Merging the Digital and Physical Worlds in Stadium Design, Mark Williams Sees Infinite Possibilities

By Julie Wellik

The global pandemic delayed the much-anticipated debut of SoFi Stadium – postponing the venue’s first event, a Taylor Swift concert scheduled in July, and NFL preseason games for the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers. But HKS’ Mark Williams isn’t flustered. As the project’s Principal in Charge involved in all aspects of design, documentation and construction, Williams is managing the uncertainty in stride.

“SoFi is ready when events and fans return. It was designed to transcend time,” he says. 

Williams has been hands-on since day one of the project, charged with bringing to life the world-class sports and entertainment destination – the vision of Los Angeles Rams Owner and Chairman E. Stanley Kroenke. Williams recalls a day in 2014 when he and a small group from the Rams ascended to the roof of the Hollywood Park racetrack on the project site. “We knew where we were standing was the same elevation of the new stadium’s upper concourse,” said Williams.

From this perch, they gazed out upon views of L.A., the Pacific Ocean and the scenic San Gabriel Mountains range to the east. “It was a breathtaking moment. To have this backdrop to design around and within is rare. We knew right then the potential this stadium had to complement the grandeur of the site, the spectacular views and the excitement we equate with Southern California, the entertainment capital of the world.”   

It is Williams’ nature to think long term – his line of work requires a patient and measured approach. The iconic sports and entertainment venues HKS bring to fruition take years from conception to completion. The unexpected can and does happen, and Williams has experienced it in his career many times. But the worst health crisis in a century is an event no living designer has dealt with before. Yet, Williams remains upbeat.

“Having to wait to experience SoFi in person is difficult, but the anticipation will only build,” he says. “The arrival sequence and procession into the complex through meandering paths and canyons full of landscape features is inspired by the ecologies of the region. The sensation of finally setting foot in SoFi Stadium, experiencing the seating bowl, amenities, views and many environments will only be amplified.”

Williams’ drive to elevate and transform the fan experience for millions around the globe can be traced to the very first professional game he attended as a young boy.

“My family made the four-hour drive to Minneapolis from my hometown in Marshalltown, Iowa for a summer vacation,” Williams recalled. “First stop was a Twins game at Metropolitan Stadium. The Twins were a very good team with stars like Rod Carew, Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew.”

Williams still savors that formative moment of walking into a large capacity sports venue for the first time. The thrill and pure joy he felt that day is stamped in his DNA.

“It was probably 1970, and I was 6 or 7 years old. I remember they played the Oakland Athletics, and we sat behind home plate pretty high up. I almost got a foul ball and Killebrew hit a home run. Amazing day.”

Fast forward and Williams’ life and career have been dedicated to replicating those special moments for others. In his role as principal and marketing director at HKS where he has worked for 24 years, Williams has designed and programmed dozens of sports and entertainment venues in eight different countries.

From high school football stadiums to Olympic Games venues spanning amateur, collegiate and professional sports leagues, Williams has helped shape how people experience some of life’s most memorable events. Williams was recognized for his reach and influence when he became an American Institute of Architects Fellow in March 2020.

Growing up in Iowa, Williams’ family life was firmly rooted in sports. He thrived in team sports from a young age and was a successful athlete through high school, playing on baseball teams that won a state title and competed on a national level. Williams enjoyed achievements in basketball and football as well and says his older brother, Bret, was always a step ahead and the better athlete of the two – keeping things competitive and fun at home.

“Combining my two strongest interests – architecture and sports – was a natural,” he says. He earned an undergraduate degree at Iowa State and a Bachelor of Architecture from Ball State University.

“Combining my two strongest interests – architecture and sports – was a natural,” he says.

“The impact that sports and entertainment experiences have on individuals, families and communities has been with me for as long as I can remember. That excitement, energy and roar of the crowd just grew with my understanding of the profound influence these experiences have on people,” says Williams. “I had a strong desire to elevate that experience and help people of all ages celebrate those moments through design.”

Kevin Demoff, the Los Angeles Rams Chief Operating Officer, spoke to Williams’ contribution to the ground-breaking design of SoFi Stadium.

“Mark’s relentless inquisitive nature challenged us to be at our best as we all re-imagined the role stadiums can play at the heart of integrated campuses. He consistently kept the users, fans and athletes at the core of our project while incorporating design drivers that were authentic to our project. Mark’s creativity means challenges are addressed as opportunities and feedback is sought not looking for praise, but as a means to refinement.”

Williams’ Midwestern values keep him grounded, humble and focused on what drew him to venue design in the first place. “Where I come from and how I was raised has had a huge impact on who I am as a person,” he says. “I think it can be best described as at the end of the day, doing whatever it takes to make sure you do the right thing in each moment. Family, faith, helping others, commitment, loyalty, hard work, ingenuity; a do-it- yourself mentality, teaching, sharing, respect and celebrating informs who I am and how I approach my work.”

