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What does a good stadium look like? Matthew Birchall of BuroHappold gives his expert view

Create: 02/20/2017 - 00:00

If football and rugby stadiums were advertised by estate agents then the property descriptions for the West Country could range from ‘bijou, modern, experimental design’, to ‘rather dilapidated, in need of some refurbishment’.

Suffice it to say that virtually all of the region's professional clubs either now play home matches at, or plan to in the near future, new or redesigned grounds. 

But what makes a good stadium? A man rather closer to knowing the answer than the rest of us is Matthew Birchall, the global sports director for BuroHappold Engineering. The Bath-based company were closely involved in the development of the Olympic Stadium, the Etihad in Manchester and Arsenal’s Emirates headquarters as well as other stadia around the globe. 
At first glance, it is quite likely that the views of fans may vary from the views of the hierarchy. A stadium with good sightlines, value-for-money food and drink and easy accessibility and parking may be top of the supporters' agenda, whereas the potential for revenue earning with corporate hospitality and use all year round, seven days a week more likely to be the choice for club owners. However, as Birchall points out, atmosphere should be the number one consideration for owners and fans alike.
“We have looked a lot at what makes a good stadium and how the design, construction and operation of stadiums can influence the atmosphere within them,” he said. “It’s fairly obvious, but our research shows there is a direct correlation between atmosphere and teams winning more games at home. So if you want your team to do better, to attract bigger crowds and earn more revenue, then you have to look at how you can maximise atmosphere.

Building Atmosphere

“It’s quite possible to transform the acoustics of stadiums. It’s something people do quite readily in theatres and in entertainment arenas. The only difference is that they are looking at how the sound gets from the performers to the audience whereas we are looking at the opposite. We have the tools we need, it’s just historically in the design of stadia this has not happened.

“It doesn’t necessarily cost any more to build a stadium where the sound can be retained within a bowl. Yet, if you look for example, at Wembley, you have the lower tier, the upper tier and the ring of indifference – the double deck of corporate facilities that runs around the stadium. That ring completely breaks the acoustics of the bowl, because the upper tier can’t hear what going on in the lower tier and vice versa. So a whole range of factors affect the internal atmosphere. Its far more than just designing pieces of steel or concrete. Even things such as the orientation of seats or their closeness or the steepness of the incline can all affect the quality and volume of sound.”
If Ashton Gate’s £45 million revamp over the course of two seasons was a triumph for how an existing stadium can be transformed, while at the same time matches were still being played there, then Forest Green Rovers' proposed new stadium, situation right by Junction 13 of the M5 is likely to be a step into uncharted territory.  

Stadiums by design

To be designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, it will be built of wood and have an initial capacity for 5,000 fans. At the heart of the Eco Park complex it will also offer training pitches, a range of publicly available sports facilities, and a sports science hub. In turn, the sports facilities are only part of the overall site development, which will comprise an innovative green ecological, industry park. 

The wooden stadium, which Forest Green claim will be the first of its kind in the world, has raised some eyebrows after tragedies such as the Bradford City fire that claimed 56 lives in 1985. However, Birchall was keen to dispel the suggestion that it is likely to be a danger. “Because you put wood on fires, people assume it burns very well,” he said. “But timber can be designed very easily to be safe in a fire environment. If timber is treated appropriately all that will happen is that it will char, rather than blaze when it comes into contact with fire. The historic venues were not designed to be fire resistant.”

Everybody of course will have their own views as to what they want from their stadium but given that British football and rugby has always been renowned for the atmosphere its games generate, then it is important this is not lost. The need for away fans as contributors to atmosphere has already been recognised by the Premier League through capping the costs of tickets for travelling supporters. 
Real atmosphere cannot be artificially generated but it is possible to design stadiums that help to build participation and engagement with what is happening on the pitch. There is an increasing tendency, at some sports events, to have an announcer on a PA system trying desperately to whip up an apathetic crowd by constantly shouting ‘make some noise’. When that happens at football and rugby stadia we know we will not have grounds for optimism but grounds for complaint instead. 

Matthew Birchall’s five do’s and don’t’s for stadium design

1. Look at how the outside environment can contribute to the atmosphere in the stadium
“Does the route into the ground help to build pre-match atmosphere and create noise which carries over into the stadium? The old historic grounds saw the build-up in atmosphere in the walk to the stadium often through narrow streets and alleyways. The journey to the ground contributed to the sound build up inside the stadium. The Millennium Stadium in the middle of Cardiff is a good example of how atmosphere builds when a stadium is in a city centre. The converse is, of course, also true. If you build a new stadium in the middle of nowhere and surround it by a car park, then you will have a quieter atmosphere outside which carries over inside.”
2. Get rid of the big screens
“Fans want engagement and clubs want more money and to increase fan loyalty. At the moment, that means people viewing content on their smart phones or video screens. If you look at the United States, some stadiums have such giant, jumbo screens that people spend more time watching those than watching the action on the pitch. But in Europe, and especially in European football, fans are far more immersed in the game. Maybe we should turn the WiFi off during games and not show replays on screens.”
3. Get ready for standing
“Consider rail seating, as Bristol City have done. Although they are not yet able to use it, they have installed seating that can easily be converted into standing areas. There is no reason why you cannot go back to standing areas in terms of safety and I think gradually that will be allowed. It will enhance the atmosphere and people’s match experience. Having seated areas where nobody sits, as we currently do, is somewhat absurd.”
4. Don’t put all your hospitality boxes on the halfway line between an upper and a lower tier
“Put some at a high level, at the back of the stands, in a variety of locations. Do group your committed and noisy fans together and give them some control over their environment. How much standing, how much seated, how much corporate hospitality? Maybe even have party decks for those who want just to be at an event as compared to those committed to the team and match.”
5. Consult with fans and identify what they see as important about their club and look at how it can be incorporated in to design
“Make a new ground unique to your site and the way your fans operate, don’t just put up identical, even, stands all the way round the ground. Many clubs, when they were building stadiums in the past, thought all they needed were seats or terracing and a tin roof. Many of the new stadiums are very utilitarian, yet our research suggests fans very much want their stadium to be unique. Often the stadiums with the best atmospheres are the ones that have evolved over time. They might be piecemeal but their uniqueness gives fans a sense of ownership.”

About Author

Andrew Kerslake
Andrew Kerslake is the Managing Director of XtraTime. He has worked as a freelance sports journalist covering both football and cricket and written and broadcast journalism. In another life he was also Professor of Public Care at Oxford Brookes University.