With so many variables in play, it's no wonder that coming up with a championship-caliber seating configuration is so difficult.
- by Don Dethlefs
- September 2007
More than one arena spectator over the years has craned to see the action on the floor from around a steel post or over the heads of other patrons, all the while wishing that the designer could be fed to the lions. Such a fate, while not necessarily deserved, would at least be applicable to the building type, for the basic criteria for arenas have been the same since the days of the Roman Colosseum. Certainly, arena design has come a long way in terms of the overall experience and comfort of patrons. In Roman times, the arena was merely a place designed for the assembly of masses of people wishing to be entertained by an event or sport (some more morbid than others). Though the Colosseum was well organized, its evenly spaced rows of backless benches were constructed out of beautiful but less-than-comfortable marble. Spectators' desire for comfort - and, especially, owners' desire for revenue - have changed the way architects organize and execute the design of arena bowls. The structural alterations have, in turn, changed the way that patrons utilize modern arenas. Sightlines are arguably the most influential factors in determining an arena's bowl configuration. They have a direct effect on myriad bowl design components, ranging from the structural system to the rake (or angle) of the upper bowl. Sightline issues are so important that they can make or break a fan's experience. When sightlines are good they usually go unnoticed, but when they are bad they become the most apparent variable in the viewing of an event. It is now the expectation that every seat, regardless of location or price point, has a clear, unobstructed view of every event. This can be a challenge when a venue is expected to host stage concerts, where the action is at one end of the bowl and elevated several feet above the arena floor, as well as a sporting event such as a hockey game, where spectators are focused on a small, fast-moving object that is essentially at floor level. The necessity of accommodating various events dictates a bowl rake that rises not at a fixed angle but rather in a logarithmic fashion (meaning the bowl gets steeper the farther removed it is from the playing surface). Larger venues most often feature an upper seating bowl or balcony in addition to the lower bowl. Traditionally, the goal when designing arenas with multiple seating decks is to locate the majority of the seats in the lower level. This is significant, because in order to maintain optimal views, the rake of the upper bowl must be steeper than that in the lower. Since all patrons desire to be close to the action, the fewer the number of seats in the steeper upper deck, the better. In the past two decades, changes in requirements for accommodating persons with disabilities have dictated significant changes to arena bowl configurations. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act states that 1 percent of all bowl seating has to be designed to accommodate persons in wheelchairs, and an additional 1 percent of bowl seating has to accommodate companions of wheelchair users. Another 1 percent of all seating adjacent to an aisle must have liftable arms. There have been suggestions that these percentages may be reduced in the future based on lack of usage in existing facilities, but currently these standards must be met in any new arena design. [See "This Old 'Big House,' " April, p. 107.] It is the ADA regulations relating to quality, not quantity, that have dictated the most significant adjustments to bowl configurations. For example, disabled seating areas must not be grouped all in one section or level of the arena, but distributed horizontally and vertically throughout an arena bowl. In addition, people in wheelchairs must be able to see above the shoulders of individuals standing one row in front of them. The latter regulation also states that they must be able to see above the heads of individuals standing two rows in front of them. People seated behind wheelchair users must be provided with good sightlines, as well. This requires that there be a substantial single rise that creates a platform for wheelchair patrons and then an additional rise behind the wheelchair seating. The traditional seating behind the wheelchair seating also requires a steeper rake in order to maintain the accepted sightline standard for modern-day arenas. The final result is an increase in the overall bowl height of more than 5 feet - which, while it may not seem like much, nevertheless corresponds to several hundred thousand dollars in additional construction costs.
ADA requirements, such as a platform for maintaining acceptable sightlines, have increased the overall seating bowl height, adding to construction costs.
Spectator comfort, a key element in what's often called "the spectator experience," has also had a profound effect on modern arena design. The spectator experience is influenced by a host of variables ranging from the location of rest rooms to the depth of each seating tread. The role of the arena, in fact, has changed from simply a place to see an event to a carefully planned series of dedicated spaces that lead people through the experience. One of the first modifications to the traditional single-concourse, multi-vomitory building was the removal of cross-aisle circulation from within the bowl to an outside, out-of-sight location. Back-loading the bowl by putting circulation into the concourse allowed designers to address the goal of getting patrons out of circulation areas and into the bowl more quickly. Adding concourses has made arenas even more user-friendly. In addition to improving circulation, multiple concourses guide people through portals on many levels, helping to distribute the crowd and avoid bottleneck situations. With each concourse serving fewer seats, the distance that spectators must travel to and from their seats (and significantly, to and from concessions stands and other revenue-generating spaces) is dramatically shortened. The number and distribution of rest rooms also has added to fan comfort and convenience. From a design standpoint, multiple concourses make it much easier to accomplish ADA-required vertical distribution of wheelchair seating. At the same time, increasing amenities such as sports bars, concessions areas and rest rooms does have a profound impact on the cost and overall square footage of a venue. One of the major goals in the design of arenas and event centers is flexibility. The ability to transform from a professional arena to an intimate concert setting to a trade show floor is often the difference between solvency and bankruptcy. This is where the use of telescopic seating, divider curtains, movable chairs and platforms help define modern arena bowl detailing. Other spectator amenities, meanwhile, such as wider seats or deeper tread depths, can adversely impact the bowl. For example, an arena bowl designed with treads 3 inches deeper than the standard 33 inches might seem like an excellent method to enhance the spectator experience. But consideration must be given to the fact that in a lower bowl of 25 rows, adding 3 inches to each tread puts patrons in the last row more than 6 feet farther from the event floor. This additional distance must be accounted for when considering sightlines. In addition, deepening the seating treads expands the building footprint and adds to the cost of construction, something that an owner must weigh against patrons' improved comfort. A similar effect can