A Winning Design for Championship Venues
For decades, Wheaties cereal has carried the tagline, “The Breakfast of Champions.” But HKS has had its own high-level championship run over the years.
Since 2010, HKS-designed buildings have hosted Super Bowls, the World Series, NCAA Final Fours and the College Football Playoffs National Championships. The streak will continue in 2021 when Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis plays host to the NCAA Men’s Final Four basketball tournament for the second time. And in August the Chengdu Phoenix Mountain Sports Center in China — which has one of the world’s largest curved, open cable domes — will be the site of the 2021 World University Games.
In 2022, Super Bowl LVI is set for SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA. The global destination is also scheduled to host the College Football Championship in 2023 and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2028 Olympic Games. Also, in 2023 the NCAA Women’s Final Four is scheduled for American Airlines Arena in Dallas.
While the participants in championship contests are unknown at the start of their respective seasons — the final determinations all decided on the field or court — the buildings that host them are years in the making, with the plan to hold championship events a major focal point of the design.
Championship Design Means Creating ‘a Wow Factor’
Although AT&T Stadium (Dallas Cowboys), U.S. Bank Stadium (Minnesota Vikings), Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis Colts) and SoFi Stadium (Los Angeles Rams and Chargers) were all designed to meet the specific desires of the home teams that play in them, the team owners also had bolder ideas for their facilities. They wanted their new sports homes to be big enough and grand enough to host Super Bowls and other high-profile events.
As Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, put it in a 2009 Wall Street Journal article about his team’s then-new home, “we wanted this stadium to have a wow factor.”
Bryan Trubey, FAIA, HKS Design Principal, knew from the start of the planning process that his design team had to deliver on Jones’ directive to make the Cowboys new venue stand out.
“Anyone who looks at AT&T Stadium knows it’s the Dallas Cowboys” home, Trubey said on the 10th anniversary of the stadium’s opening in 2019. “It’s so fundamentally different from any other stadium built in the world.”
The owners of the Texas Rangers also anticipated big things for its new HKS-designed Globe Life Field before the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shut down those plans on the eve of Opening Day in 2020. At the time, there was no way to know it would welcome the World Series later that year, but the retractable roof stadium, with its ample concourses, swanky clubhouses and climate-controlled seating area became the perfect home after COVID-19 prompted Major League Baseball to use a single site for its Fall Classic.
When Super Bowl LVI kicks off inside SoFi Stadium at what could be one of the first events in California to reopen to fans since COVID-19 lockdowns began, those attending will be exposed to a variety of digital upgrades. Like his Colts, Cowboys and Vikings contemporaries, Los Angeles Rams Owner and Chairman, E. Stanley Kroenke, asked HKS designers to develop plans for SoFi that would allow it to host global entertainment events and turn them into ultimate experiences for a live and television audience.
Staying Local and Flexible
To deliver on those requests, HKS designers approach stadium designing with some clear thoughts in mind. Trubey has said that that at the top of that list for HKS-designed stadiums are clarity of structural expression and transparency, which he said heightens the fan experience, as opposed to the closed, solid stadiums of yesteryear.
“So, no matter which one of our stadia you look at . . . you can see into, and through, the structure,” Trubey said. “Everybody recognizes this and it creates excitement and adds to the visual experience.”
There are other important factors as well. Even though the stadiums will be showcased to the world, designers look at them as a vital and visible part of the local community. The owners of the Colts, for example, wanted the look of Lucas Oil Stadium to pay homage to the fieldhouses found throughout Indiana, while the shape of U.S. Bank Stadium reminds of Northern European design.
In addition to leaning in to those roots, U.S. Bank Stadium also had to satisfy another requirement to reach championship status; designers had to figure out a way to make it withstand Minnesota’s harsh climate. They designed the first ETFE roof in an American stadium, which allows lots of natural light while blocking the brutal cold. This design element was put to the test in February 2018 during Super Bowl LII, the coldest Super Bowl on record with temperatures in Minneapolis reaching a high of 9°F on game day.
In the case of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, he wanted AT&T Stadium to maintain a tangible link back to the team’s iconic former home, Texas Stadium. So, the design for the new stadium’s signature retractable roof includes a “hole” in it when the roof is open that exactly matches the shape of the hole at the old stadium, including its rounded corners.
In addition, the stadiums all are designed to have a high degree of flexibility. Designers created AT&T Stadium with not only the ability to host championship football contests from high school to pros, but ones for college basketball or even professional Motocross. Lucas Oil Stadium will show its flexibility when it serves as the home of the Final Four in the basketball hotbed of Indiana.
And the ability to quickly and seamlessly provide multiple uses isn’t limited to the world of traditional sporting events. With baseball shut down, the first events at Globe Life Stadium were high school graduations. The inaugural event at SoFi Stadium was going to be a two-day Taylor Swift concert before COVID-19 erased those plans.
An Enhanced Fan Experience
To offer those various events, though, requires that designers and their clients team up to create a greatly enhanced fan experience. For the past decade or so, team owners have realized that simply making a trip to a stadium to see their favorite player is not enough for most fans. Their guests want to know what they are going to see — and do — once they get there. If it’s not glitzy enough, many patrons will opt to stay home and watch games from the less-expensive comfort of their own TV rooms.
For most stadiums designed recently, that enhanced fan experience begins with upgraded technology features, particularly a large, high-tech videoboard. When AT&T Stadium opened in 2009, it held what was then the largest LED videoboard in the world, stretching from one 20-yard line to the other. The high-definition Mitsubishi picture gave fans seated at the highest points of the stadium, the ability to watch a game as if they were watching at home on their own big-screen televisions. And that was the point.
But SoFi Stadium, which opened without fans in 2020, is the newest king of championship stadium design. It’s 2.2-million-pound, dual-sided, center-hung, circular scoreboard is largest ever built and will provide practically every fan at Super Bowl LVI, no matter where inside SoFi they sit or stand, with a simultaneous view of the information on the screen.
The videoboard is the only 4K end-to-end production in sports and features the largest LED content playback system in history. The board also provides fans with unique programming including live content, statistics and animated content — important data for aficionados of the increasingly popular fantasy sports leagues.
“For us, it was how would we go about thinking about reconnecting fans with media in a different way,” said Lance Evans, AIA, a principal at HKS and one of the primary SoFi architects. “If I was going to watch a game at home, I’d have my iPad, I’d have my phone. How could we do that at an NFL game, at the same size, across the entire field?”
So, what will the design of the Super Bowl or World Series stadium look like? Designers already have some ideas that Evans said are both “exciting and endless.” Among them, pushing the concept of the “stadium” beyond its limited physical footprint into the limitless virtual realm.
“The integration of technology in physical environments extends venue access exponentially,” said Mark A. Williams, FAIA, HKS Principal in Charge of the SoFi Stadium project. “Imagine a venue that sells 70,000 physical tickets to an event and leveraging technology to reach previously untapped audiences and markets around the globe.”
And that means that perhaps one day soon, a championship venue will exist at anytime and anywhere.