MLS 3.0: Evolution of the Soccer-Specific Stadium

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New stadiums are one of the buzz topics in the American professional sports landscape. NFL teams are building new stadiums to try and get a SuperBowl bid for their city or prevent a relocation to Los Angeles. The NBA and NHL are in some expansion talks. Then there’s the inevitable question if the Rays will ever move outdoors and if the Athletics will get their own home.

MLS is no different. With lower division teams and cities bidding for expansion and current MLS teams looking to find a pitch of their own, soccer-specific stadiums are one of the hottest topics in MLS. While fans use the term soccer-specific stadium (SSS) as a distinction for many unique facilities, this schema is not uniform. Soccer-specific stadiums have gone through an evolution. As the sport has become more popular, the league and its ownership groups have learned and improved in the development, construction, and operation of stadiums. It’s been a lot of learning on the job and has changed as the league has grown.

Expansion teams use it as a negotiation talisman to join the league. Established MLS clubs use it as a rebrand to change the club’s fortunes. A well-done soccer-specific stadium has become paramount to an MLS team’s success and sustainability. What’s more, the soccer-specific stadium will be vital to the growth of American Soccer.

1999: The First of Its Kind

I like to think of Columbus Crew Stadium (Columbus, OH) as the Empire State Building of MLS: Built during a rough period of history and was a symbol of hope, innovation, and perseverance. We’ve since built bigger and better things, but it will always hold historic and sentimental value. It’s construction was proof we would survive and thrive.

Built in 1999 and recently renamed Mapfre Stadium, it has become hollowed ground for the USMNT after many Dos-A-Cero victories over rival Mexico. The home of Crew SC, the yellow seats have helped Columbus to one of the most recognizable color-to-team associations in MLS.

While it was mesmerizing at the time, it was a bit over-sized. The Crew have had trouble filling the 20,145 seats. The club is back with a quality and exciting team to watch though, which should revert that trend. The stadium is also rather simple in design and has an appearance a bit like an American Football stadium. Regardless of what any fan thinks of the stadium, it has sentimental value and it was the foundation for all soccer-specific stadiums that followed it. From humble beginnings come great things.

2003-2007: A Place To Call Home

The league learned many things in the early years of Crew Stadium. Owning the facility allowed the franchise to control cash flow (parking, ticket sales, merchandise, etc.). The club could also host other events such as National Team matches, concerts, as well as high school and lower division college football matches. It was place to have community outreach programs as well and it provided a centralized location for a grassroot movement for the club, the league, and the sport.

2003 saw the birth of the Home Depot Center (Carson, CA), now the StubHub Center. It would be followed in the coming years by Toyota Park (Bridgeview, IL), Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (Commerce City, CO), and what is now called Toyota Stadium (Frisco, TX). MLS originals were now choosing to invest for long term benefits rather than rent large (and mostly empty) NFL stadiums and lose money to their landlords. This gave fans a more intimate environment to watch their team.

This period also brought about BMO Field (Toronto, ON) as Toronto FC joined MLS as an expansion team was a soccer-specific stadium from the beginning. MLS 2.0 not only saw the growth in the league through expansion, but the new ownership groups being attracted to league now had the resources and drive to set the team up with a facility from the beginning.

Each of these stadiums brought something we hadn’t seen from Crew Stadium. They had more press boxes and roofing to shield fans from the elements. Space was set aside for executive suits to allow for corporate partners to come in and provide increased revenue. The facilities had higher quality lighting for night games. Colorado, Dallas, and LA were able to put in their own practice facility right on site.

While this does come with some bias, I think StubHub Center is the best from this period of expansion. It was big, it was fancy, it has a pretty grass hill, and the sight lines are great from every seat. With the stadium lighting at a night game, it’s like watching a Soccer CinemaScope. While each of these stadiums stood on the shoulders of the giant that was Crew Stadium, they again were the experiment that showed flaws in MLS’s way of thinking about soccer-specific stadiums. There were all still relatively plain in architectural design. The stadiums were open, allowing noise to escape and detracting from the home field advantage of crowd noise. BMO Field sits next to a nice park on the water and is less than 2 miles from the heart of Toronto’s entertainment district. The rest of these stadiums are not in the best locations.

