Even the most successful NFL teams cannot control the quality of their product on the field. And in an era of free agency, it’s harder for teams to develop fan loyalty toward their best players. So more teams, even successful ones, have turned their stadiums into memorable experiences, where a team has more control over its own brand. In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys wowed fans with a new stadium that features the world’s largest column-free interior and (at the time) the biggest high-definition video screen in the world. In 2014, the San Francisco 49ers opened Levi’s Stadium, which features high-tech amenities such an app that allows you to order food from your seat. But the Atlanta Falcons are preparing to open one stadium to rule them all in 2017: a state-of-the-art extravaganza that may change the way we experience live sports.
In the 49-year existence of the Atlanta Falcons, the team has compiled a decidedly subpar record of 316 wins, 414 losses, and six ties. The team has won no Super Bowls and has fielded zero Most Valuable Players. The Falcons have been wildly inconsistent, capable of an impressive 13-win/3-loss season followed by a horrid 4-win/12-loss season, as was the case in 2012-13. But there is more to football than winning (and I don’t care how many ex-jocks in the broadcast booth say otherwise). Football teams want fans to have fun, and the New Atlanta Stadium (whose title will certainly change when a corporate sponsor is found) is designed to provide fun in spades.
For starters, the new building is going to be an architectural marvel that Atlanta visitors and residents will visit and tour in the off-season. Most football stadiums, however well designed, look like, well, football stadiums. You always know one when you see one. But New Atlanta Stadium isn’t any ordinary football stadium. New Atlanta Stadium is designed to be a visually stunning building where football games happen to be played.
The dramatic glass-and-steel exterior, which as been described as a gigantic metal origami, evokes the creations of Frank Gehry and Jørn Utzon (who designed the Sydney Opera House). Lead designer is Bill Johnson, a principal at Kansas City-based 360 Architecture (recently acquired by HOK), designed eight ocular shaped panels on the roof as an homage to the Roman Pantheon. According to 360 Architecture, the roof will “open and close like a camera aperture.” Moreover, the shape of the roof panels are will emulate the wing-like Atlanta Falcons team logo.
The retractable roof and overall stadium design have already caught the eye of publications such as Architecture News Daily and DesignBoom, which raved about the “striking structure.” Now, let me ask you: when is the last time a retractable roof generated this kind of reaction? I predict that the look of the stadium alone will inspire other architects to rethink the design of football stadiums, just as Oriole Park at Camden Yards reimagined the look of Major League Baseball Parks in the 1990s.
But there is more to New Atlanta Stadium than the dramatic first impression it leaves. The stadium may have its greatest impact on the future of stadium design in the way it promises to combine the excitement of live action with the comforts of home viewing. One side of the stadium will include a massive floor-to-ceiling window with a view of Atlanta, which will add to the ambience of the event, reminding fans that they are at a football game, not cocooned in their homes.
The retractable roof will obviously bring the outdoor elements into the game. An exterior fan plaza, located on the northeast side of the stadium, will act as a sort of meeting point and an outdoor venue to watch entertainment before or after the game (and, presumably, take a break from those games that the Falcons lose miserably).
If somehow you miss the action on the 63-foot tall high-def screen, the stadium will broadcast the action (and God knows how much advertising) on a video column and on strategically placed smaller screens amid the seats.
To accommodate the multi-tasking fan, the stadium will provide a Technology Lounge. According to the New Atlanta Stadium website, “The Technology Lounge offers access to unique game-day media content and full NFL immersion. Avid football fans and tech junkies unite. This is a unique space for fans to track their Fantasy Football teams while staying engaged with the game on the field.” (But will fans in their seats get free WiFi?)
The stadium is attempting to strike a delicate balance: meeting the needs of wired fans who can get high-def experiences in their own homes, while giving them a reason to leave their living rooms and shell out money for the you-are-there experience.
Like most other stadiums, New Atlanta Stadium will offer club seating and suites — and it will set you back as much as $45,000 to reserve one of the best seats in the house.
But if you lack the dough for the fancy seats, and you want a clubby experience, a 100-yard-long bar on the upper concourse will be open to the hoi polloi.
Sounds pretty cool, right? But as the San Francisco 49ers recently discovered, even the most well conceived stadiums experience some glitches. The venerable 49ers, one of the most successful NFL franchises, relocated to San Mateo to play their home games in Levi’s Stadium, which opened in July 2014. The $1.2 billion venue boasted state-of-the-art, high-tech amenities.
But things did not turn out as planned. When the stadium opened, a number of problems quickly surfaced, including unreliable WiFi, shoddy turf, clogged transportation to and from the stadium, and unbearable heat. Ashlee Vance of Bloomberg BusinessWeek proclaimed the stadium a “dud.”
But as the NFL season progressed, the stadium started to grow on fans. They started to appreciate high-tech amenities such as a Levi’s Stadium app, which allows for paperless ticketing and the ability to search for the shortest food lines in the stadium. They adapted to the heat by protecting themselves with hats and sunscreen (Candlestick Park, the former home of the 49ers, had conditioned fans for a completely different experience — so they just needed to change their habits). Managing the crowds streaming out of the stadium remains a challenge, but Levi’s Stadium and local police have made some tweaks to improve the flow of traffic. Fans seem to like the stadium overall months after its opening, giving it an 85-percent approval rate on TripAdvisor.
It turns out that fans needed time to accept the stadium’s imperfections and to appreciate its benefits, and the stadium needed to work harder at being a better neighbor — two lessons that the New Atlanta Stadium is most certainly taking to heart as the Falcons prepare for opening day in 2017.
I predict that New Atlanta Stadium will create pressure for other NFL teams to raise the bar for the viewing experience. Football stadiums are going to offer more perks that have nothing to do with watching the game on the field, such as high-end shopping featuring merchandise you can find nowhere else (akin to Disney), and more exclusive dining rooms with ambience to match the food. Of course, high tech will get better. Picture fans playing Madden NFL in the stands, with teams synchronized to the on-field action. And for fans that want to get immersed in the games, picture this scenario: fans, using headphones rented from the stadium, listen to on-field action in surround-sound.
Watch closely how movie theaters change by adding perks such as reclining seats and comfortable dining at a more affordable price than a stadium offers. You can be sure sports teams are watching and learning. To paraphrase Marshal McLuhan, the experience is the message.