Will groundbreaking stadia even have real players?
With the promise of its own microbrewery, the longest bar in the UK (86.8 metres) and a glasswalled tunnel so fans can see players in the moments leading up to kick-off, it’s hard not to be caught up in the hoopla surrounding Tottenham Hotspur’s brandnew £750 million (€844m) stadium that’s set to open next year.
It all sounds remarkably impressive but what’s most intriguing is that the natural grass pitch will have the ability to slide under the stands and be replaced with an astroturf version — for when American football comes to town.
It makes sense that the most impressive trick is NFL-related. Because it is that organisation which is at the forefront of stadium technology and where each glistening new behemoth that’s unveiled is desperate to out-do the last one with the latest hi-tech gadgetry.
The next monstrosity, due to open on August 26, is the Mercedes-Benz Stadium — home of the Atlanta Falcons, which cost $1.5 billion (€1.3bn) and will come complete with a retractable, rotating roof which will also feature a built-in, LED video display wrapping around the entire interior. Some initial proposals were thankfully scrapped, like the sug- gestion of ‘vibrating seats’ that would allow fans feel the intensity of hits on the field. But expect everything to be turned up to 11 when a new 80,000-capacity, $2.6bn venue opens in Los Angeles for the start of the 2020 football season. It will host the city’s two NFL teams, the Rams and the Chargers, and is the brainchild of Arsenal (and Rams) owner Stan Kroenke.
The first of the NFL super-venue models was the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium, which opened in 2014. It cost $1.3bn and, right now, remains the most technologically-advanced stadium in the world. Interestingly, the 49ers’ VP of Technology at the time of the unveiling was Dan Williams, a veteran of Silicon Valley who had previously worked with McAfee and Facebook.
The project vision was pretty clear from the outset: look to the future.
“When we first started, the mindset was be the first of the next generation, not the last of an existing one,” says Jim Mercurio, VP of Stadium Operations for the 49ers.
“We looked at using technology, not for technology’s sake but to really make a difference in the fan experience and the game day experience for our customers. For a while, there were many people trying to push technology but through special devices. Our approach was that we didn’t want to focus on hardware, it was more software, and we felt people would want to use their own devices.”
In keeping with that plan, the Levi’s Stadium — which hosted the 2016 Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers — prides itself on connectivity. It has its own app allowing fans order food, beverages and merchandise to their seats and even watch video replays of incidents in real time on their phones.
“If we stretched out the cable that was wired around the building so that you had wireless connectivity it would be one continuous line from San Francisco to Santa Clara which is 45-plus miles,” Mercurio says.
“For the Super Bowl, we broke the record for the amount of data being processed and transmitted before the second quarter had even ended. Before halftime!”
Mercurio appreciates that technology is crucial in stadium design but that there is also a substantial difference between practicality and superfluousness.
“There needs to be a balance between the technology we use and the common sense that we use because we’re still dealing with people — 70,000 people want to come to our games and not all of them want to stare at their phone. But everyone absolutely wants to be connected. They want to know what’s going on. They need to know what’s going on. Whether it’s scores from around the league or instant news or their friend is at the game and they want to connect. So we’re even making platforms where people can know where their buddies are in the building.
“Where do I see it going in the future? It’s all about technology but, at some point in time, you may find that some people want to be disconnected and want to get away from everyday life. That’s the beauty of sport. It allows us come together for a common cause and spend time with friends, foes, loved ones but, yet, have this unbelievable, live experience.
“You’re competing with what you can get at your fingertips. You used to be competing with people on their couch, but now people can be on a train, on a plane, walking down the street. They don’t need to be in a stadium to get what they want. But the live action of a game, though, is something that still pulls people together and likely will for a long time.”
He’s aware of the talk surrounding hologram technology and the possibility of using drones to serve fans inside the stadium.
“They’re talking about it for the Olympics in 2020 where the live event is taking place in one venue but at another venue, with people attending, it’s a hologram,” Mercurio says.
“They say it’s going to happen sooner than you think.
“There’s a coolness about it but it would be a different experience. It may be a pretty good one but certainly an add-on rather than a replacement for anything.
“I believe in the human connection. And maybe not even the live event itself but the ancillary benefits. Walking down the concourse and immersed in the camaraderie with the same, likeminded folks wearing your team’s jersey. Smelling the grilled sausage and onions and peppers being cooked... you don’t get that every day. And that’s all part of the experience. Seeing a kid in a front row, beaming from ear to ear when a player gives him a football or a high-five, I don’t know if that can be replaced by a hologram. Or any technology, for that matter.”
But Mercurio also remembers the development stage of the Levi’s Stadium project and the emphasis architects and designers placed on thinking outside the box, based on how quickly the technological landscape is changing.
“We actually brought in a couple of people who you’d call futurists,” he says.
“It’s almost George Jetson-like. You have to be creative and maybe a little crazy, a little wacky. Maybe it’s driverless cars in 40 years, loading in and parking themselves in synchronised parking lots. For the Levi’s Stadium, we did a 40year capital expenditure plan to try and understand the shelf life of different amenities and spaces. But still, even in that document, you’re speaking in generalities and having flexibility in capital to respond to the ever-changing needs of customers.
“Technology is not cheap and it changes very quickly. You have to recognise that boundaries will be pushed faster, harder, sooner and that flexibility will be the key to all of that.”
Personalised action replays, constant connectivity, drone service to your seat, and maybe even holograms as players. What will stadia of the future hold? FUTURE PROOF: The home of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United will boast eye-popping technology.