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Driving Inclusive, Accessible, and Sustainable Stadiums

30 Nov 2023   ·   

Journalist specialized in culture and sports innovation. Analyst of the technological, economic, and social changes that are shaping the sport of the future.

While the global count of sports followers experiences variations, especially among younger viewers, stadium attendance is increasing worldwide. In the United States, an annual increase of 4.46% is estimated. In 2023, a revenue of 15.42 billion dollars is forecast, which will rise to 18.36 billion by 2027. In Spain, the trend is also upward. The 470 million dollars to be raised in 2023 are expected to reach 519.10 million by 2027, an annual growth of 2.52%. For reference, in 2017 the revenue was 298.8 million.

The trend makes it clear that major stadiums and sports venues have to adapt to the new times for a significant reason: They have a future. However, it would be a mistake to reduce the focus on sports facilities that receive huge masses of attendees to a purely economic concept. Again, the reasons are evident: if stadiums do not address the environmental problem, they will not be able to function as businesses. At the same time, the promising future that predicts continued increased attendance will not materialize if it is not taken into account that these environments must become safe spaces. 

It is considered that the configuration of a safe space is a multidimensional process. It spans from the physical dimensions to the psychological/affective, sociocultural, and political components. Stadiums are often studied for their tourist potential, their relationship with employment, and their urban impact. However, they also play a role in social cohesion, community development, health promotion, and crime prevention. If these facets are ignored or not properly managed, they can be detrimental to the community, especially to its most vulnerable sectors, as they would serve to reinforce discrimination and inequalities. 

A positive example cited by academics is the role once played by boxing gyms in the United States. Located in degraded, even dangerous, areas of cities, inside these gyms, “sociability, mutual respect, horizontality, and recognition” prevailed. This was in stark contrast to what users would encounter on the street. Conversely, the influence of ultra groups concentrated in stadiums in spreading extremist and discriminatory ideas in societies without economic problems is well known.

In the Netherlands, we have one of the most important pioneering initiatives in this field, the OVIVI plan (Our Football is for Everyone), which will be tested until 2025. According to this plan, half of the Dutch people of immigrant origin who attend stadiums report having witnessed racist incidents, and three-quarters of homosexual men and women claim to have witnessed homophobic attitudes. In addition, deeply ingrained racist biases have been detected, beginning with the position on the field of youth category players according to their skin color. 

To reverse these situations, in technological projects launched with the collaboration of Eredivisie clubs, Artificial Intelligence tools are being used to study where and how discriminatory chants occur. The goal of the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sports is to create safe environments in stadium attendance with three fields of action: identify everyone who accesses a stadium with pre-registration, monitor images and sound, and use predictive behavior tools.

At the Philips Stadion of PSV Eindhoven and De Kuip of Feyenoord, systems have been implemented to detect discriminatory chants and an AI model that tries to predict the causes of these attitudes, what can trigger them. The application serves a dual function; monitoring chants not only helps detect racist or intolerable attitudes but also encourages fans to cheer or sing louder when necessary. 

The Sorama tool is used, which collects the sound of the stadium and reflects it in heat maps that can be seen on the stadium monitors. Fans have in front of them the decibel level produced by each area of the stands. The playful use is for fans to have immediate feedback on their performances and attitude. Thus, it seeks to stimulate them to cheer more. Legally, they function like video cameras. They must be erased after a time, and only people authorized by the club can access their recordings.

 

Before obtaining results from the AI in OVIVI – there is an ongoing government grant program to encourage companies to present their intelligent solutions to this problem – the number of fans sanctioned with a stadium access ban had already been affected by the improvement of video surveillance systems. In addition, a mobile app, Report Discrimination Now, was launched to centralize discrimination complaints and act immediately.

But there are more forms of exclusion apart from racism and homophobia, even more frequent. Facilities not suitable for people with disabilities are insurmountable physical barriers to enjoying sports. Since the 90s, access for people with motor disabilities has been standardized with ramps, elevators, adapted bathrooms, and reserved spaces. Their development is not so much a challenge as the inclusion in a sports show of people with visual or hearing disabilities, which is the next step expected of major stadiums worldwide. 

Applications like Evelity exist, which serve as a guide for people with disabilities inside stadiums. At the FC Barcelona Barcelonista Attention Office, the Visualfy app is being used to help deaf or hearing-impaired individuals follow the screens of the queuing systems. This app is also designed to facilitate communication in guided tours, museums, or the club store by transmitting sound directly to the hearing aids or implants of deaf individuals. In the future, it is expected to be used in the stadium as well, where it will send signals to mobile devices so these spectators can receive sounds that are imperceptible to them, such as alarms or evacuation notices. Additionally, Visualfy also converts announcements made via public address systems into text within the app.

 

For blind individuals, the field of tennis saw the introduction of Action Audio at the 2022 Australian Open, a system that creates a sort of Morse code translating what’s happening on the court. Synchronized with the commentator’s voice, it provides an experience that perfectly captures all the excitement of the game and the professionals’ skill. 

This tool, launched by Tennis Australia, Melbourne’s Monash University, and the company AKQA, has made its first steps in this sport because it had already developed very advanced ball-tracking technologies. Using data generated by the 10 or 12 cameras capturing court action 50 times per second, the app converts these signals into 3-D sound in less than a second. 

There are many more initiatives. For example, Madison Square Garden has a service that alerts before using strobe or flashing lights, which can affect people with epilepsy. This is an application that must be increasingly considered now that so many stadiums employ light and sound shows, even with Augmented Reality, during game breaks. 

The Chicago Vikings’ stadium, meanwhile, has set up sensory rooms, a quiet space for spectators who may need silence at any given moment. These are safe havens designed primarily for people on the autism spectrum. During the Qatar World Cup, these rooms were fully operational, having been developed by the organizers at various events since the 2017 Amir Cup. Most sensory room users tend to be children, so they are equipped with plush toys and pleasant visual projections.

 

In the Netherlands, the second-division PEC Zwolle has a mobile ticket sales system to optimize access to the MAC³Park stadium, as it informs about the busiest areas in real time and helps to avoid crowds and long queues, which can be annoying for some, but a serious problem for people with reduced mobility. This feature affects the concept of smart cities, where technologies like digital twins – the Camp Nou hosted IO Twins trials – are in full development, aiming to integrate people flows to avoid collapses. One of its most important utilities is that, thanks to the information provided, public transport can be rationalized, reducing the carbon footprint, even though tens of thousands of people gather at the same point. 

Reducing the emissions generated by stadiums is one of the most important goals that these types of sports facilities face. At major events like the World Athletics Championships or the Olympics, different measures have been applied since 2022. Both at the Munich 2022 European Championships and the XXII Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, infrastructures built previously were reused. In Germany, it was those from the 1972 Olympics. If new temporary facilities had to be set up, there was a plan for them to be reused or recycled. 

Regarding transport, for Paris 2024, to reduce the carbon footprint, plans include free public transport access with an event ticket. For emissions that cannot be reduced, Paris will establish a compensation plan. All generated emissions will be balanced with other projects designed to generate environmental benefits. This is achieved by applying the EU’s guarantee of origin system, which ensures a certain number of megawatt-hours of energy have been generated from renewable sources. 

If environmental conditions of sun and wind do not allow for supply, it will be injected into the network elsewhere. Other measures include not using plastics. All tableware used must be for more than one use. Coca-Cola, for example, plans to distribute reusable glass bottles and set up more than two hundred water fountains. The overall goal is to halve the carbon footprint of the previous Olympics, 3.5 million tons of CO2. It’s not just about efficiency, but about turning sports facilities into a social good in all respects.

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