Crowd Pleasers

This year’s top facility designs focus on catering to the spectators—and they’re turning out “fan”tastic.

By Shelly Wilson

Shelly Wilson is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 12.6, Oct/Nov 2000,

For most university athletic directors, there’s only one sound sweeter than a stadium full of cheering fans: the bang and crash of a construction crew. Constructing or renovating an athletic arena has become an important goal for today’s top collegiate athletic programs, with each new facility often outdoing the last.
Most recently, the focus appears to be on the fan. In light of today’s fierce competition for the entertainment dollar, architects are being asked to keep spectators’ needs number-one in their plans by developing improved sight lines, luxury suites, and arena amenities.
At the same time, however, new facilities are aimed at satisfying the growing demands of student-athletes and coaches. Bigger and better practice facilities, for instance, are now of utmost importance, as well as functional amenities not dreamed of a decade ago.
In the following, we profile four innovative facility initiatives, each targeted to give its athletic program a boost with fans, while also providing functionality for everyday users.

University of Maryland
When the Terrapin basketball teams and athletic department pack their bags in 2002 to depart Cole Field House, their home of 48 years, they’ll be far from stranded. Awaiting them will be the $101 million, 460,000-square foot, 17,000-seat Comcast Center, which is expected to be one of the premier collegiate arenas in the nation.
“Cole has been a great building and is very well maintained,” says Joe Hull, Maryland’s Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs. “As a matter of fact, there have been no upgrades or renovations to the main facility since it opened for the 1954-55 season. But it has a number of problems. There’s no air conditioning, we’ve got leaky roofs, the building would clearly not qualify with ADA, and the concourses are very narrow.”
In conceptualizing the new facility, the athletic department and designers at Ellerbe Becket in Kansas City, Mo., had three goals: create a great home court atmosphere; make the center a place that fans would want to return repeatedly; and ensure an all-purpose, functional day-to-day home for the athletic department.
To realize its first goal, Maryland has instituted courtside student seating. Designers have circled the court with a bowl of 2,500 telescopic student seats, reaching 10 rows back. From row 10 to row 11 (where non-student seating begins) is a vertical off-set of 40 1/2 inches. The net effect of the elevation shift is a student seating area that allows enthusiastic student fans to stand and cheer throughout the game without polluting the sight lines of seated spectators behind them.
Although designers and administrators initially had concerns about how high-price ticket holders would react to losing their courtside seats to students, it has turned out to be a non-issue. “We’ve certainly tried to balance the best interests of all parties,” Hull explains. “Students want to be up against the court. Some of our older patrons would like to be a little closer to the creature comforts of the building—concessions, restrooms, fewer steps. Since our concourse feeds from the top of the lower bowl, this set-up allows us to accommodate both groups.”
In addition to the student bowl seating, an extra 1,500 student seats are positioned behind the second-half defensive end. Because that end of the arena is built into a hill, the student seats are set at a steeper rake. With seats stacked more vertically, the overall appearance will give television cameras and opposing players the impression of a wall of Terrapin student fans.
“Students think that they can affect the game,” says Hill, “so we’re going to put them in a position where they can try. In the second half, when the other team is shooting free-throws with 40 seconds left to determine the game, our students are going to be in their face.”
The Comcast Center is also breaking ground with its revenue-building efforts. One of a growing number of college facilities funded, in part, by corporate dollars, the 10-year $25 million naming-rights sponsorship (comprising both the center and court floor) from Comcast Corp., is the largest known naming gift for a collegiate facility in the U.S. In addition, 12 food courts will be open to corporate sponsorship. Placed and designed to maximize concourse space, each food court is set deep into the building’s corners on two levels, thereby allowing fans to queue for refreshments without causing congesting pedestrian flow in the concourses.
“This is a real spin-off of what we’ve seen happen in professional sports,” explains Brad Clark, Design Director at Ellerbe Becket. “It creates zones of congregation and identification, and it brings the idea of revenue generation into a collegiate facility.”
