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US sports like the NFL and MLB are targeting the UK and European markets in an unprecedented way, whilst non-American sports such as soccer, rugby and cricket are proving highly popular exports. Inherent in this growth are cultural challenges within each territory’s respective sporting infrastructure.
A natural starting point for a review of this type is to consider investment. While historically there has been a perception that whilst the US is willing to invest in their sports infrastructure, Europe has been more conservative. The fundamental difference is market size.
A Tale of Two ROIs
Two recent projects highlight the market-driven difference in approach between the US and the UK. Twickenham, English rugby’s HQ, recently invested £65 million on an extension focussing primarily on hospitality, a move that will be repaid in three years. This is a sizeable sum supported by an excellent business proposition, but pales in comparison to the Atlanta Falcons’ $1.5 billion stadium build, which enjoyed an immediate return — not least of all when Mercedes-Benz picked up the naming rights.
Another difference travelling teams are discovering is the variance in respective requirements. Whilst both rugby and NFL athletes are substantial, rugby changing rooms need only house 30 or so at a time whilst NFL locker rooms frequently house over 100 men. UK-bound teams can make do in the short term but the players can reasonably expect this to be addressed if they find themselves regularly running out in London.
Food and Beverage Trends
When considering fan behaviour, the two territories couldn’t be further apart. Dwell time at US sports events is far longer than anything we see in the UK, with the exceptions of tennis and golf. This means that US venues have more opportunities to leverage fan spend — and US fans are healthy consumers of everything their teams offer, from refreshments to merchandise. It may be this exposure that is driving one of the biggest recent changes in US sports facilities: street-price matching and gourmet food. Most British sports fans accept the premium F&B pricing (often for sub-standard fare) but some US franchises now levy only what is being charged outside their grounds. Additionally, in the US efforts are being made to draw fans to venues even earlier — a prospect their UK counterparts would find bewildering. Yet this allows for more time to serve meals, often paired with local high-end establishments and celebrity chefs, thereby creating a ‘food story’ that reflects the region and community.
Theatricality and Tech
As fans increasingly drive commercial decisions being made in grounds, there are two topics emerging as key influencers: theatricality and technology. There are numerous examples of very clever, theatrical initiatives in the US, spanning massive jumbotrons, play-break DJs and in-seat ordering. But the most impressive recent examples are Avaya Stadium’s outdoor bar, Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s video board and Little Caesars Arena’s ‘jewel skin.’ The Avaya Stadium offering is a 3,650ft sq., open-air scoreboard bar with 18 HDTVs, serviced by up to 35 bartenders. Mercedes-Benz Stadium doesn’t simply have a scoreboard—it’s a 360-degree halo board, boasting a 58ft x 1,075ft screen size, which is the length of three NFL football fields. The newly opened Little Caesars Arena in Detroit showcases jewel skin cladding on the exterior that works as a surface for sophisticated laser projection that transforms the exterior depending on the event and unveils an array of messaging opportunities for teams and sponsors.
So, it is still a case of vive la différence between the cultures of sport in the US and Europe. But what is certainly apparent is that fans on both sides of ‘the Pond’ still have the appetite for live sport entertainment.
This article was written by John Rhodes, HOK’s Director of Sports + Recreation + Entertainment, who was in conversation with Ian Ritchie and HOK’s Chris Lamberth at the Leaders Sport Business Summit in London this year.