For fans of a particular team or band, or for parents watching their child receive a diploma, an arena needn't be any more complicated than seats ringing a court or stage. Facility owners know better. To maximize use-and revenue-an arena has to break out of the uniform-seating mold and incorporate configurations that can accommodate a wide range of user groups and activities.
Whether by varying the arena's footprint, making alterations to the seating bowl, or rethinking spaces such as luxury suites, interesting nontraditional spaces can be created that can be utilized even when the arena itself is not in use, or leased by the building owner to various campus, alumni, community and corporate groups. In many recent projects, we've found opportunities to design spaces in a way that offers building owners maximum flexibility-for example, by making suites combinable-and in some cases, we've been able to blur the distinction between physically separate premium and general admission spaces by aesthetically integrating them. These and other similar tactics are highly beneficial to venue operators looking to get more out of their facilities.
When luxury suites and VIP rooms began appearing in professional and large-college arenas-and later, when they began trickling down to midsize and small-college arenas- the emphasis could be summed up as "more and better." In the belief that there was a nearly unlimited appetite for a higher-end space-corporate high-rollers or, at the college level, high-powered donors-suites proliferated to the point where fifty or more suites on multiple levels weren't all that unusual. At the same time, there seemed to be a race among spectator-venue owners and architects to specify and design the swankiest, most sumptuous luxury suites possible. (Famously, the first suite unveiled in the new 1.1g billion Cowboys Stadium had a bar wrapped in crocodile leather).
But it turned out that in many locales there were fewer high-rollers and donors than expected who could be banked on, year after year, to rent these opulent spaces-the worldwide recession helped-and the spaces themselves could accommodate only very limited uses. The number of suites specified in most arenas is thus in decline, and in certain cases they're being designed to serve more than one master.
The new 5,200-seat SECU Arena at Towson University in Maryland has just four suites, something that would have been unheard of even five years ago. The two largest, the President's Suite and naming-rights-holder's suite, sit side by side above center court, flanked by two suites that are each about half the size. The larger suites are separated by a movable wall, so that the two suites can be configured as one very large room, if needed. Both suites, in spite of the exclusive-sounding names, are already being used by other groups, according to Jim McTygue, Towson's Director of Event & Conference Services. Also on the suite level is a 1,400-square-foot hospitality room that full dues-paying members of the Tiger Club can enjoy before, during and after athletics events. High-top tables that are typically set up during games can be folded up and replaced with banquet rounds for sit-down meals or business roundtables.
While any space could conceivably be the site of a buffet lunch or business roundtable, Towson's suite level has been designed to be a magnet for these types of social gatherings. Most important is the north-facing glass that floods the hospitality room with natural light, as well as an east-facing portal that breaks through the building envelope and offers a view along a 300-foot outdoor promenade by which the majority of spectators approach the arena's main entry. The see-and-be-seen, nearly 360-degree views of the arena and campus make this room in particular a sought-after destination spot.
Spreading the Wealth
Arena bowls can be configured in numerous ways. Bowls built completely below grade are entered from the top, while arenas built from the ground up require spectators to climb stairs or external ramps to get to their seats. A third configuration, a partially sunken bowl, has most spectators entering at the midpoint of the bowl, with some walking down and some walking up to their seats. Concourses serving the middle or upper sections of a bowl can be hidden behind the arena structure or designed open to the bowl.
Considering only the seating bowl itself, an open concourse in a split bowl carries one huge advantage and one minor disadvantage. On the plus side, the arena operator can more easily close the upper half of the bowl, boosting intimacy while accommodating smaller events. On the minus side, some people say the open concourse distracts from the focus on the court (or stage) below. Mitigating this distraction is that the activity on the concourse is attractive in the best sense of the word-it brings people to the concessions stands, and it facilitates social interactivity. From the perspective of the people on the concourse, it allows spectators who are hungry or thirsty-or, let's face it, restless-to not miss any of the action.
At Towson, there was another objective: making yet another destination spot available for campus use or lease. This goal was achieved by widening the north concourse below the suite level to a full 32 feet. The same clerestories that bring natural light into the hospitality room help light the concourse level, as do storefront windows along the north wall of the arena. The suites, which hang from the upper-level arena structure, are clad in a wood-veneered phenolic panel system that continues beneath the suites, creating a warm, wood-toned ceiling in the ample open concourse space below.
This extension of luxury into the open concourse brings some of the special quality of the suite level to the rest of the arena, including the club seats, which are the top two rows of the lower bowl, next to the concourse. Its high level of finish, when compared to typical arena interiors, has led the university to view the open concourse as an inviting place to hold special functions and hospitalities during the roughly 310 days a year when no sporting events are scheduled. The concourse was a magnet for social gathering before and after the building's first events prior to its official Sept. 4 ribbon-cutting, including six Towson University commencements, 15 high school graduations, a Homecoming concert and a Special Olympics event. Subsequent events taking place on the concourse have included a donors' reception, a meeting of the Greater Towson Committee (a business organization) and Towson's Student Involvement Fair. For these and other events throughout the year, the building can boast what amounts to two hospitality rooms, one above and one below.
Open for Business
One of the primary challenges in the design of SECU Arena-the tight, sloping site- resulted in an arena plan that consists of two offset boxes, a smaller building volume that is skewed from the larger arena bowl. This gave the design team further opportunities to create multipurpose spaces, including a double-height galleria on the west side of the concourse level (within which sits a university store and a coat check room), a VIP-level multipurpose room offering views down to the main arena entry and out to the varsity soccer field and football stadium, and open spaces at the arena's corners that can also be rented or used for private functions.
Such spaces are vital to the success of arenas, particularly midsize arenas and those on college campuses. (Towson's arena is in both categories.) Flexible space that can be used for meetings, banquets and special events offers institutions a lot more for their money, and can aid in recruiting, help woo donors and boost revenue. Through a simple combination of openness, transparency and selection and extension of finishes, SECU Arena is more than just an arena.
Photography provided by Sasaki Associates
(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a principal with Massachusetts-based Sasaki Associates and leader of its Sports Design Group.