What Makes a Great Rugby Stadium – Populous’ Richard Breslin & Paul Henry

November 4, 2013

As the Wallabies kicked off their Grand Slam-Spring Tour of the United Kingdom and Europe at Twickenham last weekend, we’ve been reflecting on what is it that really makes a great rugby stadium and how to ensure these buildings keep evolving.

Record crowds turned up at almost every match during the recent British and Irish Lions 2013 Tour of Australia, and the stadia which were mostly built more than a decade ago, demonstrated they were all capable of easily accommodating record crowds. My colleague, Paul Henry, looks at what it was about these stadia that has made them so successful.

The series opener of the Lions Tour produced a ground record crowd at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane; the second Test at Etihad stadium in Melbourne also saw the previous record from the Lions Test 12 years previous, broken; and 83,702 supporters attended the final Test at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, a record for the venue since it was reconfigured after the Sydney Olympics.

What these stadia have in common is twofold:   they were designed to evolve over time, and they are atmospheric. That’s the Holy Grail of a live sporting experience whether its athletics, Australian Football League, soccer or rugby – it’s always all about the atmosphere.  The more intense the atmosphere the better and atmosphere is about how tightly the bowl can be configured so that the fan at the back of the stadium is as close as she possibly can be to the action on the field.

What makes those stadia interesting too is that they were all designed for different purposes, to capture the individual characteristics of their city, to be as relevant as possible to the people who live there, and to provide a legacy for the local community.

Etihad Stadium was deliberately designed for flexibility to attract a full range of sports and entertainment events. The fact that it has the tightest bowl that was possible for AFL, meant it is also a great stadium for rugby union, enhanced by its fully closing roof which traps the sound, adding to the intensity of the experience.  Suncorp Stadium was designed as a dedicated rugby stadium, and although it’s light and open to reflect Brisbane’s sub-tropical climate, the cauldron- like shape of the bowl with the configuration as tight as possible, is what gives it atmosphere.

ANZ Stadium in Sydney was different again. It was designed as a multipurpose Olympic stadium with an athletics track but it was also designed to adapt over time. It was reconfigured to a smaller rectangular stadium after the Olympics but still  flexible enough to enable continued modifications and additions even now, 13 years later, as technology and construction evolves.

The Wallabies aren’t playing in France on the Tour, but they’ll be back, and Paris leads the way in a new generation of rugby stadia. Taking its cue from the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff which would be hard to beat for that spine tingling atmosphere during the final of the Rugby World Cup, the new FFR Grand Stade in Paris will be much more than a stadium. The 82,000 capacity venue will be the ‘national stadium of rugby’ with a retractable roof to ensure the most intense  atmosphere, but its retractable pitch which can be rolled out of the stadium to reveal a concrete slab, enables the flexibility for a range of conventions, entertainment and other sports. We have learnt, and continue to learn, tremendous lessons from our involvement in the design every one of these stadia as well as the New Zealand stadia which hosted the Rugby World Cup, and we use this experience as the basis of our research moving forward.

The new frontier of rugby stadia and the way they and other stadia will continue to evolve in the future is in the realm of technology – personalised technology reaching every fan in a new unique way. Emerging technologies like robust Wi-Fi and data mining will allow teams to track the buying patterns or users and identify hotspots or popularity of items in the stadium, while new technologies such as Google Glass will provide exclusive opportunities for fans at the game to connect directly to live action on the field.

There are great opportunities ahead and an exciting and continuing challenge for designers and venue operators as we all continue to try to achieve a balance between providing a venue that is a great fan experience at the live game and the best possible experience for the ever growing remote audience, at home.


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