be seen with seating width. An extra 2 inches of chair width per seat will make a significant impact on a seating bowl. When seat widths are increased, each individual row within an arena can accommodate fewer seats. To maintain the same number of seats, the entire arena bowl must increase in size, which in turn adds to the cost. The alternative is to remove a corresponding number of seats to accommodate the increased width. This solution also has a cost impact. The increased popularity of the greatest arena revenue enhancers - specialty seating and specialty seating areas - has had the largest design influence over the past 50 years. Original luxury suite concepts were not elaborate, often merely consisting of private rooms tucked under the balcony overhang. The concept has evolved significantly since those humble beginnings to the point where larger buildings (15,000 to 18,000 seats) necessitate suites in the middle of the lower deck in order to sell premium seating closer to the action. Now a large arena will accommodate 45 to 55 suites around the bowl perimeter, and often two levels of suites are incorporated, meaning that a single arena may have more than 90 suites. When there are two levels of suites, usually at least one is accessed by a private concourse. This shifts the balcony's upper seating up and farther away from the arena floor, an unfortunate by-product for fans in the lower-priced seating areas. In smaller arenas (5,000 to 7,000 seats), the suites and their private concourse can be located at the top of the seating bowl. At this size and in this configuration, the suites are close enough to the action to still be considered premium locations, while not adversely affecting sightlines within the main seating bowl or the proximity of standard seats to the event floor. The other major spectator amenity that has an impact on the bowl configuration is club seating. Found in many different locations and configurations within an arena, club seats are significant revenue generators. They are usually serviced through a private concourse that provides specialty amenities. In some cases, a suite and club level will share a concourse, with the club seating located just below the suites. Club seats often have larger, more luxurious seats, which means that this seating section must break the seating pattern of the bowl below. Finessing all of the factors that determine the ultimate design of a seating bowl is as much art as it is science. The ultimate goal is to provide patrons with an outstanding experience, one they have come to expect. This includes ease of access, abundant amenities and an outstanding view of the action.
When there are two levels of suites, the balcony's upper seating is shifted up and farther from the arena floor (above); multiple perches for television cameras (left) add yet another dimension to the seating-bowl puzzle.
The feasibility of renovating an existing arena to provide more amenities or a better spectator experience largely depends on the design of the original facility and the degree of improvement an owner desires. It is usually difficult to add seats or increase the size of the bowl, since the typical arena roof is supported by columns located at the back of the seating bowl. It is not uncommon, however, for an owner of a facility with bleacher seating to add seats with backs, a standard in all new arenas. This seems like a simple enough prospect, but a number of challenges must be overcome to make the endeavor a success. To begin with, seating treads in traditional bleacher seating are too narrow to accommodate seats with backs while also meeting current building codes. Generally, that means each tread depth must be increased, requiring the modification or removal of existing seating treads. The complete removal of seating treads may not be possible, depending on the original design and structural system. Items for investigation include whether the arena slab is on grade and what arena elements are located beneath the seating rake. The modifications can also prove challenging in that the angle of the original treads and the angle of the new treads will be significantly different, requiring structure to be added in some areas and removed in others. Also, all renovations must meet current ADA requirements. Some original designs make it almost impossible to alter the seating and meet all current codes. If it is possible to convert a facility to seats with backs, the next factor to consider is that each individual seat will take up significantly more space than a bleacher seat. Ultimately, the arena will accommodate fewer people. A general rule of thumb is that in a venue conversion from bleacher to backed seating, the end result is two-thirds of the original capacity. There is a cost associated with each of these factors that must be weighed against additional revenue to be gained by improving patrons' comfort. The degree of difficulty in adding specialty seating to an existing venue also depends to a large extent on the original design. Conventional thinking in early arena design found amenities such as concessions stands and rest rooms backed up to the arena bowl. To add suites, many designers relocate these amenities to the outside wall of the concourse, thus opening up the wall that divides these functions from the seating bowl. The tradeoff is that concourses get narrower as amenities are added. Expansion of the concourse outside of the original venue footprint is necessary in such cases, which obviously adds significant cost to the project. In this scenario, the resulting suites do provide some level of specialty seating. However, the added suites have their shortcomings compared to those in modern arenas. There is generally not enough space, and it is cost prohibitive besides, to add rest rooms to each suite. The suite holders must therefore enter the public concourse to use those facilities. Secondly, because they were not in the original design, suite additions usually do not have outstanding sightlines. In smaller buildings designed with a single upper concourse, or larger venues with an overhanging balcony, the suites can be located in the bowl, removing the last several rows of existing seating. This greatly improves the sightline conditions, but eliminates hundreds of standard seats to make way for the more expensive options. Another design option is to add suites at the top of the venue, behind the upper rows, or remove a few of the last rows in the upper balcony. In this configuration, the overall footprint of the venue must be expanded in order to add an upper-level concourse to serve the new suites. The advantage is that suite holders can then access a private concourse and the corresponding amenities. In addition, the increased space in the lower level necessitated by the addition allows rest room and concessions amenities that typically were minimally designed in early buildings to be expanded. The problem with adding suites to the top of the arena is twofold: The addition is expensive due to the necessity of expanding the building footprint, and the most expensive seats in the house are located farthest from the action. In renovating arena and event centers, it is vital that owners and designers make educated and calculated decisions. Less expensive options may provide some level of specialty seating but not the premium experience of a new arena. Conversely, a gold-standard experience can be created, but often at such a cost that revenue recovery is difficult.
The renovation of Charles Koch Arena at Wichita State University updated the seating bowl but kept the arena's roundhouse shape intact.