Series Introduction: The Evolution of MLS Stadium Design

March 26, 2015 / Jon Knight

Much has been said and written over the years about the trends impacting ballparks, arenas and stadiums. For these leagues, their venues have evolved with the passage of time, changes in the games themselves, aesthetics and the ever-changing desires of fans.   There is sometimes a seminal moment that indelibly marks a shift in the design patterns of some stadia typologies. For example, for MLB, Oriole Park at Camden Yards opening in 1992 ushered in an era of ballparks commonly referred to as ‘retro’ – the modern classics.  With some exceptions, this style still exists.  However, in 2012 the design of Marlins Park ushered in a new modern ballpark aesthetic.   This graphic from History Shots outlines and classifies the ballparks – categorizing ballparks and style.

MLB has a history that spans nearly 150 years. The NHL has been around for almost 100 years, the NBA almost 70 years.  So, at just 20 years old, MLS seems like a relative newcomer to the major league sports stadia scene.  But let’s be real, football (soccer) has been around longer than almost any other organized major league sport with its history reaching back nearly 3,000 years!

Major League Soccer’s Stadiums

Fast forward to 1995… 20 short years ago, when MLS was founded.  At the time most teams played in NFL stadiums.  Initially, it made sense for the teams to share the stadium, as 6 of the 10 teams at the time were owned by NFL owners.  Fans found the experience to be less than ideal and MLS began a push for soccer specific venues to be designed and built – which started with the Columbus Crew stadium. Since, the MLS stadium has become even more sophisticated with clear influences from European and South American designs. This is seen in the use of canopies and intimate seating bowls. Looking to the future, the stadium experience will be impacted by numerous things – the family influence being key among them, as ESPN recently conducted a survey that found for kids 12-17, MLS was more popular than MLB for the first time in history. In addition, smaller stadiums, supporters sections and technology will continue to drive the fan experience.

As the league continues to expand, the evolution of Major League Soccer stadiums has never been more important. The Leagues’ stadiums are maturing, aligning with the newly sustained growth of the League and helping to shape the experiences fans can expect in intimate soccer-specific venues. With new broadcasting deals, top global talent joining teams, record attendance and a fan base that is younger than any other professional league’s, MLS has found success.

Looking back, FOX Sports recently published an article about the first game held at Spartan Stadium in San Jose in 1995 – and the advent of the League in honor of its anniversary – saying “The setting was not welcoming: Spartan Stadium was a place that lived up to its name in every detail; a thin bowl with bad turf and a press box that smelled strongly of athletic cups. It was nonetheless the birthplace of what would be called Major League Soccer, and it was a sell-out crowd, 31,000 strong, fueled by what had been an unexpectedly grand 1994 World Cup.” 

This was where it all started. This was the first stadium. The first game. The first memory. And as I read this article, it was a reminder of just how far we have come.

It seems only fitting that in the League’s 20th year of existence, a milestone, we look back at the stadiums and trends that continue to shape the League. Over the next 4 months, Populous will start the discussion about MLS stadia – its past and its future and the trends that are revolutionizing the experience – as well as the technical side of the design of this building type.

Keep your eye out for our regular, monthly blogs in this series from some of the nation’s most talented and forward-thinking soccer stadium designers at Populous. Follow us on Twitter to keep up with the latest and use #SoccerStadia to join the conversation. And watch for graphics to share, breaking down the similarities and differences in the design of stadia and what fans, team owners and athletes can expect in the future.

Meet the author

Jon Knight

Senior Principal, Senior Architect / Kansas City


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