State of Play: Groundbreaking New Urban Stadiums and Arenas

When the 2020 NFL season kicked off in mid-September under strict COVID-19 protocols, two spectacular new stadiums built in cities known for glitz and glamour launched in unprecedentedly soft fashion.

“Eerie,” offered Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay when asked what it felt like to play a game before 70,000 empty seats in SoFi Stadium, a $5-billion sports and entertainment palace located on 300 redeveloped acres in Inglewood six miles east of the Pacific.

Eight evenings later, the Las Vegas Raiders took on the New Orleans Saints in another vacant, magnificent venue, Allegiant Stadium, a half mile from the Vegas Strip.

“No in-person attendance,” noted box scores for both nationally televised games.

Not unlike the way some couples eloped this summer while planning big, blow-out wedding celebrations in a future without facemasks, it’s a good bet SoFi and Allegiant will relaunch with hoopla and raucous fans on some later, post-pandemic date.

But with the venues themselves completed, we can go ahead and take the measure of these colossi against current trends in urban stadium and arena design and development.

And filling out our four-venue bracket of groundbreakers are two more glittering structures, Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, unveiled in 2017, the world’s greenest large-scale sports facility, and two-year-old Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, a $500-million multi-use arena and innovative anchor for a 30-acre downtown district with a neighborhood theme.

1. Allegiant Stadium: The Technology Trailblazer

The "Death Star," Allegiant Stadium.
The “Death Star,” Allegiant Stadium. | Photographer: Jason O’Rear | Courtesy of MANICA

Only at the level of basic stadium concept—a standalone bowl ringed by parking lots—does Allegiant register as something we’ve encountered before. And even within that concept, architect David Manica and his Kansas City-based firm MANICA worked variations and added design elements that make this nearly $2-billion Raiders home a globally distinctive sports venue.

Nicknamed the “Death Star” for reminding observers of the Star Wars space station, Allegiant rises black and silver from its valley setting, a huge circular shell wrapped in a skin of dark glass. Eighty-foot-tall lanai doors open to a view of the Strip, while translucent roof panels admit natural light during day games. Along with being visually stunning, the stadium is a technological trailblazer, with a strong claim to being the most connected venue in the NFL.

Allegiant Stadium sits across from the Las Vegas Strip.
Allegiant Stadium offers fans a spectacular view of the Strip. | Photographer: Jason O’Rear | Courtesy of MANICA

Now the Raiders’ VP of technology, Matthew Pasco spent four years researching ways to equip the team’s next stadium with the latest in wireless, cellular, and display technology, and Allegiant features gear released just last year supporting the new Wi-Fi 6 standard. 1,700 Wi-Fi access points eliminate wonky spots in the bowl, and cellular 5G gets innovative support. The technologically advanced environment includes 2,200 TV screens and videoboards, and it’s prepared to handle augmented reality glasses and virtual reality helmets.

When it comes time for fans to visit Allegiant, they’ll be able to use a Raiders app to guide them to a parking space, check concession wait-times, order food from their seat, and upgrade their seat. The stadium has also stepped into the future on the payment front. At season’s start, Allegiant was America’s first totally cashless pro sports venue.

Back in 2016, as the stadium’s controversial funding deal came together (the city and state signed off on a subsidy of $750 million, bonded out over 30 years, to be paid for by a hotel room tax of just under one percent—the biggest-ever public investment in a U.S. sports stadium), funding advocates projected 20,000-plus tourists crowding into Allegiant every game, drawn by a chance to visit Sin City and to enjoy NFL football in a dazzling, futuristic showcase.

Is this in the cards? We should know better in 2021.

2. SoFi Stadium: The Landscape Artist

SoFi Stadium
SoFi Stadium | Courtesy of HKS

Bankrolled by Rams owner Stan Kroenke, cofounder of Home Depot, dreamy SoFi Stadium features its own artfully transformed terrain, with part of that land inside the low-slung structure, roofed by a translucent canopy. Its proximity to Los Angeles International Airport helped dictate a distinctive feature—its football field sits a hundred feet below ground.

SoFi Stadium's canyon stairs.
SoFi Stadium’s innovative canyon stairs. | Photographer: Kush Parekh | Courtesy of Studio-MLA
SoFi Stadium's below-ground field.
SoFi Stadium’s unique below-ground field. | Courtesy of HKS

Fans will descend into the bowl via meandering terraced trails planted with canyon-evoking trees and plants. SoFi pioneered the country’s first indoor-outdoor stadium design, and shines forth from an urban planning perspective by committing a portion of its sprawling site to a 25-acre public park, a 5.5-acre lake, and a 2.5-acre public plaza.

Aloe plants? A Mediterranean biome? An arroyo? Never has a sports stadium so availed itself of a landscape architect’s vision (Mia Lehrer of Studio-MLA). The Inglewood tract, when fully developed, will also feature retail, office space, residential units, and a hotel.

3. Mercedes-Benz Stadium: The Sustainability Leader

Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Mercedes-Benz Stadium | Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Home of the Atlanta Falcons, Mercedes-Benz Stadium—built at a cost of $1.6 billion, with a public subsidy of roughly $600 million—is North America’s first LEED platinum-certified pro sports coliseum. Though not the NFL’s eco-pioneer (that honor belongs to Philadelphia’s LEED gold-rated Lincoln Financial Field, with its solar panels, on-site biodigesters, composting and recycling emphasis, and more), Atlanta’s architectural marvel, complete with an eight-petal retractable roof, scored a higher LEED rating than any sports venue on the planet.

Mercedes-Benz's Stadium retractable petal roof.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s retractable petal roof. | Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Sustainable elements include stormwater capture and reuse, enough solar energy to power ten Falcons games, access to public transportation, electric-car charging stations, and a bike valet program. A 13-acre greenspace with an urban garden is also in the works.

4. Fiserv Forum: The Neighborhood Anchor

Fiserv Forum is situated in the heart of Milwaukee.
Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum | Photographer: Phil Hanrahan

If the pandemic hadn’t hit, Fiserv Forum would have hosted the Democratic National Convention this past July. Aided by a controversial quarter billion in public funding, the arena created a 30-acre downtown neighborhood, dubbed the Deer District (Fiserv is home to the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team) on underutilized land once occupied by a freeway spur.

A public plaza, pedestrian avenues, a brewery, places to eat and drink, a sports science center, residential and professional buildings, shops, and more distinguish this new city hub.

The future belongs to such projects—stadiums and arenas that emphasize urban connectivity, walkability, public space, community integration, and year-round use.

At least that’s the view of Dan Meis and some other top sports-facility architects. Meis foresees structures that are transformable (he designed a Tokyo venue that converts from a 20,000-seat arena to a 35,000-seat stadium, and for a decade housed a John Lennon museum), smaller, and perhaps even temporary or pop-up, rather than fixed, expensive, limited-use venues.

As for Fiserv Forum, it may yet be the center of the American political universe one day. Some Democratic Party leaders have said they’d like to see Milwaukee get the 2024 convention.

Phil Hanrahan

Author of the book Life After Favre, Phil Hanrahan is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor working on a book sharing the story of a pioneering art college in rural Ireland.


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