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Considerations When Designing a Sports Venue

April 30th, 2024 | 8 min. read

Considerations When Designing a Sports Venue

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Whether a renovation or new construction, a sports venue project is a large undertaking. More than most buildings, sports venues are community symbols where fans feel an emotional connection. Their experience should be at the heart of the design process. 

At Neumann Monson, we have worked on numerous sports venue projects, including renovations and additions to Kinnick Stadium, Jack Trice Stadium, and Carver-Hawkeye Arena. These projects have given us insights into the best practices for sports venue design and how to cultivate a positive fan experience. 

To prepare you for your project, this article will discuss sports venue design in greater detail and the top factors to consider during the design process. 

5 Factors to Consider When Designing a Sports Venue 

1. User Groups

On any building project, users and their needs should drive design decisions. While K-12 projects may prioritize students and teachers, a workplace project may focus on employees. 

Sports venues are unique in that they cater to a diverse range of user groups, including fans, athletes, coaches, owners, administrators, and facilities staff. The challenge is to find solutions that work for every potential user.   

One way to consider the needs of each user group is through empathy mapping. This process involves creating personas for each potential user and walking through their needs, concerns, and emotional states. Although this activity is typically used on public projects like community centers and libraries, we find it aligns well with the unique needs of a sports venue. 

Such activities help ensure the final design accounts for everyone. While catering to athletes and fans, the project also benefits those who operate and maintain the facility.   

2. Amenities 

In recent decades, sports venues have taken inspiration from the hospitality industry and started offering more premium fan experiences. 

Previously, most venues took a one-size-fits-all approach, with everyone receiving traditional stadium seating. Ensuring every spectator could see the action was the greatest design concern.  

Today, sports venues offer more options, including private suites and indoor club seating. Such spaces cater to corporate sponsors and donors while providing necessary revenue-generating opportunities.

private club seating at Jack Trice Stadum in Ames, IA

Private club seating can be a revenue-generating opportunity. 

Finding a location for these amenities can be difficult when renovating an older venue. Most facilities are historic or decades-old, and smoothly integrating first-class, modern amenities takes careful consideration.  

At Kinnick Stadium, the most logical solution was to add four stories with club seating and 49 private suites to the existing structure. In a later addition to the North End Zone, club seating was added between two concourses.

addition to Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, IA

A four-story addition to Kinnick Stadium added 49 private suites. 

While planning club seating and private suites, remember the importance of traditional, general seating, which makes up most modern facilities. The energy and excitement of the crowd is one of the prime reasons people attend live sporting events. Creating opportunities for a communal fan experience will help ensure the venue continues to attract spectators   

3. Circulation 

Unlike other building projects, sports venues experience high occupant loads for short periods. Circulation—how users navigate the building—should be a primary consideration during design.   

Most sports venues feature at least one concourse, a circulation pathway that provides access to seating, restrooms, and concessions. Typically, concourses are at ground level, with a seating bowl above and below. While this approach is best for spectator circulation, some older venues may have a concourse above or below the seating bowl.   

Concourses should be clearly defined and easy to access, with signage aiding wayfinding. At the same time, restrooms and concessions should be evenly distributed, providing easy access for all visitors.

concourse at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City

Ample sized, clearly defined concourses can support wayfinding. 

The best practice is to ensure queuing lines for restrooms and concessions do not block the circulation path through the concourse. On some older venues, this may prove challenging, as concession offerings have grown in recent years. Providing ample room within a concourse can prevent this issue and improve the facility’s ability to evolve with the future demands of sports venue hospitality.  

4. Proximity to Development 

When planning a sports venue, consider its location and proximity to businesses and transit options. Sports venues can act as anchors, drawing people to an area, supporting the surrounding community, and creating a vibrant experience. The goal is to create a partnership between the venue and surrounding development. 

Historically, facilities like baseball stadiums were in downtown locations, with fans either walking or taking public transportation to events. Over time, many venues moved to the suburbs for surface parking and more space to expand, negatively impacting urban areas.  

This trend has been reversing in recent decades. Many venues have moved back to city centers, encouraging people to attend games after work and visit local businesses.  

Another approach is to plan a commercial development around a new or existing venue. This approach was taken in Coralville, Iowa. In the Iowa River Landing’s master plan, the Xtreme Arena was planned as an anchor to draw people to the area. This already active area is further enlivened when the area hosts an event.  

5. Phasing 

More than most projects, phasing is crucial to the success of a sports venue. Ideally, renovations occur during the off-season to minimize disruptions to gameplay. For large-scale renovations, teams may need to find a nearby venue as their venue is transformed.  

Renovation projects may be broken into smaller phases and planned around the seasonal schedule. During the design process, the architect and contractor must work together to outline when various project portions will occur. 

While a phased approach could lengthen the overall construction schedule—stretching it out over several years—it allows the venue to remain operational and continue generating revenue as improvements occur.   

Plan Your Renovation or Addition 

Sports venues are a unique building type. They cater to a diverse range of occupants and elicit an emotional connection. 

Successful sports venue projects consider the needs of different user groups and balance premium amenities with the crowd experience. They also ensure ease of use for visitors with thoughtful circulation and proximity to businesses. 

Often, the best approach to a sports venue project is to make gradual improvements in the off-season. These facilities tend to have a high initial cost and require a large amount of infrastructure.  

Demolishing and starting over is rarely the most efficient use of funds and resources. Instead, stadiums should be augmented over time to continue to meet the needs of athletes and fans.  

The right approach—of course—comes down to your project and goals. While renovations may be more cost-effective and sustainable, new construction may better suit your needs. Determine which approach best suits your project by reading about the pros and cons of renovating and building new