Premium seating alters football stadium design

Texas A&M plans to add 20,000 more seats to Kyle Field, with premium-seating demand leading the expansion.
Mo Khursheed/Tfv Media/Cal Sport Media

Blame the football stadium quandary on the riff-raff. Those folks sure are cheap, but they offer up a ton of atmosphere-creating noise. That money versus atmosphere issue creates the ultimate teeter-totter act when designing modern football stadiums.

Teams need high-end seating options in prime viewing locations to lure high-dollar patrons, but hosting high-octane fans—whether students at a college game or working class folks at a NFL contest—close to the field can help drive fan participation. How college and professional football teams balance those needs has become the new big question in football stadium design. And it doesn't always get answered the same way.

Traditional stadium architecture segregated the two groups to the detriment of the lower-paying fan. By building traditional-style coliseum bowls over and over, with tiers separated by suites and club seats, the natural flow of the fan was choppy. Stuart Fraser, Make Architects designer of the London Olympics' Copper Box, says the "premium seats pay the bills at the end of the day, but the quantity of hospitality suddenly occupying the best seats in the house in the middle tiers and breaking up that home support is stifling the atmosphere."

But that's all changing.

"People prefer to sit on the sidelines, but we just kept building lower bowl, club level, upper deck," says Bryan Trubey, HKS architect and designer of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Cowboys Stadium and the new Vikings venue. "We have a completely different orientation with a series of vertical towers and asymmetrical design that puts a few less seats in the end zones and more seats on the 50-yard line."

While new NFL venues, such as Minneapolis' and the San Francisco 49ers' new Santa Clara stadium, reposition the traditional seating structure, college stadiums must also toy with exactly how prime a spot the students enjoy, balancing the revenue-generating value of prime seating versus keeping the tuition-paying students happy and intimidatingly loud during games.

A new renovation in Seattle forced the University of Washington to relocate its student section to make way for premium seating. A planned renovation following the 2013 season at Texas A&M will keep the students where they are, but dramatically increase high-dollar seats elsewhere in Kyle Field.

The College Station, Texas, plan adds about 20,000 total seats in the nation's most expensive—$450 million—college stadium expansion in history. Everyone gets more seats there, but premium-seat demand leads the expansion.

By upping Kyle Field to 102,500 seats, the Aggies will become the seventh NCAA team to boast more than 100,000 seats and, more importantly, will offer the largest stadium in all of Texas, even if the University of Michigan will retain the national size title with a capacity of 109,901.

Sam Torn, A&M's renovation committee chair, says the school was "very surprised and excited" to see that nearly all of the stadium's 54 additional suites sold out in one day, even with a required "significant capital gift." Eleven of 12 founders suites, which require a minimum donation of $5 million, have also sold out. Even after upping suite options from 60 to 114, adding in 80 loge boxes—basically miniature outdoor suites—upping club seats from 1,900 to 6,500 and tossing in an extra 14,000 or so general seats, A&M isn't worried about filling the venue.

"We have a high demand for a more premium game-watching experience," Torn says. "Our fans are willing to pay for a premium experience, and we responded to that."

Designed by Populous, Kyle Field will have its entire west side ripped out and rebuilt specifically with the purpose of "creating premium seating options that allow us to pay for the stadium."

But as home to the 12th Man, A&M couldn't afford to lose the mystique its boisterous crowd offered. The Aggies' 31,000 student seats on the east side of the stadium represent the most number of student tickets of any school in the country. The renovations don't change that.

"We're committed to the unique tradition of the number of students we have in the prime location in which they sit," Torn says, "and we have to design with that in mind in order to create prime seating in other areas."

The University of Washington's renovation wasn't about seats; it was about rebuilding a 90-plus-year-old bowl at 72,500-seat Husky Stadium. Without the physical real estate to add more seats, UW students were shifted away from prime locations on the sideline when the new stadium opened in late August, making way for tickets that will help pay for the $250 million renovation that replaced the crumbling concrete bowl, modernized concessions and installed permanent seating in the west end zone.

Scott Woodward, UW's director of athletics, says the stadium's capacity was already spot on, but to pay for the upgrades Husky Stadium has 2,500 new club seas, 30 suites and 60 loge boxes, including suites at field level in the east end zone. To get those upgrades, they needed the seats students formerly occupied on the north sidelines.

"In order to build a new stadium, we have to have this location," Woodward says. But student prices—students pay no athletic fees at the school—drop from $125 to $99 for the season, and the tickets place them in the west end zone where the team emerges from the tunnel connecting to the school's new 80,000-square-foot football operations facility, built along with the remodel.

"It will give us a great vibe," Woodward says. "You wish you could have them on the sidelines, but you can't afford to do so if you want to build a stadium."

Sometimes more club seats and suites don't have ample payback, especially in NFL venues. "You have to be able to afford those to build them into your stadium, and there is a tradeoff between initial price and a market to sell them," says Peter Eisenman, designer of University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona. "In Phoenix you have a limited market for suites."

While Phoenix pinpointed its balance, so did the Philadelphia Eagles, even though they plan a $125 million expansion of Lincoln Financial Field that will include 1,600 new seats in the lower bowl and at midlevel.

"For us, when we built Lincoln Financial Field we took the approach of having an intimate stadium with great sightlines really close to the action," says team president Don Smolenski. "It was important to us to maintain the intimacy. At 69,500 seats, we think it has a variety of both premium products in suites and club. We think we have a good mix."

But with a few of the 1,600 new seats possibly going toward premium applications, spending so much simply to upgrade a building only a decade old also shows off how quickly stadiums fall behind on modern demands. Expect Philly fans to welcome in new technology—from connectivity for 40,000 simultaneous WiFi users to HD video boards—and increased concession variety and availability, illustrating the equal value placed on fan experience as placed on the premium seating already available.

The two planned new NFL venues take fresh approaches to balancing the fan base. While Trubey shifted the seating configuration in Minneapolis to create fresh sight lines, more seats on the field (i.e. more suite seats available close to the field) and more sideline premium seating for Vikings fans, Joe Diesko of HNTB designed a luxury tower in the new 68,500-seat Levi's Stadium, opening in 2014 in Santa Clara for the 49ers.

The idea of the tower came about because traditional coliseum-style architecture pushed upper decks so high to accommodate growing levels of suites. "How can we get the common fan down lower?" Diesko asks. "We stacked a suite tower on club seats." In all, expect two club levels and three levels of suites in the west tower, giving three-fourths of the stadium a giant collegiate feel and one-fourth of it a stand-alone building aesthetic.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and technology for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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