The AFC Asian Cup was one of the most talked about football events ever in Asia. What does that mean for the future of stadium design?

AFC Asian Cup Final, Sydney

Soaking up the atmosphere, amongst 50,000 people at the Brisbane Stadium at Lang Park during the quarter final of the recent AFC Asian Cup, it was fascinating to reflect that more than 20 million people were also watching that same match on television in China. It was a good illustration of the true intersection between the live and remote audience during a major sporting match in today’s digitally connected world and the real global connectivity sporting events offer to a city. For designers, it was also an opportunity to reflect on the key part stadium design plays within that mix.

The recent AFC Asian Cup hosted by Australia in January this year was one of the most watched and talked about football events ever in Asia. More people went to the Games than ever before, more people throughout Asia watched the matches on television and even more were connected on social media. The official #AC2015 Twitter hashtag reach was 3.1 billion by the end of the tournament.

 Attending the live event with 50,000 other fans IS undoubtedly a special and exhilarating experience. But the reality is that you can’t always be there, especially if you live half way around the globe in Beijing, Cape Town or New York. Technology has made it possible to view or listen in by television, radio or via the Internet. Ever since the Internet became a part of the design of sporting arenas some 15 years ago, Populous has strived to better design venues to reach two types of audiences -the live audience in the venue and the remote audience watching from home. Now Social Media is part of the mix and it has brought a greater level of engagement that is much more personalised. It’s about sharing your experiences with your friends, instantly, regardless of where you friends are around the world. Social media has, in fact, enhanced the experience of interacting with the game.

We are witnessing exponential growth in the way audiences behave on social media at both the live event and at home. What’s more the digital habits of a football fan at an AFC Asian Cup live game can be quite different to those of a tennis fan at the Australian Open, or a cricket fan at the MCG where the longer event means fans have more time to interact with their friends on social media. In the case of the Asian Cup, the vast majority of these incredible levels of activity on social media platforms were the remote audiences around the world.

So what does this phenomenon of ever growing connectivity and exposure mean for stadium design moving forward? Do we need to adapt the stadium further and if so how? How, for example, do we make stadiums even more accessible to the international broadcaster at the event, so they can better tell the away team story and make the Game more relevant for the fans sitting back home in Beijing or Seoul, New York or Paris.

The truth is that stadium design matters just as much for the live audience at the match as the remote audience around the world. It all begins with atmosphere. The intensity that atmosphere creates is the key to a great stadium design and maximizing atmosphere is what designers constantly strive to better achieve. This was never more evident than during the last moments of the AFC Asian Cup Final at the Sydney Olympic Stadium as the 80,000 strong crowd held its breath, willing the players to victory. There was a bond between all the spectators that transcended the stadium and was felt much more widely than Sydney. Atmosphere is created by a myriad of things such as proximity to the game, an exceptional view, the noise at the game, and the connectivity of fans. The incredibly complex thing that is atmosphere is an almost mystical thing.

But there is also a whole range of other things designers can increasingly do to help remote audience better connect with what’s going on at the match. The lifeline for the remote audience is the video feeds. The aim of those video feeds is to get the remote audience into the heart of the action, then people can feel the player intensity, the crowd noise, the excitement of the event. It can be done by flying cameras, even drones and the potential for how video can get in amongst the action is more exciting than it’s ever been.

One day soon we will see cameras embedded in players’ clothing. Can you imagine the view of a penalty shoot-out from the most intense position possible – the shirt of the player taking the shot? We’ll see how the players are influenced by the noise from the crowd and feel the intensity of the wall of focused spectators. We have had sound on referees for years, now it will be the turn of video to take the game to a whole new level. It will be daunting, exciting and uplifting – all at the same time. Stadium designers must now consider every demand of technology as well as the demands of connectivity.

The 2015 AFC Asian Cup provided other lessons for sport. It has shown the emergence and extraordinary popularity of professional sport in Asia. The official AFC Asian Cup website reported a worldwide TV audience in excess of one billion, with China, Asia’s biggest market showing a cumulative average viewership (the number watching at any given time) of 182 million by the end of the semi-final. And 37% of South Korea’s entire population watched the Taegeuk Warriors’ semi-final victory over Iraq. The tournament had shown how “connected” the Asian sports fan is and that social media is driving this new engagement. It is still early days in the development of professional sport and this tournament is just the tip of the iceberg. For Australia, hosting the tournament was a special window of opportunity into Asia, to be right in the middle of it all, with powerful benefits for both business and cultural ties.

The AFC Asian Cup was hosted in a number of Populous –designed stadia. The tournament illustrated that these are still high performing venues with great atmosphere, many years after they were first built. Populous deliberately designs for the long term and continuing relevance. These buildings are not white elephants but hard working venues with a real place in the public’s heart. Stadium designers must continue to look to the future to design for evolution that will inevitably take place. The one consistent in the design of both the Sydney (ANZ Stadium) and Brisbane(Suncorp Stadium) venues has been a focus on the importance of atmosphere. These venues have always had atmosphere at the centre of their philosophy and to this day, it remains the key to their future longevity.

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