Kicking off! The Future of Rugby Stadia

With the 2015 Six Nations championship entering its final weekend, we have seen some exciting rugby and some great occasions. As ever, a huge part of this success is based on the atmosphere that is created between these close neighbours, with their historic sporting rivalries. But in an age where television is king, what is it about the new generation of rugby stadia that is continuing to draw huge crowds and re-energising local areas? And could the future of rugby stadia around the world be about more than just rugby?

In the run-up to the first match of this year’s Six Nations championship, many newspapers focussed on the England team’s determination not to be intimidated by the incredible atmosphere at Wales’ Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, which was thought to play a role in their demoralising 30-points to 3 defeat to Wales in last year’s championship. “You have to experience an atmosphere like that, live through it, play through it and learn from it. It defines you as a player,” England coach Graham Rowntree told the Guardian newspaper.

In the past, rugby stadia were not particularly known for their comforts. This was the home of the strong men, where the fans were often larger than those on the pitch. But times have changed, and families have become an important fixture in the rugby-fan community. Since 1995, and the creation of professional leagues in the main European rugby nations, the importance of the entertainment side of the game has grown dramatically, with TV rights for national and international competitions being increased every time they are negotiated.

As more games are televised, and shown to a wider audience, international clubs and their owners are recognising the need to improve their venues, and their offering to fans and the local community. Rather than simply being the place where games are played for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon, the modern stadium provides the background for the whole fan experience; from the build-up in the week before, to the match-day broadcast and the camera’s ability to show the game (and stadium) from every angle at every speed. The live experience of these stadia on match day, from the moment fans arrive in the morning and socialise in the fan zones, to celebrating/commiserating after the match in specially designed areas, augments the in situ fan experience and can all be shared around the world. Although the teams and crowds may leave after the match, far from being empty shells during the rest of the week, many stadiums are moving from the outskirts of towns to form a central hub of activity within the city centre.

When I joined the Populous team in 2006, to work on the design of the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, the revolution of rugby stadia was already well underway. In fact, the Aviva Stadium was an evolution of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, completed in 1999, incorporating many design features to ensure the future economic sustainability of the stadium and its local area. As well as re-energising the area where it stands, the design and masterplan of both stadia place a big emphasis on national and international public transport connections, ensuring a visit to either stadium can easily be made from the European continent, and even the world.

An economic impact study for the 2015 Rugby World Cup – featuring four Populous-designed stadia this autumn – suggests that nearly £1 billion of additive value will be driven into the UK economy, with more international visitors expected than at any other Rugby World Cup. In an interview with HOST CITY Magazine, Bernard Lapasset, Chairman of World Rugby and Vice-Chairman of the French National Olympic Committee, said that the “Rugby World Cup is one of the world’s most prestigious and popular major sports events and a major driving force behind the development and prosperity of Rugby worldwide. As a low-risk, high-return event, Rugby World Cup is an attractive proposition for prospective host nations.”

Of course, major international events might be expected to see a dramatic impact on visitors and revenue. However, an independent study commissioned by the Welsh Rugby Union into the legacy of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff recently suggested that the stadium brought over £130 million pounds into the Welsh economy annually, including over 2,500 full-time jobs across Wales.

All this points to a strong future for the next generation of rugby stadia, and particularly the Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR) Grand Stade, currently being built in Ris-Orangis to the south of Paris. With an architecture echoing a fortified town, delivering both hospitality and protection, the stadium will be a fantastic new home for all levels of rugby. From the men’s and women’s national teams to age-group representation and the final of the TOP 14, the Grand Stade will become the bastion of the FFR and an icon for the game in France. However, the 82,000 capacity venue will be much more than just a rugby stadium. With a closing roof to ensure that the crowd cheering on Les Bleus can create an incredible atmosphere, the stadium also features a retractable pitch, which can be rolled out of the stadium to reveal a multi-use concrete base, allowing flexibility for a range of conventions, shows and other sports, to go ahead in all weathers. As well as instigating a large urban redevelopment of 130 hectares, creating jobs and bringing local amenities, the ability to provide a year-round income for the FFR will allow them to increase their revenues, which can then be redistributed to the grass roots and the amateur game, ensuring the future of French rugby.

Just as the game of rugby is becoming bigger and faster, rugby stadia are becoming more flexible in their role in the community; providing a stage for world-class sport, and a real boost to the local community and economy, particularly outside of the traditional rugby season. At Populous we’re looking forward to a great year of rugby in 2015, and a great future for the sport and those who love it.

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