A Designed Play

From Manhattan (the Kansas one) to Miami, from Monterrey (the Mexican one) to Milan to Moscow, architectural firms in Kansas City have been reaping the benefits of a burst in stadium and arena construction that’s taking place on a global scale.

College and pro football venues, soccer stadiums, even the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro—all are showcasing the skills of an architectural community that is elevating Kansas City’s reputation as a center of design excellence, much as their engineering brethren have done in their sector.

Predictably, the biggest hometown design firm, Populous, is fully engaged with that. “We’ve been very successful; we just had our third-best year in our 31-year history,” said Bruce Miller, senior principal. “We grew about 20 percent, and we’re projecting to grow another 20-25 percent this year in staffing numbers. We’re very busy, and we continue to recruit.”

Among the work the firm has been engaged in are college football stadiums, such as the new field at Baylor University and the upgrade to Kyle Field at Texas A&M; baseball venues like SunTrust Park in Atlanta, home of the Braves; and soccer stadiums in Orlando and in Monterrey. Closer to home, Populous performed the design work on K-State’s new $75 million Vanier Football Complex and north end-zone renovations now under way at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

Less than a mile away from the River Market headquarters of Populous, the sports design team at HNTB has been equally engaged. Levi’s Stadium, the new $1.3 billion home of the San Francisco 49ers, was a signature project, and the firm has been working on new college football stadiums or upgrades at Iowa State, Kentucky, Arizona State and Oregon State. Locally, it’s working on the new master plan for the University of Kansas’ Memorial Stadium.

Global design powerhouse AECOM, based in Los Angeles, has its sports-design team headquartered in Kansas City, and that
crew has been working on stadium improvements for Clemson University and the University of Mississippi, as well as a crown jewel in the design portfolio—it was part of a global team that submitted the winning master plan for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

But the work isn’t relegated to the giants; Manica Architecture, a small design firm based in Kansas City, is engaged in projects around the world, including new stadiums or upgrades in Russia, China, Brazil, Italy and London’s venerable Wembley Stadium, home of the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

Driving the Trend
What’s the impetus for all that?

“It’s a combination of a few things,” says Drew Berst, director of business development for AECOM. “At the collegiate level, we see it in terms of contracts signed by conferences or universities; on the professional side, it’s from an increase in the value of franchises and the need for facilities that can make the game experience special for fans. And I think the economy in general—that’s going to help as people have more discretionary spending money, and with TV revenue, the value of a live sporting event, the market has seen dollars move toward sports in the media-rights business.”

The surprising thing about the boom, he said, was how quickly it emerged. “There was almost no increase seen in the work level for a couple of years, and now it’s everywhere,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Gerardo Pardo, sports group director for HNTB, said construction in sporting events follows the overall market, which has been bouncing back after a long slumber in 2010 and 2011. The uptick starts, he said, “when markets are up and individual clients and businesses and organizations are profitable, when investors are confident in the economy.”

Activity usually picks up on the collegiate side before the professional venues, he said, “but any time there’s an influx of funds, TV or naming rights, the beneficiaries are sports programs. In collegiate, when donors are confident and their individual businesses are going well, they’re likely to commit funds to support stadium construction.”

Populous, said Miller, had been able to keep the work pipeline flowing during the downturn, but now, he says, “what’s really happening is there’s additional pent-up demand from that three-to-four-year hiatus, where very little was built because of economic uncertainty.”
Growth in the appeal of soccer across the U.S. is driving construction for those venues, as well, he said. “Major League Soccer facilities are very, very active for us,” Miller said, “but like most things, what we’re seeing is a combination of factors that, across the board, has led to growth in every market.”

The Fan Experience Factor
One relatively new aspect of design was highlighted locally with the opening of Sporting Kansas City’s new stadium in 2011. The team immediately won accolades from soccer publications for a venue that incorporated technology and stadium design to produce an unparalleled fan experience.

The Royals and Chiefs have jumped in, exploring ways to use WiFi and to test smartphone applications for ordering concessions from your seat, for example.

 “This area is obviously a hotbed for that,” said Berst. “We’re all learning what that fan-experience factor can mean, and at the forefront for us is understanding what is unique about the game experience based on the sport, and making sure we maximize that experience.”
That aspect, said Pardo, is just good bottom-line sense. “If you and I are co-owners of a sports team, our desire is to have that stadium filled, every single game, and to have production on the field that wins championships. Winning a championship is ultimately what drives fans to stadiums.”

But there is a design role that can maximize on-field performance, he said. (Think crowd noise at Arrowhead.) “As a fan myself, an elevated experience is one where I have an affordable ticket price to watch a good product on the field at a stadium with a great atmosphere—it’s full, it’s loud, it stimulates the senses, it has ease of access to arrive, park and leave, and to concessions and restrooms,” he said.

Each one of those variables presents a design challenge. “No one likes to be standing in lines for 10 minutes to get a hot dog and fries,” Pardo said. But it can’t be one-size-fits all in its approach; the needs of diverse fans must be accounted for. “WiFi is one aspect; for some, it’s more important than others. For me, in my 40s, it’s not important at all. I’d rather have a favorable ticket price to be able to take my kids to the game, and good food, with good price points.”

Changing fan tastes, said Miller, keep the internal pressure on at Populous. “Fan experience is absolutely a factor,” he said. “We continue to drive ourselves, but also try to challenge our clients to think differently about their fans to stay relevant. There are so many choices these days, so we continue to try to innovate.”

In some cases, that can mean pitching upgrade work on facilities that are just a few years old, he noted.

“We see many of our facilities that were built in the 1990s—even as recently as four years ago in one case—where those owners are interested in maintaining their relevance and becoming an ongoing part of peoples’ lives,” Miller said. “Because our projects are so large, even that 4-year-old stadium, it was designed three to four years before construction, and trends can change a lot in seven or eight years.”

KC’s Enhanced Reputation
The extra work, the ability to be able to attract new, eager design talent is nice, and the bottom-line impacts are all welcome developments. But more broadly, that success is sending out messages about what Kansas City has to offer as a design community.
“It does surprise some people” when they learn about the disproportionate number of sports design assets in Kansas City, Miller said. “Most are aware that Kansas City is a hotbed of sports architecture, but they want to know the story behind it. It’s really given us a profile that’s different across the country.”

That reputation is enhanced, said Pardo, by both the constant competition and occasional collaborations of firms here, as well as the regular exchange of talent between them.

“We all know each other well, we compete against each other,” Pardo said. “The great thing is that each firm has its own unique strength. Each has a niche in certain aspects of the market. We like to focus on large Division I collegiate projects; with some, it’s the NFL, and others have a huge focus on the NBA side. But overall, we’re continuing to solidify this as a breeding ground for great architects and great designers. And all firms are committed to not only hiring but mentoring and showing the younger staff that we’ll develop their skills here and move them up from designing architects to become sports designers who are known nationally.”