Designing a winning sports venue

Sports and entertainment arenas are more than just seats and a playing field; they are highly complex structures bringing in thousands of fans—and millions of dollars—every year. Engineers with experience in the field share advice on putting together a strong game plan and ending up a champion.


Jerry Atienza, EIT Douglas H. Evans, PE, FSFPETodd Mack, PEJeff Sawarynski, PE, LEED AP

  • Jerry Atienza, EIT, Senior plumbing designer, Interface Engineering, Portland, Ore.
  • Douglas H. Evans, PE, FSFPE, Fire protection engineer, Clark County Dept. of, Development Services, Building Division, Las Vegas
  • Todd Mack, PE, Principal, DLR Group, Omaha, Neb.
  • Jeff Sawarynski, PE, LEED AP, Principal, M-E Engineers Inc., Denver, Colo.

The 37,000-seat Marlins Park (home to Miami’s major league baseball team) features both a retractable roof and energy-efficient design. The M-E Engineers project achieved LEED Gold certification. Courtesy: M-E Engineers, Christy Radecic photographerCSE: Please describe a recent sports/entertainment venue project you’ve worked on—share details about the project, including building location, size, etc.

Jerry Atienza: The West End Zone expansion at Clemson Memorial Stadium includes four primary components. The first is a 107,000-sq-ft football team facility on the two lowest levels with home and visiting locker rooms, rehab/training areas, equipment rooms, 15,000 sq ft of strength and conditioning spaces, a recruiting lounge, team lounge, coaches offices, team/squad meeting rooms, and services functions. The second component is the third-level concourse connecting the sideline grandstand concourses to allow circulation around the entire stadium. It will provide new toilets, concessions, kids’ fun zone, and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant seating. The third component is 2,400 covered club seats in two levels above the concourse. This will include indoor lounges with seating areas, buffets, upscale concessions, toilets, escalator and elevator access, and views to the field and Lake Hartwell. The fourth component is an all-university museum and a 120-ft-high precast Oculus entrance centered on the west elevation. This 15,000-sq-ft facility will house the history of Clemson and athletic memorabilia. Construction of Phase I of the west end zone was completed in 2007. The work included new home team and visitors’ locker rooms, ticket booths, kitchen facilities, and a new team gallery for display of team and player awards. Level 2 provided a new team lounge and space for team meals served from the new kitchen. Entrance plazas were provided for a new concourse level with concession and toilet facilities and continuous concourse access to the existing north and south grandstands. Above this level was the new club level with covered outdoor chair seating and private concession, lounge, and toilet facilities. The second component is a 60,000-sq-ft expansion of team facilities and additional coaching staff and team spaces. The project includes a new 13,000-sq-ft strength training facility for the Clemson football team; expansion of the team equipment and training facilities with a new hydrotherapy room containing therapy and plunge pools; and a 24,000-sq-ft Level 2 expansion for new coach’s offices and team meeting rooms, including a new 150-seat team auditorium. The existing west end zone concourse will be expanded with a new 10,000-sq-ft plaza for additional fan-related activities.

Ranked as one of the top “Up and Coming” colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report and Success Magazine, Kennesaw State University (KSU), located 20 miles north of Atlanta, is the fastest growing school in the University System of Georgia. To accommodate this growth, KSU retained Heery International—the firm I worked with previously—to provide programming, architectural, and interior design for a new 6,000-seat multi-purpose convocation center with a 25,000-sq-ft classroom wing for health, physical education, and sports science instruction, totaling 147,000 sq ft. This flexible, multi-purpose facility provides a maximum 6,000 seats for convocations and concerts. It also accommodates a variety of sports venues including a varsity basketball court with 5,200 seats in the round and portable seating stored on the upper and lower levels; basketball practice with two courts on the lower level and two courts on the upper wings; volleyball competition with one court on each upper wing; and badminton competition with two courts on each upper wing. The facility also includes 12 classroom and laboratory facilities, two large teaching/multi-purpose areas totaling nearly 10,000 sq ft, 43 administrative and support offices, and three conference rooms. After completion, KSU converted several rooms in the convocation center into a new women’s varsity locker room for volleyball. The space includes an entry, locker room, and a toilet/shower area. Heery was also subsequently retained to conduct campus-wide athletic facility master planning for baseball, softball, soccer, football, volleyball, and cheerleading. Facilities included competition and practice areas, team locker rooms and lounge areas, training areas, coaches’ locker rooms, offices, and spectator areas. A separate master planning investigation was also conducted for a 23-acre off-campus site.

Doug Evans: The Las Vegas valley contains a number of sports facilities. All NASCAR fans are aware of the Las Vegas Speedway, which is located within the jurisdictional boundaries of Clark County, Nev. This venue contains more than 140,000 seats. The grandstands, skyboxes, and infield areas all included their own unique fire protection challenges. Several of the resorts also include sporting venues. Boxing and mixed martial arts fans are likely familiar with MGM Grand Gardens, Caesars Palace, and Mandalay Bay Arena. There are several additional sporting complexes that showcase rodeos and other equestrian events, as well as basketball, football, baseball, hockey, and virtually all popular sporting events. These venues can seat upwards of 30,000 patrons. Without exception, resorts in the Las Vegas region include multiple entertainment venues. Some of these venues may be as common as small platforms for a band, comedian, or other entertainers. Some include the multi-use facilities described above. Most of the resorts contain at least one stage with a proscenium (a fire and smoke separation between the stage and the audience). One of the nightclubs that opened within the past year includes performances by Cirque du Soleil. The performance area and ceiling include a substantial percentage of LED display boards to supplement the show. There are other unique performance features that also complicated the fire protection aspects of the venue.

Todd Mack: DLR Group recently completed the design for the University of Nebraska’s Athletic Performance Lab (APL) project. The APL comprises approximately 23,000 sq ft on the second and third floors of the East Memorial Stadium expansion. The Athlete Performance Lab represents a new model in athletics research and sports science, combining athletics, academics, and private sector research in focused collaboration to improve athletic performance. The APL has two primary levels. The Dynamic Level of APL is where the majority of the physical testing of athletes occurs. The Dynamic Level includes the following:

  • 162 x 4-ft turf track
  • 70 x 30 x 11-ft batting cage for baseball, softball, and golf
  • Cardio area
  • Power lifting racks and a retractable throws cage for track and field throwing activities
  • Half-court basketball court for basketball, volleyball, and other hard court activities
  • Various arrays of force plates located within a raised floor system used for athletic testing.
  • The Collaborative Level is located directly above the Dynamic Level. It includes:
  • A lab complete with instrumentation and testing equipment to support urine, blood, and saliva testing
  • Treatment rooms for blood draws and other testing procedures
  • A dedicated room for a bone density scanner
  • Office spaces for researchers
  • Collaboration spaces.

Jeff Sawarynski: We are currently working on the new Las Vegas Arena for MGM and AEG in Las Vegas, Nev. It’s a 20,000-seat venue programmed to NBA and NHL standards, and it has a focus on shows and concerts.

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