2008-2012: Class, Architecture, and Location

If 1999 was the MLS Great Depression, this period was the MLS Renaissance. Five new franchises joined MLS during this period and six new soccer-specific stadiums were built. While their predecessors excelled in function, these stadiums excelled in decoration in ways that would impress even the Catholic Church. They were designed with great views. They also had ample space for suites, press boxes, and supporters groups. They achieved a new aesthetic level that provided an iconic image or shape synonymous with the club. This was also the era where we saw some MLS teams start to focus more on location, location, location.

Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy, UT) and PPL Park (Chester, PA) are beautiful stadiums in their own right. Rio Tinto has an aesthetically pleasing curved canopy roof, supported by a tension membrane system. PPL Park stays true to Philadelphia historical architecture with a brick and natural stone facade exterior. The sideline roofs are supported by a truss system. While neither of these stadiums are near the urban center of the cities they call home, both provide a scenic backdrop. PPL Park is right next to the Commodore Barry Bridge and Delaware River. Rio Tinto has the Wasatch Mountain Range. No big deal. Both architects drew inspiration from the site surroundings in building the stadium. PPL Park’s roof trusses are made in the exact style of the bridge. The roof of Rio Tinto was meant to resemble the mountain curvature and the human spine.

While these are fabulous soccer-specific stadiums, in my opinion, Sporting Park (Kansas City, KS) and Red Bull Arena (Harrison, NJ) are the best in the league to date. Sporting KC saw a total rebirth with their rebrand in 2010, and the stadium was key. In keeping the seated capacity slightly low at 18,467, their business models showed they could increase ticket prices due to demand, and the design of the park allows for ample standing room tickets as well. Since becoming one of the powers in MLS, Sporting has often seen crowds in excess of 20,000. The spanning blue roof covers all seats and looks great in the stands and from aerial views. Loud supporters, an intimate setting with seats as close as 10 ft from the touch line and a roof that traps the noise makes Sporting Park Blue Hell for enemies and Heaven on Earth for the KC faithful.

Red Bull Arena is it’s own masterpiece. With an instantly recognizable roof exterior and a true European Football design inside with two tiers of stands, Red Bull GmbH spared no expense. From the lower seats, fans are right in the action like at Sporting Park. From the upper seats, you’re high enough to see all the details of the tactics as they play out before you. While Red Bull supporters haven’t always been able to pack the stands, when the stadium does fill up, it’s as good an in-stadium atmosphere as any soccer-specific stadium in MLS. With the most luxurious home sideline stands energy drink money can buy, Red Bull Arena is one of the nicest facilities in the league.

While not originally a soccer-specific stadium, Providence Park (Portland, OR) joined MLS in 2011 with the Portland Timbers. Previously used for minor league baseball as well as various levels of American football, the park was retrofitted to become a soccer-exclusive venue prior to the Timbers ascension into MLS. Originally constructed in 1926, it’s technically the oldest stadium in the league. With its nonuniform shape due to age and four separate renovations, it’s a unique venue. Throw in support columns that block sight lines and corner flag suites and Providence Park is the Jewel Box Stadium of MLS.

While these designs and improvements were tremendous, perhaps more importantly was the value some of these stadiums put on location. While not in the urban center, Sporting Park and Stade Saputo (Montreal, QC) are within a 20 minutes drive from their respective downtown. Sporting Park is right next to Kansas Speedway and Stade Saputo is in Olympic Park. There was no difference in travel for fans when Montreal had their CCL match at the Olympic Stadium. Both clubs put their stadium in a central location next to something else of significance such that the location was already well known and transportation infrastructure was already in place.

Providence Park and BBVA Compass Stadium (Houston, TX) are within a mile of their city’s urban core. Soccer and MLS are growing the most with urban youth and proximity to downtown and densely populate areas have proven to have a tremendous impact on attendance figures. If a downtown location cannot be obtained, picking another key location has proven effective. Put RBA in Manhattan next to MSG and tell me they don’t sell out. This period showed a quality venue makes an impact, but it proved once again that location can be just as significant.

