Today's NFL teams in are in an arms race for superlatives, chasing the honors of biggest and best, even if only for a few years.
In pursuit of a winning strategy, stadium designers are changing the game experience as fans order food and drinks from their phone and tweet their love for their team for the massive video display hanging over the field. Oh, and instead of suffering through rain, snow, and freezing temperatures, the roof of the stadium opens and closes on the order of the home team.
You could credit Dallas Cowboys chairman Jerry Jones with igniting the stadium arms race. He brought his vision to life in 2009 as the Cowboy's $1.3-billion AT&T Stadium complex was one of the first to feature a retractable roof, opening end zone doors and at the time world's largest video screen. Fans loved the Party Pass elevated platform section in each end zone. On off days the stadium tour features museum quality contemporary works of art.
Jones's stadium still holds two world records: the largest column-free room and the largest operable glass doors. At 180 feet by 120 feet, the glass end-zone doors take 18 minutes to open or close.
For technological superiority, the stadium in Arlington, Texas, has been supplanted by Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the most recently completed NFL stadium and home to the Atlanta Falcons. But it won't be No. 1 for long. The L.A. Stadium at Hollywood Park and the Las Vegas Stadium now under construction are a peek into the next generation of sports arena design.
LA Stadium at Hollywood Park
Beginning in 2020, the relocated Los Angeles Rams franchise and the Los Angeles Chargers will share the L.A. at Hollywood Park, $2.5 billion, a 70,250-seat arena taking shape on the side of the old Hollywood Park racetrack in Inglewood.
Only ten miles from downtown Los Angeles, the facility is designed to mimic the look and feel of indoor-outdoor spaces common to southern California residences, Andy Henning, Associate Principal & Senior VP for HKS, the facility’s architect, told Sporting News.
Fans won't miss any action thanks to the Oculus, the 50 feet-by-120-yard oval video board that will hang over the center of the field. It's longer than the football field and twice as big as the old record holder at AT&T Stadium. It's designed to provide an immersive experience so it feels like you're sitting in the video board, Henning says.
Along with the standard premium level seating options, the Lux Cabanas will offer a beach-themed club area at field level and two Stage clubs will span multiple floors connected by spiral staircases.
The Perch Suites in the stadium's upper corners will concentrate technology into a small premium space for up to eight people. Visitors can fine-tune their environment and personalize the digital offerings via an automobile-like dashboard.
The stadium design required some innovative thinking as well. It sits in the flight path of Los Angeles International Airport, so to comply with FAA height restrictions the playing field will be 100 feet below ground. The architects designed "canyons" or landscaped corridors directing fans from escalators, stairs and ramps down into the seating area.
Outside, the stadium will be wrapped in 36,000 aluminum panels perforated with more than 20 million holes. The panels will form the facade as well as an open-air canopy and the frame for the roof panel made from ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a transparent plastic material, which was also used for the roof at the Viking's U.S. Bank Stadium. The elliptical roof panel will diffuse the daylight hitting the playing field, screening the harsh light of afternoon games and allowing the year-around use of the facility.
The holes in the triangular panels will form an image on the facade when seen from particular perspectives, HKS computational designer James Warton told The Architect's Newspaper. The digitally crafted pattern will be created using eight different sizes of holes punched a minimum of a half-inch apart. The perforations in the aluminum panels will allow the skin to flex with the variable climate.
Expected to open in 2020, the stadium will host the Super Bowl in 2022 and the College Football Playoff game in 2023 and may play a role for the 2026 World Cup and 2028 Olympics.
The LA Stadium is the centerpiece of a 298-acre entertainment district to redevelop the former horse track and other area property. It will feature a 6,000-seat performing arts center, 2,500 residential units, 2 million square feet of retail and office space, an open-air plaza, and more than 25 acres of public parks.
Las Vegas Stadium
In Las Vegas, the new $1.8-billion Las Vegas Raiders Stadium will feature folding 80-by-120 foot lanai doors for a unique view of the famed Las Vegas Strip. When the doors are open, spectators will see through the open end of the horseshoe-shaped stadium the 120-foot tall flaming cauldron that will honor the late Al Davis, former owner of the team. Seating for regular football games will be around 65,000 and can expand up to 72,000 for major events like the Super Bowl.
The doors aren't the only things that will be moving. The field that the Raiders will use when the stadium opens in 2020 will be on wheels, similar to the Arizona Cardinal's movable field at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Between games, the natural-grass field will soak up sunshine outside, resting on a 4-foot-high tray. For game days the tray rolls inside, delivering an indoor game with real grass. A heat source under the tray will support year-round turf growth even during chilly desert winters.
