Accessibility and Future Proofing Sports Stadium Design in the 21st Century
General view of a sign at Sixfields giving directions to Disabled Access to the stands (Photo by Andrew Matthews - EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images)

Being an able bodied sports fan, one with a ready interest in attending sporting fixtures is a natural activity. Little; apart from financial restrictions, means that fans like I can choose to attend local, domestic or International matches. But within the local stadium design, not all spectators get to enjoy the most from their favourite sport.

Our choice is wide today: Rugby, League, Football, and some alternatives like NFL/Aussie rules (depending on your regional sports). There is also cricket, polo or literally, any ball sport that has avid interest and participation. The range has increased over the last decade domestically. The positives are obvious–a bigger range of sports and wider choices to be made–however only the stadium design today can limit what sporting options are easily available to ‘all’ fans.

The limitations are often more apportioned to design, and to the ‘invention’ of sports administrators. Often the building is homogenised to include more amenities, make room on the field or around the stadium complex. Access ways have been altered to suit maximizing seating and the ground is adapted to suit the 21st century use [cables and lighting fixtures erected].

That often means a mix of spaces, and sometimes it means limitations on what, how and [most critically] who can use it.

Last Word on Rugby respect the range of options, but contributor Mike Pulman offers a view of minimum requirements to accommodate disabled, and able-bodied fans.

“Accessibility in sports stadiums needs a lot of work in New Zealand, but some of the bigger venues in big cities offer a variety of options for patrons to choose from, that make their experience more accessible”. And for Mike, who requires a mobility wheelchair, fans – either able-bodied or disabled – all want the same access.

They also want the same enjoyment from their stadium/fixtures.

Accessibility and Future-Proofing Sports Stadium Design in the 21st Century

Depending on where you live, the venue type may be a twofold issue: (1) geographic, and (2) a measure of who attends. Some cities have the benefits of a covered and full seated stadium. Others, with less demand and fewer options, some outside the larger centers, hold lesser choices–and opposing that, less focus on stadium design.

The starting point for any conversation, should be at the lower end. The regions and the suburban options, who must accommodate some but not every sport. A lot of these are heritage or existing sites built in the 20th century. They attempt to cover the bases and can be a mixture of standards.

For the majority, it is standing room only. Grass fields, with the sideline roped off for the rectangular/oval field to allow access to the sidelines. Roped off to protect both the field, and (in accordance to modern Health and Safety policy) to protect the attending fans from the action.

Many also have one grandstand. Made of timber or concrete, the options are (for the most part) basic. Steep, terraced seating, single set of steps or, on either end but most do not have mobility access. So for those attending, positioning their chairs on the sideline has an affect of isolating them–even if they can be in groups, or have a shaded area out of the elements. It is also a very finite angle to view a game from; sitting below the players’ shoulder-line.

From the Grassroots, to Larger Stadium Design

While a grassroots stadium design can only be improved to a certain degree, when the environment encompasses any large stadium, both the number of viewers and attendees grows exponentially. From a suburban center, to a metropolitan stadium size, they have more amenities designed with them. Used for a number of different sports, thus the number of facilities has to also change its design, to suit the variety of needs.

And here, need can describe both demand and access. If a suburban center outgrows its ability to showcase any sport, the fixture must too change. From a municipal building, to  larger centers, hopefully one with improved stadium design and [per-say] accessibility.

When LWOR talk about accessibility, this is inclusive of any physical or mental disability. Blind sport fans, who wish to be among the action, to patrons who need an availability of toilets and medical support; this is now a more common norm however. Sites with AED and St Johns emergency services regularly employed during any large 21st century sports fixture (at an additional cost).

These common sporting needs, then represent community needs. Civic structures, paid for by council or government funds, with on-going maintenance and costs. And here, stadium design must reflect the standards of the modern day norm.

To that end, local councils then impose restrictions: Fire Safety standards/maximum numbers and the ability to ‘feed and water’ that number of patrons.

Mike Pulman considers what community needs be considered in stadium design.

“For a stadium to be truly accessible, disabled parking needs to be close to venue and every effort needs to be taken to ensure that disabled patrons are seated in a location that is both a part of the crowd, but also in an area where the action on field is clearly visible.

Access to Stadiums, for the Wider Community.

“Many sports venues still struggle with ensuring that disabled patrons don’t have their view of the field compromised by others, for example people standing up and blocking the view of play.

“But there is one notable exception. Modern stadium design at large venues, like Eden Park, features specific disabled seating areas in three of the four grandstands. Each area is located on the concourse, close to food vendors and bathroom facilities. Being at the top of the grandstand, the seating is slightly higher than other seating, ensuring that disabled patrons are not affected by other patrons standing up in front of them during exciting moments in a game.

“One other benefit in stadium design is that disabled parking is located just across the road from the venue, and is on a closed road also”. So all basic requirements, but also respectful of the needs of the patrons as well as the range of sports offered.

How can Stadium Design improve across the board?

Finance is one aspect. With investment, all major and the most popular venues can all meet the needs of their fans. And if that value is from private investment or via local government, then that is a social responsibility.

If the designers can then include the wants of all parties; from sports, which require different sized fields and use the ground differently (like a rock concert or dog show), to then design for the logistics and equipment needs of the variety of organizers.

This range of needs can be from officials, players and staff, in anti-areas for warm-ups and storage of gear. Through to the production/broadcaster needs – if the sport is going to be broadcast. Today, more wireless capability can remove the impediment of cables or structures that limit viewing [or take up mobility access areas]. All needs that can impede and limit much space and access ways.

In the 21st century, connectability is also a demand. 4G availablility, WiFi ‘hotspots’ and features like the All Blacks app; with its Stadium Live features, all add to the patrons enjoyment levels, of a modern society.

To incorporate all of the demand, by innovative design or through experience, stadium design can then realize ‘who’ watches the sport. And that is everyone. Not just women, men, children or even on-site; streaming live and online. The variety of options now has a minimum standard. For patrons like Mike Pulman it is respectful to be aware that parking, amenities and view is critical to their needs.

So for the general public; aside from the corporate or platinum class, the experience has to be one that invites them back. One that we all have a good time at–bar the match outcome that is. Even stadium design cannot solve that age-old issue.

“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images

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