The Driving Force behind MLS Stadium Design

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With the Centennial Copa America and UEFA Euro 2016 championships kicking off, this is a great time to reflect on the global football/soccer design traditions that bring the beautiful game to life.

As designers, we have to keep in mind that Major League Soccer is part of a global soccer landscape. The 2014 FIFA World Cup demonstrates the global popularity of the sport and the rising profile of American soccer on the global stage. The MLS is an up-and-coming league in this context and requires venues designed for this elevated world presence.

As lead architect on the new Orlando City SC and Minnesota United FC MLS stadiums, it is more apparent to me than ever that the growth in popularity, talent, media and awareness is the most important dynamic affecting MLS stadium design today. This is in large part because of the footprint that the European football heritage inspired.

The growth of the MLS is not something to be taken lightly. There is a real soccer revolution taking place in America right now. Consider the following:

  • The number of Americans who watch, attend or listen to soccer matches has expanded by 32 percent since 2010, a clear indicator that American soccer fans are a rapidly growing group.
  • Since Premier League coverage began on NBCSN, viewership of the eight MLS games on NBC has increased by 60 percent, while the number of unique visitors to NBC-streamed MLS games has jumped 322 percent.
  • The U.S. team’s final match of the 2014 World Cup against Belgium had an overnight rating of 9.6 (16.0 million viewers) on ESPN alone, the largest rating ever for a soccer match on ESPN. For comparison, the 5-game NBA Finals averaged a 9.3 rating (15.5 million viewers).
  • Average attendances at MLS games have grown by 56 percent since 2001 and in the past five years alone attendance has risen 29 percent.

So what does this all mean for us? It means we have to design differently and think about the international traditions that bring the game to life.

One common thread, across all of our projects, is the focus on the fan experience. We’re committed to designing soccer stadiums, similar to Wembley Stadium in London,  that become second homes for fans – buildings where they feel intimately connected to the game through supporters sections and technology.

A great example of a MLS stadium that was designed with its supporters section in mind is our very own Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan. The Cauldron supporters group provides an atmosphere that is second-to-none and enjoys an exclusive members club on game days. Soccer is a unique sport with a passionate fan base, and our designs always set out to honor these fans and drive the fan experience.

LIVESTRONG Sporting Park

The Cauldron supporters section at Children’s Mercy Park, home of Sporting Kansas City

Another American soccer trend is the move from playing soccer in NFL stadiums to soccer-specific venues. This trend started with the MLS-charter club Columbus Crew. Since its stadium opened in 1999, MLS stadiums have become even more sophisticated with clear influences from European and South American designs. This is seen in the design of smaller stadiums, intimate seating bowls and use of canopies.

A great example of the use of canopies can be seen in the new Minnesota United FC stadium. Inspired by European soccer stadiums’ continuous canopies, we designed a complete 360-degree canopy over the bowl to protect fans and players from the elements. It also reduces light and noise from spilling into the neighborhood while creating an intimate and intimidating home pitch atmosphere.

Looking to the future, the stadium experience will be impacted by numerous things – the family influence being chief among them. ESPN recently conducted a survey that found for kids aged 12-17, Major League Soccer was more popular than Major League Baseball for the first time in history.  As these young fans mature, our soccer stadiums have to deliver on these fans’ growing passion for the sport and reflect the intensity of the experience of the game.

We’re currently designing soccer-specific stadiums in Washington, D.C., Orlando, Fla., and St. Paul, Minn., which also allow for year-round use of the stadium. The goal is 365-days-a-year activity for all ages, just as European stadiums like Parc Olympique Lyonnais in France encourage pop-up events to bring the community in constant contact with their venue. The design of these MLS stadiums is intended to initiate development and activate the relationship between the city, citizens and spectators – both local and visiting.

Soccer generates tremendous enthusiasm all around the world. Populous brings that same passion and excellence to stadium design. We pride ourselves on revolutionizing the fan experience in American soccer. We are excited to watch the beautiful game continue to grow in the United States and are thrilled to continue to draw inspiration from European football heritage.

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Bruce Miller is a leader of Populous’ soccer market. Continue the conversation with Bruce at bruce.miller@populous.com. To learn more about Populous’ global soccer portfolio, check out populous.com/soccer.

 

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