EPL showing the way for a new breed of Australian football fans

Always a nation of sport lovers, Australians are passionate about the teams they support. Sports like rugby, cricket  and AFL have always had their steady  fan base, but now within the country’s football-following ranks, fans have turned out  in force for recent matches. Many are likening their fervour to that of their English Premier League (EPL) counterparts.

As architects we need to continue to adapt our designs, working with clubs, harnessing fan passion, ensuring safety, and  building connections with the community where a club makes its home.

My first contact with fervent football fans came in the UK, well before I began working to help design spaces to accommodate them. As a 13-year-old Leicester City supporter I found myself in the thick of EPL exuberance on numerous occasions. Most memorable were the weekends we travelled to away games, diehard Leicester City fans aboard dedicated transport, escorted by police from station to stadium, as fans from both sides were inevitably passionate supporters of their teams.

Your team said a lot about you then, and about your community as a whole. That hasn’t changed. What has improved dramatically, over time, is the way in which the EPL handles that passion and dedication. EPL facilities, and the management of them, now set the standard other countries and codes follow.

After the European soccer disasters of the late 80s and 90s, Populous produced a design for an all-seated, community-focused stadium that could be built virtually anywhere. Huddersfield was first to make the plans a reality, followed by Bolton. Arsenal, realising the size of its stadium was limiting what it could achieve on the European stage, moved down the road and rebuilt and the fans responded, turning out in droves.

The clubs’ moves to new sites weren’t without emotion. With so much team and community history attached to old grounds it was vital that traditions and rituals could be facilitated at new sites and spaces.

Much of the learning around how we’ve safely achieved that over the years may soon be called upon in Australia, where supporter gatherings and rituals are becoming more and more prevalent across a number of codes, and among football fans in particular.

Football’s Western Sydney Wanderers’ growing league of fans is a case in point. For home matches, the Red and Black Bloc gathers at a pub in Parramatta to march to the stadium united, accompanied by everything from flags and banners to their own live band.

This level of dedication can present something of a quandary for clubs. The number of fans making front page news, for the wrong reasons, is on the rise. On the flip side, the potential positives are many, and include the capacity of strong fan groups to unite people of different backgrounds, to do wonders for civic pride, and to provide welcome revenue to clubs and local businesses as match day patronage grows.

It rests with us, as architects, to ensure new and upgraded stadia are designed to promote safety, and to allow clubs to capitalise on these positives.

As well as designing stadia for safety and security, it has also led to the design of the seating bowl to make it as  intimidating as possible for an away team, altering the angle of the roof and seating to create an intimate bowl. Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, and Arsenal’s multi award-winning Emirates Stadium are good examples – cauldrons where atmosphere is a tangible element. The intimacy, and the noise that comes with it, is as daunting for the visiting team as it is inspiring for the home side.

Seating arrangements can also separate those at opposing ends of the exuberance spectrum. Here, again, there are lessons to be learnt from overseas venues.

The design of the Fédération Française de Rugby’s Grand Stade in Paris includes a large deck which serves as a stage, where supporters’ bands can play as boisterously as they like, away from those who prefer not to be subjected to spirited, instrument-backed chants.

Some EPL clubs have begun to reintroduce a form of the Kop – a concept dating back to the early 1900s where a team’s most passionate supporters were allocated a terraced, standing area behind the goal. It’s only for football’s most hard-core fans. The fainter of heart know to steer clear. They are often more comfortable in the unlicensed zones being incorporated into stadia developments, to encourage families to attend.

A further group that needs to be catered to is made up of those who want a unique or upgraded experience. Australia needs no schooling in this regard.

ANZ Stadium the Telstra Connected Lounge provides fans with unprecedented connectivity and interactivity when they come to watch a match.

The Metricon Stadium Coaches Field Club offers supporters unobstructed proximity to teams, including seats near the interchange bench, and access to the run where fans can high five players as they take the field.

VIP offerings at Suncorp Stadium and Margaret Court Arena allow fans to get involved in the theatre and drama of sport that only comes from back-of-house access.

While we design improvements for catering to varied fans, we increasingly find ourselves incorporating extensive facilities to keep the wider community connected too.

Simonds Stadium, home of AFL’s Geelong Cats, has for some 75 years, hosted a range of supporter days, masters and community events. Populous is involved in current redevelopment that includes the Sunrise Centre, a facility that assists people with a disability in returning to work.

A joint venture involving Sydney’s University of Technology and Australian Rugby, planned for Moore Park, promotes a culture of combined sport and education. It will accommodate students from indigenous and lower socioeconomic communities, groups from which many of Australia’s professional sports people are drawn.

The Multicultural Community Education Centre is a major feature of AFL’s Greater Western Sydney Giants’ development at Sydney Olympic Park. It delivers a higher education program to low socioeconomic status students across Western Sydney, and a nutrition program to 40 schools in the area.

These types of community provisions will no doubt be considered when Townsville develops its long-awaited new stadium. Regional clubs, like Far North Queensland’s beloved league-playing Cowboys, not only provide indigenous role models but showcase how sport can draw entire communities together.

Perhaps that, once safety hurdles are overcome, should be considered a real  measure of club success – a situation when community and fans truly become one and the same.

This blog was originally posted on iSportConnect.

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