Transforming aging sports venues into state-of-the-art stadiums
The top 5 complexities of sports stadium renovations
construction at Climate Pledge Arena

It seems that every month, at least one professional sports team announces plans to build or renovate a venue, creating a fan destination that will attract the biggest crowds, bring traffic to the surrounding community and drive revenue for the franchise. Logan Gerken, vice president and general manager at Mortenson, explains why. 

"More than half of all professional sports venues were built between 1995 and 2003. Facilities are aging, leases are expiring and revenue opportunities are plentiful. These factors are the biggest drivers in why we’re seeing so much activity in the market right now.”

Adam Hardy, director of project development at Mortenson adds, “In the 90s, ticket sales and parking revenues were prioritized, with a goal of getting as many seats in a venue as possible. People weren’t thinking about what the industry standard might be in 20 years, where technology and the fan experience necessitated device charging stations, communal spaces, shared clubs and premium options, mobile food ordering, mixed media experiences and more.” 

When venues become old or outdated, the big question for franchise owners is: “Do we renovate our current stadium or build a new venue? What offers the greatest ROI?” For teams with venues in a prime location, or for which the stadium holds nostalgia for the franchise and fans, renovating seems like a no-brainer. There is also the common misconception that renovating and modernizing an existing structure is easier, faster and more economical than building a new venue. 

Changing fan demands and experiential preferences can also impact the ROI calculation of your decision. For example, would the cost of adding a trendy, standing room only social space in your upper deck outweigh the incremental gains in food and beverage per cap generated in that space? When the Colorado Rockies decided to dramatically renovate their upper right-field deck with The Rooftop, they realized the investment was worth it in their market. 

“Truth be told, it’s not always the easiest or least expensive route. Building and renovating sports venues is complex, and we are starting to produce estimates for clients in excess of a billion dollars to upgrade their outdated stadium,” says Hardy. 

Let’s dig into what makes renovations so challenging and the key points to discuss with your architect and builder. 

Stadium Age and Structural Condition 

Upgrading seating options, finishes and amenities are often a primary focus of renovations—and for good reason. Not only do these things make your venue stand out and become an iconic fan destination, but they are critical in driving revenue and return on investment. Many new premium seating trends and amenities – such as courtside/field-level suites and clubs or loge boxes – require cutting into the seating bowl to create the necessary space. You need the right partners to understand if this is feasible, has market demand and is worth the cost. But fancy upgrades aren’t even possible if the guts of your stadium are in rough shape.  

Structural integrity naturally degrades over time, so you can count on a 20-year-old stadium needing extensive upgrades to keep the venue safe and stable for another 20 years. There are also plumbing, HVAC, and mechanical/electrical system upgrades to consider and often require overhauls to meet today’s code requirements.   

“Surprises pop up during most renovations,” says Jack Hogan, senior business development manager. “As we plan renovation projects, our team relies on as-built drawings drafted 20+ years ago. The inconsistency (or lack) of older documents can result in a lot of extra work to figure out what we're working with. Failing plumbing systems, animals living in the building, structural issues – we’ve seen it all, and these things remain hidden until you start breaking down walls.”  

Erik Johannes, business development executive adds, “Renovation costs skyrocket once you get into repairing foundation issues or replacing a venue’s entire plumbing or electrical system. In these cases, it sometimes makes more sense financially to build a new stadium.”  

Sometimes the history behind a venue takes precedence over the high price tag of a complex renovation. Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle is a perfect example of this. The complexity of redeveloping and redesigning the historic landmark resulted in a $1 billion price tag. For investors, the cost was well worth it to preserve and blend a piece of Seattle skyline history with the modern look and amenities fans want in a venue.

Environmental Assessments and Considerations 

Soil condition typically doesn’t come to mind when you think about stadium renovations. However, soil stability can make or break design plans. “We once had a project where renovation plans included adding an enclosure to an open-air stadium,” says Erik Thomas, design phase executive at Mortenson. “After conducting a thorough soil analysis, engineers determined the ground could not support the additional weight of a roof.”   

While comprehensive field tests are standard protocol for any sports construction project, they add to the overall cost. Additionally, any environmental issues discovered through testing could require soil remediation to ensure compliance with current environmental standards. The environmental suitability of a specific site may significantly impact the ROI calculation of building there.

Accessibility and Code Compliance  

Compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines and other regulatory mandates requires significant upgrades in older buildings. These changes go beyond having ramps, elevators and accessible parking spaces.  

Are restrooms up to the current code? Does the venue have enough wheelchair seating areas, and does other seating meet visibility requirements? What about counter heights in concession and merchandise areas or the addition of sensory rooms? Do you need to widen the concourses? ADA upgrades are necessary not only for code requirements but also to create an inclusive game-day experience. Depending on the age of the venue, these upgrades could be costly.  

Technology Upgrades 

Stadium technology is continuously evolving and requires the right infrastructure to keep systems operating smoothly and deliver a seamless experience from the parking lot to the seat and everywhere in between. “During the building boom from 1995-2003, most professional sports venues were built before the iPhone was invented,” says Jason Jennings, vice president of digital integration at Mortenson. “In fact, even stadiums built 10 years ago might be unable to support the latest technology.”  

Retrofitting newer technology, antenna and Wi-Fi systems, cabling and wiring to support it can be complicated and involves removing fixtures and finishes to open walls and ceilings. You might also encounter incompatibility issues between new and old systems. In those cases, you are ripping everything out and starting from scratch, which adds a significant expense to renovation costs. 

What’s more, modern venues act as entertainment experiences and are now outfitted floor-to-ceiling with eyepopping amounts of video display coverage, with each new build outdoing its predecessors in terms of ribbon board coverage or size and scale of video boards. Main video boards hang from the venue’s rigging grid or have their own structural support system. Doubling the size of the video board oftentimes requires the structural support system to be completely replaced to handle the needs of the larger board, which can quickly add to the cost and schedule. With these upgrades, venues can add more events and drive more revenue, but need to determine if their specific market can support it when weighing the options. 

Stadium Construction Planning and Logistics 

“Large-scale sports renovation projects involve years of planning,” says Trevor Delong, field operations manager at Mortenson. “Aside from deciding what to do with the venue, franchise owners must manage the logistics of finding a temporary place to hold games during construction or even maintaining operations at the existing venue while cordoning off specific areas during construction.” Performing work during the off-season is an option, however, completing work on such an accelerated schedule also adds expense in overtime and phased work. “In major renovations, it isn’t uncommon to invest millions of dollars in temporary components such as portable concessions, temp walls, and security to allow games to occur during phased renovations while keeping the fans safe,” Delong adds.  

For teams with multi-purpose venues, the situation becomes even more complicated and even minor renovation projects require meticulous planning. Concession upgrades at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver involved navigating game schedules and big-ticket events like the Rolling Stones concert. In preparation, crews had to shut down the kitchen and eight concession stands for weeks to demolish and reinstall ceilings, doors, flooring and finishes. At Kansas State University’s Bill Snyder Family Stadium, a 4D model was utilized to communicate week-by-week updates with fans and athletics stakeholders, to ensure proper disruption avoidance and safety during the gameday experience. In both examples, the customers needed to continue generating revenue in their facilities to achieve the ROI on their projects. 

As you can see, there are many factors to consider before starting a sports stadium renovation project. Your project’s success relies on having the right team to lead your renovation discussions. Mortenson has a track record of successful sports construction projects spanning decades and can bring in the right experts to help you make informed decisions that deliver the greatest ROI.   

Contact us to learn how we can help you thoughtfully plan your next sports project.