When fans walk into Citypark on Saturday for St. Louis City SC’s home MLS debut, few will likely draw comparisons to SoFi Stadium, where the onetime St. Louis Rams now play.
SoFi Stadium, in Inglewood, Calif., cost more than $5 billion to build; Citypark came in under $500 million. SoFi can expand to seat 100,000; Citypark hosts just over 20,000. SoFi has regularly been referred to as an interplanetary vehicle; Citypark was designed to fit into a midwestern city’s Downtown West neighborhood.
But!, inside those two venues—deep inside—there are more similarities than fans might expect, according to AmpThink founder Bill Anderson. He would know, given his company helped each team integrate key tech functions, from stadium Wi-Fi to concourse TVs to scoreboard controls.
“When we finished SoFi, every conversation that I had afterwards was, ‘Yeah, that’s really cool, man. If I had five-and-a-half billion dollars, I would do the same thing,’” Anderson said. “What’s neat about St. Louis is it’s not a five-and-a-half-billion-dollar project. And we did exactly the same thing.”
Besides tech infrastructure designs, SoFi and Citypark share another similarity: a purpose, which is getting people back to the stands after a pandemic.
Citypark is open in all four corners, and the pitch sits 40 feet below ground level, giving passersby a view from the street. The venue is accessible from all four sides as well, after architects worked to hide the staging area for security, broadcast and food-related equipment. Much of that was even moved into an underground tunnel.
“We didn’t want to create a backdoor,” Snow Kreilich Architects cofounder Julie Snow said. “It’s just like a dead corner of a stadium.”
At the gate, fans will present their phones rather than paper. Leaning into trends accelerated by COVID-19, Citypark is ticketless and cashless. The team has spent the run-up to its debut educating fans about the tech, hoping to hit 100% mobile app adoption for its season ticket holders.
The goal is to create a seamless experience from sidewalk to concourse, from concourse to seat, from seat to bathroom and back again (with key fan data being collected along the way).
“Youth has never been less interested in live sporting events,” City SC chief experience officer Matt Sebek said. “It’s up to venues and up to teams to create memorable and impactful ones.” He added that it was critical those in-person experiences be comprehensive—enjoyable from end to end.
Snow and Sebek are among the many involved in Citypark who previously spent time outside the confines of sports business. (Sebek spent much of his career working with fast casual restaurants, while Snow has designed rail stations, museums and hotels). Chris DeVolder and Eli Hoisington from global design firm HOK also played key roles in laying out the grounds.
Over the last three years, Sebek’s team visited other stadiums, but they also studied Panera and Papa John’s. Today’s stadiums are not just theaters for athletic competition, after all. They are also food halls, shopping malls, offices and wedding venues.
“A lot of our front office, this is their first gig in sports,” Sebek said. “We’ve always borrowed a lot of those cues from consumer industries.”
With days to go before the debut, the team is busy. Are there enough TVs in the press area? Are local restaurant partners happy with their setups?
But just getting to kickoff won’t be enough on Saturday. The real test starts at halftime.
Soccer is particularly tough on venue designers, given the supply and demand dilemmas presented by a single 15-minute stoppage. To keep things moving, City SC has added MLS’s first checkout-free stores, this time taking inspiration from Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium and working with cashierless store developer Zippin. The grab-and-go markets use tracking technology to automatically charge customers and cut down fan visits to as short as 10 seconds.
“We’re really taking physical spaces and turning them into computers,” Zippin co-founder Krishna Motukuri said. “The whole purpose of technology is to disappear into the background.”
Elsewhere, St. Louis has broken down traditional concession stands into roughly 50 stations powered by remote kitchens. Fans can order from kiosks, though Sebek is hopeful that mobile ordering adoption will eventually render those unnecessary, too. Through a combination of order tracking and personalized recommendations via the team app, City SC hopes to make the halftime experience even more efficient week-over-week.
“We are trying our damnedest to really spread the lines out,” Sebek said.
Touching ticketing, food, wayfinding and merchandise, the team’s app is nearly a venue unto itself, another piece of invisible infrastructure built in parallel with the real-world sportsplex.
“One of the things that I think is so extraordinary about sports venues is how much of the stadium the spectator doesn’t see,” Snow said. “And if that isn’t working smoothly, then they’ll begin to see it.”
Snow was on hand for the stadium’s soft launch in November for a friendly against Bayer Leverkusen. The game was fun, but she also remembers the thrill of leaving. She felt surrounded by people, though never crowded. “It was kind of a revelation,” she said.
Now, the hope is fans departing Saturday will have a similar reaction and decide to come back soon.
“This is an MLS stadium, and it’s one of the most tech-savvy, tech-advanced stadiums in the world,” says Ken Martin, Cisco’s sports and entertainment solutions group general manager. “St. Louis is a great example of how you can take a world-class architecture and deploy it into a smaller venue.”