To adapt to the changed circumstances, sports venues must commit to ensuring comfort and safety for attendees, while actively enhancing the fan experience. Inevitably, adhering to physical distancing recommendations reduces stadium capacity, and as these guidelines continue to evolve, striking the right ratio between seating design and social distancing is an ongoing challenge. Venues also need to be right sized in terms of seating capacity to better balance revenue with fan experience.

There are multiple ways to address this issue. Keeping alternate rows or seat blocks unoccupied is the most basic approach. Demountable and portable seating sections give facilities a degree of flexibility, allowing them to reconfigure or remove or add seats as needed. Designating more box-style seating can encourage more group or “pod” attendance for guests.

Some venues will opt to forgo capacity limits and seating reconfigurations and will resume full capacity seating arrangements, typically with COVID-19 vaccination or negative test result verification required at the gate.  Re-thinking exterior entrance queue layouts and technology requirements at the gate will be important for maintaining a pleasant fan experience.

Beyond the Box Seats

Beyond the bowl, the revenue potential of premium spaces is ripe for development. Members-only clubrooms, luxury suites, and VIP lounges appeal by offering higher levels of goods and services, albeit at a higher price point. Fans excited about reengaging with the sporting scene may be eager to upgrade from hot dogs and beer to filet and chardonnay, spotty 4G connections to speedy 5G networks, or spine-cracking bleachers to cushy recliners.

Tech: More Than a Game

Technology can be a significant catalyst to entice crowds back into the arena and keep them there. Making transactions for food and merchandise convenient and contactless, using a mobile wallet app that allows spectators to place an order from their seats, can eliminate queues at concession stands and reduce the number of people wandering throughout the concourses. Incentivizing these purchases with offers for future discounts, upgrades for amenities, or other perks not only rewards loyalty but builds confidence and solidifies the relationship between fans and the venue. Augmented reality activities, esports, online wagering, and interactive player experiences are other tech-based entertainment options that fans have demonstrated they’re willing to pay for. Implementing customer-facing features like these may add costs upfront, but the alternative—lost business—is a powerful motivator. And as Deloitte points out in its “2021 Outlook for the US Sports Industry,” all the data collected from these ventures is valuable, as it can be readily monetized, as well as leveraged to build new digital diversions, expanding the revenue stream.

Just as it enhances a secure and satisfying fan experience, technology can also contribute to a venue’s efficient performance, which can bolster the bottom line. An example of this is the new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. It is the first stadium in the country to feature digital twin technology, which converts all quantifiable aspects of the venue into a real-time, virtual replica, providing facilities managers with large amounts of data that can be used to optimize its lighting, air conditioning, and mechanical systems, reducing operational expenses.

Flexibility is the Future

While the pandemic wreaked havoc with both professional and collegiate athletics, it also accelerated advancements that were already in the pipeline. Applying these innovations throughout the sports ecosystem will help organizations rebound from the crisis, keep them competitive, and position them for growth. Whether refurbished or new-build, multipurpose facilities that can be used year-round and transformed for a variety of civic uses, such as polling places, medical treatment/testing centers, or drive-through distribution sites, owners have an opportunity to create resilient, flexible venues that will thrive—functionally and financially—in the future.

As seen in Sports Travel Magazine, September 2021