The opening of the Comcast Center will also unveil a new hall of fame for Terrapin athletics. Like the rest of the Comcast Center, it will be bigger and better than what the school has done in the past. Called the “Walk of Fame and History”, the tribute area will be visible from three corridor levels, stretching 40 feet tall and allowing Maryland to honor both individual Terrapin athletes as well as celebrate special teams and events. In addition to trophy cases and championship banners, the Walk of Fame will feature electronic kiosks where visitors can call up video footage of historic plays and championship moments.
The Comcast Center will also house a 7,000-square foot Academic Support and Career Development Center featuring a computer lab, spaces for individual tutoring, three classrooms, and lounge areas; a state-of-the-art weight training facility; administrative offices for 125 full-time athletic staff members and coaches; a banquet room overlooking the court; catering facilities; home and visitor men’s and women’s lockers; a player interview lounge; a wrestling practice facility; separate men’s and women’s athletic training rooms; 20 luxury suites located at the lower bowl’s sidelines; a team store; a press box; escalators to move patrons to the upper concourse; and two full-sized practice courts. The practice facility converts to one full-sized court when 1,400 retractable seats are pulled out, and it is equipped to host small competitive athletic events complete with public restrooms and a concessions area.
The University of Kentucky
Although the University of Kentucky had considered expanding Commonwealth Stadium for years, the recent success of the football team has finally made the project a reality. The changes focused on rectifying problems with fan amenities—namely inadequate seating and concourse flow. With the help of architects from HNTB Sports Architecture in Kansas City, Mo., the expanded Commonwealth Stadium opened in the fall of 1999 with a $27.5 million price tag.
What really sets this facility apart from other collegiate stadiums is the addition of its first luxury suites. Placed in the stadium’s lower bowl end-zone corners, the 40 suites have become an example to other schools of how to add suites without losing premium sideline seating.
“When we looked at the possibility of having to take out about 2,000 good seats to put in suites on the sidelines, that had a pretty high impact,” says Russ Pear, Associate Athletic Director of Facilities at Kentucky. So, Kentucky opted to place the suites in the corners of the stadium rather than sacrifice sideline seats or place restrictions on the size of the suites.
Since HNTB had constructed corner suites for professional facilities, there was no question of whether it could be done. There was a question, however, if it could be done successfully in a college market. But, with four months left before completion, Kentucky had sold all 40 suites and had 10 other legitimate applicants on a waitlist.
“Frankly, we were a little bit concerned at first because we thought they might have trouble selling these,” says Mike Handelman, Director, Central Division Sports Architecture at HNTB. “We didn’t know they’d be grabbed up as quickly as they were.”
With 10 at each corner, the suites are placed high enough to allow favorable sight lines, but also in tight enough to not feel distanced from the field. In fact, the suites even overhang seven rows of seats in the bowl below.
And according to the architects, the unique locations do offer some advantages. By being located in a corner, the entire field is laid out before patrons, preventing them from having to turn left and right to see action in the end zones. The unique perspective also affords fans a more three-dimensional view of play. In addition, the seats are very low to the field.
To close the stadium and form one seamless bowl, HNTB also tore out 7,000 existing end-zone wood bleacher seats and installed 18,000 bench seats with aluminum treads and risers. Rather than close the end zone with a deep bowl—taking seats away from the field the higher you go—designers opted to integrate seating from the sidelines into a gentle turn and then brought seating straight across and parallel to the end-zone. The layout not only allows optimal sight lines from the end zone, but also improves the stadium’s atmosphere.
“The end-zone seating brings the fans a lot closer to the field,” says Pear. “It really gives you that enclosed feeling and has created a much more intimate atmosphere for the entire stadium.”
The end-zone seating’s straight design also enabled architects to fashion a new, dramatic front door on the building’s straight exterior. The entrance’s facade of gray precast concrete and finished panels match the stadium’s existing exterior. The two gigantic panels sit like bookends to each side of the entrance and rise up to the suite level. On each are four long vertical depressions with light sconces fixed at the base of each groove. The touch gives the impression of claw marks in the structure, referencing Wildcat pride as fans enter the stadium.
“The atmosphere, now, at Commonwealth Stadium is a 180-degree turnaround,” says Pear. “The fan excitement, the noise factor—it has a better atmosphere for college football, and that’s the number-one goal for the program: to provide that kind of service to our fans.”

