Located in Gainesville, where the average high temperature ranges between 82 and 92 degrees seven months out of the year, the University of Florida understands the need for shade, both to shield spectators from the sun's harmful rays and to entice those spectators to continue spending their afternoons at the ballpark. As sports teams learn to harness the power of smartphone apps and social media to promote their brand and increase fan engagement, an unanticipated side effect is that being outside — and in the direct light of the sun — is an impediment to screen usage. That's where shade structures come in.
The University of Florida recently released renderings for a 5,000-seat ballpark expected to break ground this summer and be completed in 2019. The designs — by Populous in conjunction with Walker Architects — show significant forethought in the vein of providing shade for future patrons, with the entire park turned toward the northeast to position the sun behind the park's permanent structures. A covered concourse envelops the majority of the field, where fans will be able to flow in and out of team stores, browse and buy concessions, and mingle with food and drinks. There are also shade sails positioned over the grandstands to create a comfortable indoor-outdoor hybrid environment where fans can enjoy both live-action play and the full use of team apps and camera phones.
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According to UF executive associate athletic director Laird Veatch, shaded spaces have been a primary consideration throughout the design process for the $50 million project. "Creating shade is a priority in the new ballpark to enhance our fan experience," Veatch says. "In fact, managing the Florida sunshine was a factor in our decision to build a new stadium, and doing so has also allowed us to reposition the direction of the stadium to maximize shade during game times. Constructing a new venue will allow us the opportunity to include shade solutions in the design of the stadium structure."
The university has not yet committed to a manufacturer and is still in the process of what Veatch calls the discovery phase. "Our architect and design team have brought a number of shade options to the table for us to consider and are making recommendations on best options from a cost, efficiency and longevity of products standpoint," he says. To be fair, there is much to discover. Shade structure manufacturing has progressed in leaps and bounds over the past few decades, with major developments in everything from ultra-violet-blocking fabrics to the strength, endurance and ease of use of semi-permanent support structures.
A shade sail may seem like an effortless solution, and it can be — for the user. But manufacturers have spent years and millions of dollars developing that ease of use. Sails are an extremely versatile option to cover uniquely shaped concourses and seating areas, which have only become more opulent as stadium design becomes an extension of a team's brand and marketing strategy. Much has gone into the development of fabrics that are protected against ultraviolet light — at an efficacy of between 96 and 99 percent — both for the protection of those seeking refuge in their shade, and to prevent the fading of branded facility colors and the degradation of the fabrics themselves. These simple fabric shades have been painstakingly engineered to cool the air underneath by up to 20 degrees, prevent surfaces from becoming hot to the touch and eliminate glare — all while adding to the facility's aesthetic. Specially treated fabrics can also be waterproof, fire retardant and resistant to mildew and sagging, while holding a vibrant color for up to 15 years.
One of the major benefits of building systems and shade structures compared to a permanent, specialized facility is mobility, which not only allows for versatility in usage, but safe storage during off-seasons and harsh weather. To that end, many manufacturers of shade systems have developed their own signature methods of connecting and securing the sails to the support structure, with creative options available for quickly changing the position of the sails, sometimes with the push of a button. The ability to detach a shade quickly and move it is not just a convenience for facility managers who feel the need to rearrange. It is also a safety feature, as quick action could prevent severe weather from damaging the fabric and supports — even though many of these structures are capable of withstanding winds in excess of 100 miles per hour with the sails attached.
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While many may think of shade systems as having a daylight-only application, the structures can often be fitted with electrical capabilities to enable a lighted, open-air nighttime environment that's ideal for creating pedestrian-friendly walkways and secure entrances. In fact, with lighting fixtures designed to fit directly into the shade structure's support columns, the combination of custom sails and custom-designed lighting can be an integral part of building the desired event atmosphere. Venue operators can manipulate the patron's field of vision to illuminate key features and make the venue itself more adaptable for other hosted events, such as taking a stadium easily from daytime games to nighttime concerts with synchronized lights that carry the performance into the very walls of the venue.
Providing shaded areas — like so many other services that anticipate patrons' comfort needs — may be something that is never overtly noticed. Since people are more likely to take notice of a negative experience than a mildly pleasant one, shade structures may not be the most publicly lauded element of your patron experience. However, an appreciation of the mildly pleasant can manifest itself in a number of beneficial ways, from happier fans to increased revenue. Providing comfortable shaded space — or a safe place to walk at night — means people are more likely to spend time and money at your venue.
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Athletic Business with the title "How shade structures enhance the fan experience." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.