Sports Facilities

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To Bring in More Business, Sports Venues Eying Retractable Roofs

23 Sep, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Having Flexibility to Guard Against Rainouts Is Increasing Venues' Marketability

Serena losing her bid for another US Open title? Djokovic and Federer battling it out in the men’s final? Meh.

It was all just a starting bell for the construction crews to make tracks to the U.S. Open grounds in Flushing, New York. They’ve actually been waiting for that last ball to drop so they can get back to work.

Construction on the retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, as well as various other improvements on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, had to be interrupted for the duration of the U.S. Open. And while the very striking steel superstructure of the roof was in place, contractors were left cooling their heels while players took over the courts and spectators flocked to the grounds.

According to USTA personnel, construction was set to resume almost immediately after the crowds went home, and definitely before the end of September. The roof is expected to be fully operational in time for the 2016 U.S. Open.

With the conclusion of construction, Arthur Ashe will be the largest tennis stadium in the world, with a 62,500 square-foot opening; in addition, play on center court from will no longer be disrupted by rain storms, such as the one that delayed the Djokovic/Federer final on September 13.

The concept of retractable roofs over sports facilities is nothing new; however, with the additional attention the USTA facility is getting – and the multiple theories on whether the breaks in concentration affected the outcome of the match – more than a few facility owners are re-examining the idea of converting their own facilities.

Fact is, retractable roofing prevents rainouts. It prevents delays. And in an era when teams pay significant registration fees to travel from far-flung cities to take part in sports events – and don’t have the ability to rearrange their schedules that pro athletes enjoy – making the investment in a roof for a facility is seen as more of an investment than ever, and less of a frivolous expenditure.

So in that respect, a facility that can house events rain or shine is a more marketable venue.

In a LiveScience article published in Yahoo! Sports, the roof technology comes with a significant price tag. According to the article, a retractable roof over a football stadium adds between $100 million and $150 million to a project over an open stadium, and between $25 million and $40 million over the cost of a closed, fixed-roof stadium.

So why swallow the extra bill? Basically, an enclosed stadium gets more use and ultimately can pay for itself.

"The football games have probably the least to do with that decision," said Mark Waggoner, a principal at Walter P. Moore, the Houston-based engineering firm that engineered the moveable roofs of University of Phoenix Stadium, AT&T Stadium, Lucas Oil Stadium and Reliant Stadium. ”If a municipality wants the stadium for use in concerts, rodeos or other year-round events, a closed building is the way to go. Purists who see football as an outdoor game may be mollified by the open-stadium option of a retractable roof.”

In an article in Sourceable, writer Angela Fedele noted that significant gains can be realized by convertible facilities – but those gains come at a cost that stretches outside of the price tag.

“For all involved, a retractable stadium roof comes with high expectations,” wrote Fedele. “It needs to move into position within minutes with minimal disruption to the game. Then there’s the requirement for weather protection, all the while trying to balance the traditional ‘outdoor’ feel that comes with playing sport and a visually striking design.”

However, technology is making all of this very possible and is vastly improving according to Adam Williams, AECOM director of global sports.

Williams, who worked closely on the London 2012 Olympics masterplan and is leading AECOM's work on the Rio 2016 Olympic masterplan, said the more common retractable roofs become, the less risky installing one will be.

“20 years ago, a moving roof to a major stadium was seen as very unusual and risky," he said. "Now it is seen as a relatively standard solution for certain climates and event profiles.”

Not that it makes it easy for a sports stadium to rationalize funding for a new roof. The Washington Post reported that the owner of the Washington Nationals had wanted a retractable roof over that stadium – but was denied by Mayor Vincent C. Gray. The roof, which reportedly would have cost over $300 million, was not an expense that Gray wanted passed to his taxpayers.

But college sports facilities are finding convertible facilities to be better selling points when it comes to games that will bring in more revenue. The Miami Herald has noted the Southeastern Conference football championship game is staying in Atlanta for at least a dozen more years. The league announced a new 10-year agreement on Tuesday to play the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a $1.4 billion retractable-roof facility under construction next door to the Georgia Dome. The new stadium is to open in 2017.

Don’t think the roof wasn’t a point in the Benz’s favor.

And as youth, recreational and amateur sports facilities become ever more sophisticated, it follows that they too will start featuring retractable roofing. It eliminates the guesswork, the nail-biting and of course, the lost revenue.

The Greater Louisville YMCA’s swimming pool, for example, features an indoor heated pool that can be used as an outdoor facility as well in the summer. In Huntsville, Alabama, the Natatorium, an indoor/outdoor public swimming facility, features a retractable roof to warm the pool. It is home to five high school swim teams and hosts various swimming meets and national tournaments.

The possibility of rainouts does factor into sports planners’ decision making -- but not always enough to justify spending the money to guard against them. A poll conducted by Sports Destination Management in March of 2014 asked sports planners of outdoor events what their modus operandi was when it came to planning for inclement weather. A total of 14.29 percent noted they looked for nearby indoor venues so they could move activities if the weather precluded outdoor play. Another 42.86 percent said they built in extra days to accommodate possible rainouts without hurting their schedule. Another 42.86 percent did neither, leaving the weather to chance.

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