Penn State University
In 1997, as part of a five-year capital spending project, Penn State University conducted a master plan to solve structural and service deficiencies in its existing athletic facilities. One of its first projects was to construct a new indoor track facility, with a goal of making it better suited to host championships. Penn State appointed NBBJ of Columbus, Ohio, and Hoffman-Popovich of Boalesburg, Pa., as the project’s architects.
The major problems with the existing facility were no grandstand seating for spectators, no separation of programmed spaces and athlete areas, and structural problems caused by sliding snow. Penn State also wanted to create a versatile facility that could be used by more than the track and field teams. That meant a flat surface was needed.
To achieve the flat, multipurpose floor, but still have a first-class competitive running surface, designers installed a 200-meter, state-of-the-art, $1 million hydraulically banked track. Only one of three such tracks in the world, designers say its 65-foot radius will also make it one of the world’s fastest tracks.
“An indoor track facility is an expensive space to have due to the sheer size of the track,” says Kathy Kelly, Project Architect at NBBJ, “especially to house just two track teams. So by going to a flat floor system, Penn State will be able to use the building for other needs and events.”
Six 42-inch outside lanes and eight 48-inch sprint lanes down the middle comprise the track. Also featured are dual long/triple jump runways and two pole-vault runways, as well as grandstand seating for 800 spectators. A secondary corridor beneath the grandstands, running the length of the facility, provides athletes with their own entrance to the competitive and practice areas from other spaces within the building.
And it’s not just the track athletes who benefit from the new building. The $14.5 million, 130,000-square foot Multi-Sport Facility also provides Penn State outdoor teams with indoor training space during the winter. A 70-yard-long artificial turf area sits adjacent to the track and is equipped with batting cages and nets. During large events, an additional 400 temporary seats can be added in the turf area.
Laid out with competitions in mind, an upper-level formal visitor’s entrance contains a ticketing area, concessions, and public restrooms, while a separate entrance for athletes is available on the lower level. The facility’s curved roof preserves the nearby football stadium’s view of Mt. Nittany, and large expanses of glass on the exterior walls allow natural light to flood the interior spaces. Other amenities include a weight room, sports medicine facility, a press box, and men’s and women’s locker rooms for both home and visiting teams.
On the site of Penn State’s former indoor track facility now stands another phase of the master plan: the new Louis E. Lasch Football Building—an all-purpose training and football administration facility. The 89,000-square foot, $13.8 million center took occupancy in the fall of 1999 and is a premium complex with all the amenities a football program could wish for. But for its design team from HOK Sports Facilities Group of Kansas City, Mo., the bells and whistles weren’t as important as the building’s organization.
“Previously, the football team had been utilizing a building that had been renovated eight to 10 times over the past 20 years,” says Scott Radecic, a Vice President at HOK. “As the [team and amenities] required more space, the building grew in pieces, and eventually it became a very inefficient, maze-like building to get through.”
HOK’s focus, then, was to pair flash with the ultimate in functionality. On the first floor, facing the team’s adjacent turf practice field, HOK positioned the 10,000-square foot state-of-the-art weight room, sports medicine and rehab center, locker room, and equipment room side by side. With pass-through areas between each space, players can move from area to area without having to enter the corridor. In addition, each space exits directly onto the practice field—a convenience that allows athletes to prep, get treated, and be on the field faster.
Located above these are the administrative offices, complemented by striking views of Mt. Nittany, a terrace, a VIP reception area, a recruiting lounge, and staff kitchen. The office area also contains two sets of secondary stairs. One set leads coaches directly down to the weight room below, and the other deposits them between the lockers and the athletic training room, allowing coaches immediate access to all player areas.
“Coaches have only so much time in order to prepare athletes for practice, review what they did before, get them taped, and get them out to the field,” says Radecic. “This building responded to Penn State’s requirements and desires and is as functional as a football training facility can be.”
Another tool in the quest for improved time management is the addition of a digital video system. With conduits and computer workstations in all meeting rooms and coaches offices, coaches can now call up any play or footage by simply accessing the main server.
“Digital video used to be a hope for teams, and now it’s becoming the standard,” Radecic explains. “And if collegiate teams don’t have it yet, they’re investigating how to incorporate it into their buildings, because they all know it’s the way to go. Rather than have the video coordinator make all these different tapes, dub them, send them out to coaches, and store them, this technology allows games to be videoed digitally and filed in a server, so coaches can just pull up the exact play they want from a specific game.”
In addition to efficiency, the Lasch building also provides numerous congregation spaces, including a 180-seat auditorium for team meetings, nine smaller position meeting rooms, head and assistant coaches meeting rooms, and a player lounge. An extensive academic center also provides tutoring spaces, study carrels, and computer labs.

