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The future of sports stadiums? It might be no stadium at all

The future of stadiums: less is more.
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By Jeff Beckham, WIRED

Not long after the Dallas Cowboys debuted the NFL’s largest video board at their new stadium in 2009, the Houston Texans rolled out an even bigger screen. Then the Jacksonville Jaguars went even bigger at their new venue, throwing in an in-stadium swimming pool as a bonus. The building of NFL stadiums has become an arms race, but architect Dan Meis is calling for a de-escalation. Maybe, he says, the future of stadiums means less is more.

Meis knows first-hand what that arms race looks like. His company, MEIS Architects, has offices in New York and Los Angeles, and he designed two current NFL stadiums: Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati and Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. He's also been among the architects to submit ideas for new venues in Los Angeles and San Diego. But no matter how many NFL owners light up at the thought of a 70,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof and seats that vibrate when the action on the field gets intense, Meis wants to push in the opposite direction. He believes the future looks smaller, more durable, and more versatile. Think Subaru Outback, not Maybach.

The primary concern, he says, is economics. Major stadium projects today start at a billion dollars and go up from there, and taxpayers typically foot the bill for much of that. To make things worse, some venues may not be around more than 20 to 30 years. Atlanta is scheduled to open a new $1.4 billion stadium in 2017, even though the Falcons' current home, the Georgia Dome, debuted in 1992. Unless owners can find extra big-time events to host, a stadium may only be used 20 or so times per year. At 20 events a year over 30 years, that's $1.6 million per event at a billion-dollar venue.

"We keep falling over ourselves about what's the next big board? What's the next thing you're going to put in stadiums?" said Meis, whose best known work is the Staples Center in Los Angeles. "In reality, I think it's coming back to the best stadium would be not to build it at all or if there's a way to do it in a temporary way and save all that money on infrastructure."

Meis isn't kidding about the ideal stadium being no stadium at all. He's fascinated by the Palio de Siena, a centuries-old horse race that takes place in Tuscany's Piazza del Campo. Nearly every day, the piazza stands as a grand public space in the center of town, but two times each year, it's converted into an impromptu stadium where thousands of spectators flock to watch the race.

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That pop-up stadium concept works better for events like the Olympics or World Cup, which come around every four years and may be hosted by countries without the means to fill those stadiums once the event is over. But another Meis concept -- a building that changes, Optimus Prime-style, from a 20,000-seat basketball arena to a 35,000-seat soccer stadium -- could provide a solution.

It sounds futuristic, but the transformable stadium has been a reality for more than a decade in Japan. Meis’ design for the Saitama Super Arena allows for a gigantic section of seats -- along with all the plumbing and mechanical connections beneath them in the concourse -- to rise up, slide back some 70 meters and plug back in with the smoothness and accuracy of a Swiss watch.

“I definitely think something like that could become a factor in a place like New York where there isn’t a lot of land and you do have a demand for both types of venues,” Meis said.

Smaller stadiums also make more sense in today’s global, social, mobile world. The Dallas Cowboys have millions of fans, but only a tiny percentage of them will ever see a game in person. According to Vanderbilt University professor John Vrooman, an expert on sports economics, today’s high-priced venues have been reduced to an expensive backdrop for a huge media production.

“Two-thirds of NFL revenue is derived from media and probably half of the TV or new digital media viewers are fantasy league players who could care less about the traditional NFL product derived from team production and the game-day stadium experience,” Vrooman said. “Welcome to the new NFL.”

Meis said he hopes today’s stadium architects design buildings with an eye beyond a 30-year life span. He got a daily reminder of that over the past couple of years as he designed Stadio della Roma, the new home of the A.S. Roma soccer club scheduled to open in 2016. Meis’ trip to work every day took him past the Colosseum, still standing strong after 2,000 years and enjoying a new life as a tourist attraction.

“That’s one thing in this country you don’t see anywhere else,  that we’re replacing venues that are 20 years old because they’re obsolete,” Meis said. “That building is a reminder.”