Reducing fan traffic congestion has been part of the design from the ground up, literally. The floor of the stadium will be dug out about 20 feet below ground, which will direct half the fans downstairs to their seats and the other half upstairs, improving the traffic flow.
Natural light will flood the field through the translucent ETFE roof panel some 220 feet above the floor. Embedded materials in the high-strength polymer will block sunlight in the harsh Nevada desert.
The stadium's exterior translucent components will make the stadium appear black during the day, but interior lighting will illuminate it after dark. Curvaceous ribbon structures along the sides allow the exchange of stale inside air and fresh outside air and drain water from the roof.
When the Las Vegas Raiders take the field in their stadium, they'll engage with fans passing through a through a field-level club stepping onto the turf.
Perhaps reflecting the nature of the town where it's located and rowdy reputation of Raiders fans, the Las Vegas stadium will also house a jail and courtroom for expedited handling of cases on site.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
Opened in 2017, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons and the MLS Atlanta United will have only a few years as the league's technology leader before the Los Angeles and Los Vegas stadiums are completed. But it's still a doozy.
Its main claim to fame is the retractable roof, which took inspiration from the oculus in the roof of the Parthenon in Rome. Eight triangular petals weighing 500 tons each and covered in ETFE move along 16 tracks, opening and closing like the iris in a camera lens.
The facade will also feature ETFE panels covering angular extensions of the building's framework, blurring the delineation between indoors and outdoors. At one end a transparent panel creates a 16-story "Window to the City," connecting fans to the downtown skyline.
The designers said it was conceived as an open-air stadium and they intend to keep the roof open as much as possible.
With the 'theater-in-the-round" approach, traditional video displays in the end zones and corners just wouldn't make the grade. Instead, the designers embraced the stadium design to drive the concept for the 63,800-square-foot circular video board. The 58-foot tall, 1,075-foot long, 360-degree high definition screen thrills fans via live action, highlights, and crowd cameras. An additional 2,000 video screens mean fans won't miss any action while they're out of their seats. Another 101-foot, four-sided video column offers a view from any direction. The stadium is so committed to going digital that there's no static signage in the building.
Visitors stay connected with 1,800 wireless access points and 4,000 miles of fiber optic cable.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium has another claim to fame as North America’s first LEED Platinum certified professional sports stadium. Sustainability features include a 600,000-square-foot cistern to recapture and reuse rainwater, which protects the neighborhood from flooding and provides rainwater to irrigate trees throughout the city.
Using 4,000 solar panels, the stadium could power 10 Falcons games or 13 Atlanta United Major League Soccer games with the power generated on-site. The stadium also scored LEED credits for connections to public transit and the creation of urban farming areas and open recreation spaces.
Future Stadium Tech
It’s clear that technology will play an ever-larger role in stadium design to immerse fans into the experience even while the game is happening right in front of them. But it's not all about the digital world. Some future trends are aimed to satisfy seats and stomachs— as well as the eyes and ears.
Digital Immersion: Since we all carry computers in our pockets, stadiums will step up their efforts to engage fans with additional content. Augmented reality apps could overlay different camera angles, player stats, and on-field data such as running speed and heart rate of players.
Holograms: The next frontier in the video world could be 3D holographic projection. Fans could watch their home team play an away game in the stadium. For its bid for the 2022 soccer World Cup, Japan promised 3D broadcasts would be available worldwide. They lost the proposal, but the idea is still out there waiting for the right moment to pop up.
Drones: Flying servers could eliminate one unloved element of the fan experience— waiting in line for beer or food. While the hovering copter won't drop a can of suds at your seat, they could serve food and drink at specially designed restaurants.
High-End Food: Fans are willing to pay for luxury experiences, and gourmet-level dining is one of the ways stadiums can set themselves apart. Exclusive clubs must have the wow factor of a luxury resort.
As we live more and more of our lives through technology, who knows what wonders will flourish in future stadiums? How about autonomous moving seats that pick you up at the gate and deposit you in the right row? Or individually heated and cooled seats? Or fans voting in real-time on what play the coach should call? Tell us what technology you'd like to see in a future stadium. Comment below and let us know.
About the Author
Gary Wollenhaupt is an experienced freelance writer covering high-performance commercial building, supply chain & logistics technology, automotive, and manufacturing topics. Previously, Gary worked for a Fortune 500 transportation company, a large regional public relations agency and a small-town daily newspaper.More Content by Gary Wollenhaupt