Merging the Digital and Physical: for Williams, it’s not a Divide

The year 2020 was set to be momentous for Williams and HKS with the opening of two professional venues – the 3.1 million square-foot, 70,000-seat sports and entertainment SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California; and Major League Baseball’s new Texas Rangers home, Globe Life Field, in Arlington, Texas.

The Rangers are playing a truncated 60-game season without fans in attendance. And with California experiencing high rates of coronavirus transmission, both the Rams and Chargers first regular season games, scheduled for September 13 and 20th respectively, are also slated to kick off without fans in the seating bowl.

For now, fans can only experience live sports in the digital realm – the physical will have to wait until medical experts and government leaders, in tandem with venue and league owners, determine when and how to safely open facilities amid the pandemic.

Williams is committed to helping his clients and fans return to live sports. He’s serving on the WELL Advisory on Sports and Entertainment Venues, a group of global venues experts who are volunteering to help advance the International WELL Building Institute’s (IWBI) WELL Health-Safety Rating for facility operations and management. It is an evidence-based, third-party rating system that provides guidelines for operational and cleaning policies, as well as design strategies in a post COVID-19 pandemic venue and entertainment environments.

Williams has also served for years on the Urban Land Institute’s national Entertainment Development Council, a thought leadership-driven group advising the industry on trends, best practices and innovations in sports and entertainment destinations.

While Williams believes that most people would choose to experience a game or concert live – anecdotally citing the torrent of social media posts that portray in-person experiential content – he’s constantly considering “what if?” questions about the future of digital and virtual engagement experiences.

Early and consistently, HKS and Williams have championed the integration of technology in sports and entertainment venues, enhancing the in-stadium experience well beyond instant replay. “Technology frames our lives – we carry computers that double as phones wherever we go. We’re multitasking constantly. This is about leveraging technology as a portal to content beyond what’s happening on the field that satisfies individuals and elevates the live experience,” says Williams.

SoFi Stadium’s 2.2 million-pound elliptical videoboard, which will get its official moniker following a naming contest for fans, is a next-generation digital stadium experience with infinite potential to deliver curated content.

“The digital experience at SoFi Stadium is truly immersive and ensures that no matter where guests are in the venue, they’ll have unparalleled and unobstructed access to content,” says Williams.

And he believes that digital content shouldn’t strictly adhere to the action on the field. “What if someone wants to watch an episode of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network while they’re cheering on their team at the same time? Or what if I want real time stats on how many times Jared Goff (L.A. Rams starting quarterback) has thrown to the left, right or center without waiting for the broadcasters to tell me that at halftime?

Neither of these things detract from what’s happening on the field, or impact the fan sitting next to you that you just high-fived. It’s about having diverse experiences within the venue and innovating to connect people to data and content they want in real time, and it’s a matter of the leagues embracing the next level of digital engagements,” he says.

HKS has been at the forefront of designing iconic physical environments for decades, including Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, home of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and Tom Benson Stadium at the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village in Canton, Ohio, and many more. Each of these venues was meticulously planned as a multiuse entertainment destination, drawing crowds – and revenue – year-round. Forbes Magazine included four HKS-designed venues, including SoFi Stadium, on its 13 Game-Changing NFL Stadiums list.

For Williams and HKS, technological integration in stadiums and its use by the masses is the next frontier in sports and entertainment. “We will be able to offer the game-day experience to a virtual audience regardless of their location, anywhere in the world. For example, an NFL or NBA fan in Delhi will be able to choose their seat and experience an audio-visual replication from the same vantage point as the fan who bought the physical ticket – and that same seat and experience can be offered an infinite number of times,” he says.    

“The integration of technology in physical environments extends venue access exponentially,” says Williams. “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.” Through the virtual lens, Williams sees opportunities from the franchise, sponsorship, data and demographic levels to connect more people to live sports and entertainment events while creating new revenue streams.

With SoFi expected to host Super Bowl LVI in 2022, the College Football Championship Game in 2023, and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in 2028, Williams puts the notion of time and permanence into perspective with what the world is living through now.

“Technology has enabled our instant gratification culture, which makes waiting for anything a challenge. Everyone is itching to get out and experience life again,” he says. “Technology is ubiquitous and has forever changed how we live, and the pandemic has proven technology doesn’t replace our need for deeper human connections.

“The thrill and simple pleasure of gathering with our friends, families and even strangers at an event is something humans have cherished since the first stadia were built, and that won’t change.”

“The thrill and simple pleasure of gathering with our friends, families and even strangers at an event is something humans have cherished since the first stadia were built, and that won’t change.”

Julie Wellik

Julie Wellik is a Senior Writer at HKS. Based in San Francisco, she writes stories about some of the world's most impactful design work coming from HKS' reach in health, hospitality, sports, education and sustainability. She is a passionate co-director of Citizen HKS, the firm's public interest and global social impact program.