Ohio State University
Two years ago at Ohio State University, if you had field-side seats to a football game, you’d be more likely to see the back of some player’s head than the play on the field. That’s because Ohio Stadium was dealing with an atrocious sight line problem. Its first row of seats was literally on the field, offering fans up front little-to-no view of the game.
In 1997, Ohio State began a five-year, $160 million renovation and expansion project that includes improving sight lines, increasing seating, and building 88 suites, a new deluxe press box, a club facility, and a stadium outbuild. To make things more challenging, Ohio Stadium is on the national historic building register, meaning that any work done on it had to be sensitive to existing architecture.
Architects at HNTB Sports Architecture began with the daunting task of lowering the football field by 13 1/2 feet as well as removing the existing track. But the process involved more than just shoveling and hauling dirt.
“Because the Olentangy River is just to the west of the site, we were basically lowering the field to down below the water table,” says John Peterkord, Senior Project Manager at HNTB. “What we ended up doing is putting in a slurry wall, along the perimeter of the field, all the way down to bedrock—varying in depth from 30 feet to 60 feet in some places. The purpose was to basically create a bathtub and keep water migrating down to the river from getting underneath the field.” An underground pumping system was also installed to assist with irrigation.
After the field-lowering phase was complete, 12 rows of new bench seats were installed in the sideline’s lower bowl and 18 rows in the end zones. With the first row of all new seats situated 4 1/2 feet above the field, fans this season will be able to view the game at a height of at least seven feet, allowing them to see over the heads of athletes and staff on the bench.
Another component of the renovation involved introducing 88 suites to the stadium’s west side: two tiers between the upper and lower bowls, and a third level of suites below the press box in the upper bowl. However, instead of trying to squeeze only full-sized suites into the lower bowl’s existing space and architectural elements, designers decided to couple standard suites with smaller suites to appeal to an untapped market.
“When it was originally built, the stadium was designed with a series of alternating sets of columns spaced about nine feet apart, [followed by a big gap],” says Peterkord. “Rather than create luxury suites with columns inside them, we created mini-suites because the university felt that there was a market for groups of four to six people who would want to lease a [lower priced suite] on a game-by-game basis. So we have a selection of these smaller suites, eight in all, among the standard size suites on the west side. While there’s not many of them, they will be a high-demand item.”
Located between each set of columns, each mini suite measures 10 by 33 feet and comes equipped with four permanent seats, a wet bar, and the potential for a few bar stools. None contain private restrooms.
Of the 80 standard suites available, 56 are located between the lower and upper bowls and will offer combination indoor and outdoor seating. With two rows of six fixed seats on a stepped tread outside and a row of barstools at a drink rail inside, patrons can enjoy the weather outside in stadium seats or sip drinks from within.
Ohio State is also erecting a new exterior facade through the addition of a 30-foot-wide expansion to the east and west sides of the stadium. The old wall structures of the historic building will remain in place, but will be shielded by the addition. “The stadium has a very dramatic rotunda at the north end,” says HNTB’s Handelman. “At the other end of the stadium are the southeast and southwest towers. These are highly detailed architectural pieces from the original [1920s] construction. As we did the outbuild of the entire stadium, we held our addition back at the rotunda and tower ends. So we’ve tried to be very cognizant of that history, and let our new building wrap up to it, but respect it.”
The outbuild will serve as an additional concourse with elevators, stair towers, and some vending carts. Eventually, the athletic department hopes to use some of the new space as a tribute area to Ohio State athletic history. The ground floor of the former concourse interior has been demolished and rebuilt with new concession areas and additional restroom facilities, also creating additional space for pedestrian traffic.
Also included in the planned expansion is the addition of over 2,500 club seats located between the 30-yard lines; a 21,000-square foot club facility with bars, buffet service, and television monitors; a deluxe press box with room for 250 writing press, radio, and television booths, press dining amenities, and laptop connections at each writing location; and a 46 by 160 foot scoreboard featuring a 30 by 106 foot video board. The completed facility will be ready for occupancy at the start of the 2001 football season.