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Friday Night Lights

Once a week during the fall, towns across the nation come alive beneath the dazzling Friday night lights of a football facility. The seats are filled, and cheerleaders, band members and boosters unite to cheer on the players and coaches. For each person in the stands and on the field, every play is a chance to celebrate community.

These facilities aren't typical high school outdoor fields; they are high-tech, high-performance facilities that aspire to emulate college and professional venues. From digital scoreboards to press boxes and suites, these facilities are designed to treat the local Friday night sport as a premier event.

Many school districts are renovating or replacing high school stadiums and other event facilities to accommodate their growing district needs. The new generation of stadiums that has emerged over the past five years has proved to be a popular way to provide students with better facilities and to forge a greater bond with the community.

Growing all the way

The obvious reason for updating facilities is growth. A facility may not have enough spectator seats or enough fields to meet scheduling demands. A district may choose to build larger facilities at an individual school or construct a centralized facility that is shared by more than one school. A centralized facility typically is separate from the campuses it serves.

In some cases, a community growing from one to two (or three) schools will have its competition facility at one campus, where it is used for both competition and practice. This strategy is cost-effective and suitable for school districts with less than 20,000 students.

Sometimes, because of sentimental or budgetary reasons, a community elects to renovate instead of building new. Additions or renovations can help relieve crowding and resolve code issues, and improve the experience for players and fans, while maintaining the community's sense of tradition.

Making the code

The decision to renovate or build new often hinges on two code issues. The first is “potty parity” — providing sufficient toilet facilities for both men and women — and the second has to do with accessible routes and seating. If a project includes more than cosmetic repairs, the new codes have to be met.

Accessibility codes also require equivalent seating and sightline provisions for patrons with disabilities. Currently, 1 percent of all seats provided in sports venues must be designed for people who use wheelchairs and offer views comparable to those offered to other ticketholders. Whether patrons in wheelchairs are in the stands or the press box, they must be able to see over patrons standing in front of them.

High-tech solutions

As seat counts grow, so must the access to and from the facility. Because these facilities generate high-peak traffic demands, planning representatives from the local government should be involved in their design. Traffic management, crowd management and ingress-egress patterns affect site and building plans — sometimes forcing operating limitations.

New infill turf systems, an upgrade to Astroturf carpet-type systems, were introduced in 1999. With a more realistic look, feel and performance, lower life-cycle cost, reduced injury rates and maintenance benefits, the turf has become popular. The decision to install new turf often provides an impetus to carry out further upgrades.

Lighting is a critical issue for nighttime events — especially if television is a consideration. Sports facilities built in the 1960s and 1970s often are lighted to only a 15- or 20-footcandle level. Modern lighting systems should have a minimum 50-footcandle level, and for a TV broadcast, 75-foot to 100-footcandles.

A room with a view

The press box is a key component of a sports facility, especially in light of modern broadcast and Internet technologies. Many facilities need spaces that enable telecast of an entire game and playback of instant replays, as well as provide high-tech quarters for today's media. A well-equipped press box should contain booths for home and visitor coaches, radio and television broadcasts, and a video platform — as well as piped-in sounds from the crowd below. It also should provide seating areas for team scouts, scorekeepers and announcers.

Many schools may want to have VIP suites, administrators and special guests. These suites, situated in the press box, have steep sightlines that may be obstructed by windowsills, countertops or dividing walls. Therefore, these facilities must be designed thoughtfully.

Grandstands can be built with concrete or steel and aluminum, depending on a district's budget and durability requirements. Reserved stadium seating may include amenities such as fold-up arms and wider seats — the people using those seats help generate the revenues to maintain the facility.

Focusing on security, most athletic directors, superintendents and administrators say they prefer open-concourse facilities in which patrons can see and be seen. Several stadium models have main pedestrian walkways openly visible to the field. These configurations promote neighborly visits and provide uninterrupted views of the action, while discouraging student loitering under or behind the grandstands.

Bring on the playoffs

Upgraded facilities are more attractive candidates for playing host to playoff games. In addition to the prestige that comes from having a top-notch sporting facility, communities benefit from the revenues generated by playoff games.

Big-business sponsorship can help allay the cost for the stadium's visual centerpiece — the scoreboard. Many display the game score and show instant replays, commercials and game highlights.

Today's fan expects more than a hot dog and a cup of soda. To help feed the fans, districts should consider offering a varied cuisine. A rule of thumb for concessions is one point of sale for every 600 patrons. The stands can be designed with unobstructed views to the game so that fans won't miss a moment of the action.

VanderVoort, AIA, is senior vice president/education for HKS, Inc., Dallas.

A game of inches

A community may welcome a new stadium, but cost is always an issue — especially for an institution that must give priority to academics rather than sports. Several districts have been able to squeeze savings out of their sports facility projects:

  • At the DeSoto (Texas) district's Ben Dial Athletic Center, officials saved money by incorporating workout facilities under the home or visitor grandstands. This concept allows the space to be used year-round and provides easy access for players during game-time.

  • The Midlothian (Texas) district cut costs by building the grandstands of its stadium on-grade; the bowl was designed cohesively into a natural ravine. With pedestrian promenades behind the stands and entry gates, and concessions and restrooms at the four corners of the field, this 8,000-seat venue will be durable and easy to expand.

  • The Grand Prairie (Texas) district's Gopher Bowl was built in 1957 and was the leading high school sports center in the area. Over time, it became outdated, and the district chose to reinvest $4 million to improve the bowl. The facility has been upgraded with a new entry gate, new athletic turf, upgraded lighting and public-address systems, and team locker rooms.

  • The Dallas district built a new $33 million, 12,000-seat stadium and 7,500-seat fieldhouse. The facility serves more than 12 schools within the district. Many of the facility's support functions, including locker rooms and training facilities, are consolidated. The stadium is situated on nearly half of the area typically needed for a stadium and fieldhouse providing similar services, saving the district millions of dollars in building costs. The facility also serves as a community center.

  • In Frisco, Texas, a unique public/private partnership of the Frisco school district, Major League Soccer (MLS), Hunt Sports Group and Collin County has resulted in a soccer-specific stadium and adjacent soccer complex. The Dallas Burn soccer team and the school district will share the facility, which will be host to MLS competitions, national and international soccer matches, high school football games and other events.

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