How will stadium design be impacted by the considerations of a post-pandemic world?

The COVID-19 pandemic saw mass disruption to live entertainment and sporting venues globally—and while there is growing optimism around the resumption of economic activity, social functions, and major events as vaccine roll-outs gain momentum, the long-term impact of the pandemic on stadiums is uncertain.

With the likely ongoing need for flexible spaces that can accommodate rapidly changing needs around social distancing and hygiene measures, however, it is clear that we need to begin to re-think stadium design for a post-pandemic world.

We collectively need a thorough understanding of the longer term changes to stadium standards and spectator management, and need to understand how to integrate the relevant changes into the design of upgrades or new facilities.

Minimising Disruption

The experience of attending live sports and entertainment events in recent months has been a drastically different experience for spectators. Some events, such as the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, proceeded without spectators; while others, such as NFL games and Premier League football matches, relied on “canned noise” crowd sound effects.

Some events were even characterised by an eerie quiet punctuated by the swearing of players and coaches. It goes without saying that none of these approaches matches the spirit of the action or is any substitute for the real thing, for either participants or remote spectators.

In addition to this, the UK Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) issued new guidance in September 2020. The Planning for Social Distancing at Sports Grounds is a supplement to the Guide to Safety at Sport Grounds, known as the “Green Guide”. Along with SGSA’s new policy guidance, Sport with Spectators: COVID-19 Regulatory Controls, these documents will help venues get spectators back into live sports events while conforming to social distancing requirements.

The UK guidance above sets out two methods for calculating social distancing. Recently, however, in Australia, New Zealand, and several other countries, we have seen that spectator capacity is not only limited by the number that can be safely seated while socially distanced. It is also essential to take into account capacity in the concourse and crowd flow at entry and exit points.

Interestingly—and perhaps most importantly—the decades-old practice of creating facilities that can be sectionalised to establish “bubbles” of spectators to keep rival fans apart has new application in a post-pandemic world. The same considerations can now be used to provide public health safeguards between distinct groups of spectators, regardless of team allegiances.

In order to implement these sectioned areas, the principal elements required are:

  • to have discrete controlled access points for each section from outside the stadium,
  • vertical circulation, including stairs and lifts, adequate for the capacity of each section,
  • to have viable exits in two directions from the stands and any concourse areas,
  • to have compliant and accessible WCs, hygiene, and sanitary provisions suitable for the crowd capacity in each section,
  • and to have suitable food and beverage provision readily accessible from the stands.

The Long Term Impact

The pandemic will leave a lasting mark on the stadium experience, and there are key lessons that we can take from recent months that will inform our approach to stadium design and construction. We predict that there will be a move towards smaller venues with more luxurious, better connected spectator facilities.

This will involve both physical design elements and new technologies—for example, using timed ticketing to manage crowds at entrance points, or the implementation of disinfecting arches as seen at some venues in Asia. Health screening, handwashing, and PPE may also need to be sporadically addressed at entry points during outbreaks.

Inside, the primary challenge is to ensure the circulation process is as safe and contactless as possible. Currently, very few vomitories are wide enough to allow socially distanced, two-way traffic to the seating, so we will need to establish how temporary one-way systems, or possibly traffic lights, can be implemented.

Future designs will also likely offer more variety in seating types for spectators, such as loge (theatre-style) boxes. This will help to address the increased space needed per person to accommodate social distancing, which has risen from as low as 0.25m2 per person to around 0.8m2.

An additional pressure on managing enclosed concourses safely is that queues shouldn't form inside the toilets during an outbreak. In order to manage this, it will be necessary to increase the number of toilet facilities to reduce crowding.

A more general move towards universal, rather than gender specific, toilets and changing facilities could assist with this, however the uptake will vary for individual countries depending on appropriate cultural considerations.

Other long-term responses to the pandemic include maximising the use of contactless technology throughout; and facilitating temporary clearing of concourses to help manage capacity by having demountable or moveable merchandise, food and beverage facilities.

As with all aspects of design and construction, it is important to evaluate efficiency. It might seem appropriate, for example, to consider bacteria-resistant materials for future stadium design. However, it’s often easier to clean stadiums than other building types thanks to their robust construction, which is mostly steel, concrete, and plastic.

The use of innovative bacteria-resistant materials would make stadium construction dramatically more expensive, and so there isn’t actually an immediate cost benefit. By intelligently evaluating possible responses to the pandemic, we can create stadiums that truly meet the needs of our new normal.

Michael Hegarty is CEO of dwp

Images:  Blundstone Arena, Hobart / Supplied.