2015 And Beyond: Innovation, the Soon-To-Be Best Soccer-Specific Stadium, and the Next Problem

MLS has an exciting future ahead, and so do the new stadiums in development. Avaya Stadium (San Jose, CA) opens this weekend. While on the smaller end of soccer-specific stadium and plain in appearance, it does have the largest outdoor bar in North America in their open end of the stadium. With Avaya Labs as the stadium sponsor, Quakes fans will be testing out new technologies to enhance fan engagement. The stadium will also be the first ever cloud-enabled stadium. These are just some of their stadium features. Now all the Quakes need is for one of their local tech-startup companies to hit it big time and become their jersey sponsor.

Next season, Orlando City SC will move into their own soccer-specific stadium, just blocks away from downtown Orlando. While some details have not been made public, we do know canopy roofing will shield most fans from the Florida sunshine (something they might have learned from BBVA Compass Stadium) and it will also help trap crowd noise. Similar to Avaya Stadium, this venue will have a mostly open end behind one of the goals for a fan plaza. Ownership has also said they’re going to have a lion statue.

When looking at the variables previously outlined on what it takes for a quality and impactful stadium, I firmly believe when it opens, D.C. United‘s new stadium will be the best soccer-specific stadium MLS has ever seen. If all goes as planned (which is a big and uncertain if), it will be in a prime location: at Buzzard Point close to Nationals Ballpark, near the center the District, and easily accessible by subway or car. If the renderings that have been released are anything close to what is actually build, this stadium is going to be gorgeous and provide an electric in-stadium atmosphere. The plaza and whatever those buildings are will be icing on the cake. Add in the supporters at the halfway line and a good civil engineer who can design bouncing stands, and this is the most D.C. United thing ever. This stadium will have all the ingredients to the be a flagship soccer-specific stadium for MLS.

I will admit however that the next key problem could be on the horizon for MLS. With the grown of the sport, in-stadium attendance will be on the rise. Less than half of soccer-specific stadiums hold more than 21,000 seats. With BMO Field expanding this year, it will be the first soccer-specific stadium to hold 30,000. If MLS is to become a top league in the coming decades, the attendance figures might have to follow suit. MLS is 10th in the world in domestic league match attendance with 19,149 fans/match in 2014. The EPL sits at over 36,000 in average attendance and the Bundesliga is first in the world with over 43,000.

I expect these smaller capacity stadiums to drive up ticket prices due to demand and viewership as fans will not be attending as many games. Maybe MLS will be able to achieve world class status with quality stadiums that are smaller but always filled. Maybe not. Becoming the best could require expansion of stadiums that are less than 20 years old, which is very uncommon in American sports. The Big Four in Europe all have over half their stadiums in excess of 30,000 seats. The Bundesliga’s smallest park in 2015 is Rhein-Necker-Arena at 30,164 seats. Many of these leagues have several grounds in excess of 67,000 seats (the capacity of Century Link Field).

What’s troubling about this is many of the newer stadiums are completely enclosed and have complex roof structures. Removing roofs, changing the stands or adding tiers will take time and be expensive. The next great lesson in soccer-specific stadium building may be to leave room for easy and inexpensive expansion. Some have done this. Avaya Stadium has an open endzone and Quakes ownership has alluded to the ability to expand. D.C. United’s stadium does not appear to have expansion accounted for in appearance. Many of the older and more open stadiums may not have these structural obstacles. Perhaps this and other lessons will spark a Golden Age of stadiums in MLS 4.0.

Lastly, we can see that even at 10 years old, many of the original stadiums built in this league are becoming obsolete. They aren’t in the best location. They do not have some of the better revenue-generating amenities. Their design does not enhance the atmosphere well. When MLS has arrived (MLS 4.0?), I hope part of that picture involves serious updates if not replacements of these older facilities. I can’t wait for the day when Mapfre Stadium gets a full makeover and looks unrecognizable in a good way. Move Dallas and Colorado to a downtown location with all the bells and whistles. I love the StubHub Center. It was a fabulous venue when it opened and but it has since been surpassed. I hope one day it is renovated or replaced by a stadium that surpasses every soccer-specific stadium that came before it. Much like how I hope Major League Soccer will surpass every soccer league that came before it.