AFL Architects | Interview with John Roberts - Pitchside Monitor
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Interview with John Roberts - Pitchside Monitor

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AFL's John Roberts recently spoke with LTT Sports as part of their Pitchside Monitor series about inner-city venues, accessibility and the future of stadiums.

"Considering the falling percentage of matchday revenue for clubs, does the current model template for stadiums still have a future?"

The future of stadium models increasingly depends on the specific club and their particular situation. Some clubs are successfully generating off-field income through sponsorship and other activities. For instance, a lower league club recently increased its turnover from lower single digit to double digit figures, primarily through off-field income. However, there are clubs still heavily reliant on matchday income. The situation varies across different leagues and countries, making it more challenging to generalise about this than 30 years ago.

In any case, what is clear is that designing stadiums by maximising capacity via a minimal footprint approach is becoming a thing of the past, and clubs that have venues built on that principle are suffering the consequences as people of all walks of life expect and demand more creature comforts. Another trend is that clubs which redevelop their stadiums at the moment, certainly in England, are doing it on the basis of allocating on average 10-14% to premium seating and hospitality, whereas those with older grounds will have around 5%, which has been the industry standard previously. And even if this change already seems very significant, the industry is still evolving on the matter as one of the things that people were wary about was that giving too much space to premium offerings could create gentrification and the crowds would find that off-putting and stop coming, but it has not turned out like that.

These days clubs are more careful in their assessment of what they need as a capacity for their stadium, more willing to listen to professional advice – before it was just about what their rivals down the road have. And we ended up with a lot of stadiums in England with a ~30k capacity, without a real understanding of the actual demand.

"How does architecture and urbanism address the challenge of large-scale disruption on match days in large inner-city venues?"

The trend seems to be shifting back towards inner-city stadiums, for a number of reasons. Firstly, redeveloping existing stadiums allows a phased approach to the development and therefore funding, making it potentially more viable than new build projects where you need to find a very significant chunk of financing from the beginning. You are also not jumping straight to a, say, 50 thousand-seat stadium from a 25-thousand one, the increase can be more gradual and adaptive to the real needs of the clubs.

There is also the obvious challenge with out-of-town stadiums, which is the relative difficulty for fans to travel to them, even if new infrastructure is created for this purpose. Most city councils now encourage us, stadium designers, to look at adapting and expanding existing stadiums due to the observable positive economic impact on local businesses and the negative impact in case a stadium is moved away from that community. Residents might prefer a large stadium to go somewhere else than their doorstep, of course, unless they are a fan of the club, but despite the occasional disruptions, the presence of a stadium in the city centre, where transport infrastructure is concentrated, actually seems more beneficial.

"Are current measures for improving disabled accessibility in stadiums sufficient, or is a cultural change still required?"

Improving disabled accessibility in traditional stadiums is challenging. It often feels more like a superficial fix rather than a comprehensive solution. Each club has taken different approaches to spectator comfort and accessibility and whilst there is an increasing awareness and effort towards creating a more inclusive environment, it's still an ongoing process that requires both infrastructural changes and a shift in mindset. Stadium design must evolve to truly cater to diverse needs, offering a more inclusive environment. This involves not just meeting numerical targets but also understanding the practical usage of facilities by people with disabilities. The culture around accessibility needs to shift from a box-ticking exercise to a more empathetic and practical approach, ensuring integration and comfort for all fans.

I was just recently analysing the changes in accessibility requirements between world cups last year and for 2034, and it seems that there is a clear development going on there from the likes of FIFA, who are obviously taking on board the lessons learned on the ground. One thing I have always thought against was about having all the extra wide seats in one place, and I thought it was like building the “disabled corner”. I don’t think it is a very inclusive approach. Maybe I need an extra wide seat but I want to be with my friends – I just want to watch the game with them. This is the difference between diversity, or just having some adapted facilities in the first place, and inclusion, where everyone, no matter their level of disability, can take part in the shared experience in their desired space.

So, addressing accessibility specifically, especially at the European level, there's a need to generate more detailed guidelines that focus on the practical aspects of stadium use, including diverse seating options and their locations within the arena. This includes providing flexible seating arrangements for groups of friends, including those with disabilities. The goal is to integrate accessibility seamlessly into the stadium experience, reflecting the diverse nature of society itself. With their experience and practical knowledge of the intricacies of stadium use by disabled fans, AccessibAll (formerly CAFE) can provide an excellent support on a governance, regulatory and also in-venue implementation level.

"Gazing a bit into the future, will football stadiums in 20 years transform into multifunctional hubs not necessarily built around a pitch?"

Funny you say that: in one of the briefs for a new stadium that we worked on, the club actually said to us that we should think of the ground as the backdrop to the TV production of the match, so it might be closer than you imagine!

On a serious note, though, even though the pandemic showed that it is possible to play football without spectators, it also demonstrated that having no atmosphere is not great. Of course, these things can be mitigated through in-stadium sound management and AI, but it’s not the real thing.

The danger here is divorcing the fans from live action, so the future of football stadiums might evolve into more versatile, multi-purpose venues with a hybrid model, where they serve as both a live-action venue and a broadcast hub. While I understand the trend towards maximizing TV revenue, there's still a strong desire for live events. Live action fuels fan support and tribalism, which is crucial for maintaining a connection with the team.

The football match does not lend itself easily to an “intimate”-style event, it requires numbers – being one of a few hundreds or even thousands will not provide the same awe-inspiring impression that the impact of a full stadium with several tens of thousands of people and a healthy away support generates. So, the current trend is to combine this experiential aspect with access to different levels of individual comfort within the stand, which also means creating a truly inclusive setting for able-bodied and disabled people across all social strata who are present inside the ground.