Defining characteristics for new wave of MLS soccer-specific stadiums
Orlando City has crews building one. D.C. has one in planning, with a site and funding in place. David Beckham hunts for a place to build his in Miami. Even Minnesota has architects sharpening pencils in preparation for that team’s version. They all want something more than just a soccer-specific stadium. They want in on the second wave of MLS soccer-specific venues, a style that boasts new amenities, supporter-section specialties, style and ample fan experiences.
“Soccer is on the tipping point and the facilities are starting to reflect that,” Bruce Miller, Populous architect and designer of the new MLS venues in Orlando, D.C. and Minnesota, tells SI.com.
Up to 2010 simply building a soccer-specific venue was a sort of coup. Columbus is still revered for building the first in 1999. Soon Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and others followed with the specificity. But many of the first eight to 10 venues were a focus on pragmatism, constructing a certain number of seats for the lowest cost possible, which often included building on land outside of the urban core. Not much more than bleacher stadiums with small video boards—if video boards existed at all—clustered sound systems and little to no canopies.
But as MLS has found its feet, signed a more lucrative TV deal and started attracting new talent, “all of that is coming together at a time where stadiums start offering more of an experience,” Miller says.
Whether Portland’s complete remodel of Providence Park into a hybrid of 100-year-old history and modern American soccer culture or the pristine venue that is Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas, the second wave of soccer-specific venues is proving to be better than the first.
And the wave continues.
“The experience doesn’t start at game time, it starts when people leave work, meet their friends at a pub or restaurant, kick a soccer ball, play music and then march to the match to their seats,” Miller says. That’s why planning for a new Orlando stadium started with the march to the match, a powerful experience, whether in Orlando or Seattle or many different MLS locales.
This new focus on experiences includes fresh designs, from club seats to canopies. Look to Sporting Park, where the decision to put a canopy in place wasn’t taken lightly, but its addition not only shelters fans from the Midwest weather, but helps to reflect noise back onto the pitch, retaining the "soundtrack for the game” provided by the 2,000 supporters in the end zone, David Ficklin, Sporting KC vice president of development, tells SI.com.
These canopies come with a cost, which Miller says could be between 8 and 15% of the building’s total construction price tag, but the payout reaps the rewards, he says. And teams with them adore them, from Kansas City to Portland to San Jose to Philadelphia.
“The canopy creates a sense of enclosure to the building,” Miller says. “It intensifies the fan experience. Soccer is different where the fans create the experience and the megaphone that is the supporters section drives the energy in the building.”
As Ficklin says, “Every true soccer stadium needs a canopy.”
But more than weather and noise retention, canopies offer designers the chance to position lights closer to the field—Ficklin says this fact helps his stadium look sharp in person and on television—install a differentiated sound system instead of one with a cluster of speakers in one corner and get needed technological receivers directly over the fans.
All these seemingly small additions add up to a premium experience, one American sports fans have grown accustomed to. Miller brings up a good point when talking about the soccer-specific building.
“Around the world, the U.S. is viewed as the premier country doing sports facilities,” he says. “The NFL, MLB, NBA, collegiate buildings, we do buildings better than anywhere in the world. We haven’t done soccer. It just hasn’t been that big.”
And the things that make a U.S. soccer stadium American, the premium seating options, have started exporting overseas.
Whether building an 80,000-seat NFL stadium or a 20,000-seat MLS stadium, Miller says he desires to break up the space into smaller experiences. That can get easier with smaller groups. Take Sporting Park as an example, “designed around experience,” Ficklin says. Opened in 2011 during a complete brand overhaul, the 18,000-seat venue now routinely holds over 19,000 fans per game with standing room only on a bridge over the supporters' section.
The experiences differ. In the 400-seat field-level club, patrons watch post-game press conferences, queue up with the players in the club as they prepare the procession onto the field and sit directly adjacent to the teams. With 2,000 premium seats, that isn’t the only club or suite space. A cabana-style suite level has proven popular, as a grouping of suites open onto a common area full of food and relational connections.
Inside, Sporting KC spent more cash to ensure all suites had fully operable glass to open the inside suites toward the inside and then again toward the pitch.
While Sporting Park isn’t located in the heart of the city, it does have amenities around it—restaurants and shopping—that allows for a near-urban experience. And an in-stadium pub loaded with local Boulevard beer and local food opens during matches to the 2,086 supporters and after the match to all fans in an effort to create that urban experience.
San Jose also attempted to urbanize a non-urban site with the nation’s longest outdoor bar. Going urban also helps activate the building on non-gamedays with everything from company picnics on the pitch to conferences in suites and club spaces that offer more than the mundane four walls of a downtown hotel.
“It is an amazing thing to have (the stadium) in the heart of downtown,” Portland Timbers president of operations Mike Golub, tells SI.com. “The energy, intimacy and passion comes through.”
As the league continues to grow, that means more owners, and with more owners comes more experience.
“Maybe they are from overseas, but they bring another level of experience and a different philosophy,” Miller says.
We’ve mainly seen international influence come from the discussion of standing-room only sections, building four distinct stands, stadium canopies and embracing urban sites.
Orlando’s Brazilian owner Flavio Augusto da Silva saw Sporting KC’s supporters’ section and wanted to do it even bigger, bringing the ideas of his native land into play. Orlando will feature 4,000 seats for supporters, all in one end zone, dubbed The Wall. But calling them seats is a misnomer. Orlando will do safe standing, a full 4,000-capacity section for standing only—railings and cup holders will define the space—that took research from the Bundesliga to help define the safety aspect.
“That is a lot of people,” Miller says of the standing section. “That is creating the energy of the building and modeled after a European (tradition).”
Orlando will also have four distinct stands, purposefully modeled after what is seen in England, but a lower bowl connecting them all for 360-degree movement with premium experiences wrapped in, both truly American expectations, Miller says. And, yes, Orlando will have a canopy.
Minnesota, while still in the concept design and site selection phase, plans for a canopy and architecture that “creates an iconic expression.”
And as the internationalization of ownership continues, expect the design to follow, especially when it comes to canopies. In America, canopies are thought more of as a roof that extends from a straight wall. “You see a lot of European buildings that are very iconic where the canopy becomes part of the building skin, a fluid exterior to the building,” Miller says. “The building starts to wrap and become curvilinear in form. We haven’t really done a building like that in the U.S. I think you’ll see that coming.”
Miller advocates for building small and creating demand for tickets by increasing experiences instead of seats.
“Spend money more intensely per seat and do fewer of them instead of a bigger building that dilutes the experience,” he says. “It is more intimate. You are closer to the action.”
Within that, expect to see new premium products emerge with different communal gathering spaces taking shape. “The days of a fixed seat with everybody looking one direction, you will always have that, but that is less of a goal now than it will be in the future,” Miller says. “We continue to see fans wanting more of a social experience around sport.”
That could mean more standing room sections like Orlando will design, flat terraces and indoor-outdoor spaces.
Then there’s the need to touch all the senses. The technology will continue to wow with exploding video for the sights and sounds, the social aspect of new gathering spaces give a new touch sensation and even smell and taste will continue to grow with the evolution of the local food experience.
We’ve seen this start to come to life already. We’ll see more of it in Orlando. Then D.C., Minnesota and most likely Miami. The second wave of American soccer-specific stadiums is here.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, sneakers and design for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.