Thought Leadership

How Stadium Design Impacts Fan Experience and Athlete Performance

An unexpected gust of wind during a field goal. The glare of the sun in the players’ eyes. Wind-driven rain creating havoc for spectators.

Cities of tomorrow. Thermal comfort for stadium design

Mother Nature doesn't always understand home field advantage. Believe it or not, stadiums can mitigate unwanted weather interference during a game. The design of the stadium is based on an in-depth understanding of how the climate outside, and the microclimate inside, can impact how the game is played as well as the comfort level of fans and players.

Stadium designers can leverage engineering tools to help stadiums not only become iconic landmarks for their cities, but also create a world-class fan experience – especially during events like the FIFA World Cup. 

Understanding the microclimate inside  designing with occupant thermal comfort in mind, is going to make or break the experience of spectators and players.

Fans and spectators in sports stadium

What is Thermal Comfort? 

Thermal comfort assesses a mix of personal and environmental factors that determine an individual’s comfort level, specifically their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the environment they’re in. Engineers study the localized climate to optimize indoor or outdoor spaces for thermal comfort. Thermal comfort is finding a perfect balance when people in outdoor spaces aren’t too cold or too warm, and when it’s not too sunny, too cold, nor too windy for occupants.

Why Should Stadium Designers Consider Thermal Comfort When Designing?  

Thermal comfort can impact the enjoyment of fans and the performance of athletes. A stadium that's too hot or too windy can have a negative effect on players. Wind can impact the direction of a ball or create a tailwind or headwind that either helps or hinders athletes. Likewise, other elements like extreme heat, the glare of the sun, or even snow and rain can create a negative experience for fans. 

Engineers can simulate and test the impacts of several environmental factors and suggest design changes to optimize an outdoor space for thermal comfort.

What are the Thermal Comfort Factors for Stadiums? 

When it comes to spectators and players, here are the key environmental and personal factors every stadium engineer should consider for an optimal sporting experience: 

Thermal comfort considerations for sports stadium design for ideal fan experience and athlete performance

1. Temperature & Humidity 

When considering how a stadium’s internal environment – or the microclimate – will affect the enjoyment of spectators or the performance of athletes, one of the first components to look at is ambient temperature and humidity.  

Understanding how much humidity is present is going to directly impact how much sweat an elite athlete will be able to evaporate to regulate their temperature. Understanding the climatic environment, but also the physical response of humans to that environment, engineers can determine the optimal comfort level to create the ideal experience in sports venues.  

Some stadiums include air conditioning in the design while others can leverage natural ventilation to cool the stadium. Natural ventilation requires an understanding of the climate and weather patterns as well as the wind patterns of the stadium’s location Designers can use this knowledge to build a ventilation system that can leverage the wind to naturally cool fans and athletes. 

SoFi iconic sports stadium design in Los Angeles leverages natural ventilation to create a better fan experience
SoFi © R.REIRING is licensed under CC BY 2.

SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles is a great example of a stadium using natural ventilationSoFi Stadium was designed to leverage a predominant coastal breeze in conjunction with inspired architectural and structural design to create a more sustainable way to promote air movement in a large, partially enclosed venue space.  

2. Heat Stress & Extreme Heat 

In certain cases, the intensity of the heat can have profound consequences on the health and performance of pro athletes. Tennis, for instance, can have extremely long matches, sometimes spanning hours or even days. In 2014, the Australian Open saw some players and fans alike experiencing heat stroke symptoms from the extreme heat during the event.  

Many sports organizations have heat criteria guidelines to protect players. The Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) is an indicator of heat-related stress on the human body at work (or play) in direct sunlight. It considers factors like temperature, humidity, and wind speed, as well as the intensity of the sun and cloud cover. Most guidelines stipulate the WBGT temperature at which a game or event should stop, and others recommend cooling breaks.

FIFA is the sport with the clearest guidance on the maximum allowable heat stress. It states that the risk is considered high with WBGT above 29.4°C and extreme above 32.2°C. At FIFA matches, additional cooling breaks are considered when WBGT is above 32°C.  

The American College of Sports Medicine created guidelines for how athletes, particularly runners, should react to various weather conditions. The 1996 guidelines recommended that a distance running race should be delayed or rescheduled when the WBGT is greater than 27.8°C.

To avoid frequent interruptions in a match, a well-designed stadium should consider how microclimate, including extreme heat, will impact the people occupying that space.  

3. Wind 

Wind can, of course, impact a stadium’s structure, but it is also important to consider the effects of wind on the fans and sometimes even the game itself – or the athletes.  

Tailwinds and headwinds, for instance, can give elite runners an advantage or disadvantage. In fact, world records take wind into account. Wind can affect how a baseball travels and whether it becomes a home run or a foul ball. With wind data from engineers, teams could gain a home court advantage. Indeed, some have. 

Speed skating at the Olympicsski jumpers, and even pro cyclists are some examples of elite level sports where the smallest margin could mean the difference between gold or silver. 

4. Solar and Glare 

View of fans at sports stadium where sun is directly pointing at some fans causing poor thermal comfort

How solar energy is absorbed and reflected by the materials of the stadium can also affect thermal comfort. Solar and glare problems can not only impact the ability of fans to experience and see the game, but they can also add to heat and an unpleasant experience. 

Stadiums can have a shade canopy or even a retractable roof that can shield patrons from the sun. Computer modeling and analysis help designers understand and manage glare and skipping this step can have devastating consequences on the overall experience of patrons and players alike. 

5. Personal Factors: 

How people respond to their environment also impacts thermal comfort. The key personal factors that stadium designers should consider are: 

Individual Expectations 

Fans need a comfortable environment, but different fans have varying expectations and therefore different comfort levels. Diehard fans will go out in rain or shine and stand in downpours or gusts of wind – this even becomes part of the experience for them. In other words, standing in the rain or sitting in a stand covered in snow is a part of showing one’s dedication to the team.  

However, the expectations are vastly different for those once-in-a-while spectators. FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, and the Commonwealth Games, are world-class events and attract people who expect a certain kind of experience when it comes to their personal comfort at the event.  

Activity Level & Metabolic Rate 

Thermal comfort is also determined by an individual’s activity level or their metabolic rate. For example, sitting calmly in the sun may feel comfortable for one individual, but a person sprint racing would have a significantly higher metabolic rate and therefore would have a different thermal comfort level, even with all other environmental factors being equal. Thus, there are different thermal comfort outcomes based on metabolic rate.  

Sprinter running on track in athletics stadium

For the same reasons, when evaluating microclimate and thermal comfort, it is important to consider the activity level of people in the space. In the stadium context, athletes will be exerting more energy than fans, which can be taken into consideration in the design.   

Clothing 

From fans to players, the different individuals who use stadiums are doing so for different purposes, and their clothing reflects that. Athletes may be wearing moisture wicking or performance clothing designed for activity while fans, depending on the season, may be in t-shirts or winter coats. Clothing can impact an individual’s thermal comfort. 

The Takeaway: What Makes a Stadium Design Great? 

Good stadiums give everyone an equitable view of the field, and keep fans, athletes, and performers safe and comfortable in all climates and weather. World-class stadiums provide a comfortable temperature for all and shield fans from the elements like wind, rain, and snow – and this can only happen by design.  

With the expert analysis of engineers and climate scientists, stadiums can take the guest experience to new heights that match the magnitude of the venue’s exceptional architecture.  

Optimize your stadium design with real world leading climate and environmental engineers at RWDI. Learn more.