By Luke Carothers

For as long as there have been humans living together, there has been one form of athletic competition or another.  From the Olympics in Ancient Greece to Mesoamerican ballgame courts, there has always been a need to house these sports in structures that allow for large crowds of spectators because, after all, spectating is just as human as playing the sport.

These structures became bigger and bigger as populations increased.  In the late 19th century the rise of professionalism in sports infused more capital into building stadiums to house the public’s ever-growing fascination with spectator sports.  Another element was added in the United States, which was the invention of collegiate athletics.  The backing of large educational institutions coupled with the rise of professionalism led to some truly impressive feats of engineering.

From 1895 to 1904 the 3 oldest football stadiums in the United States were built: Penn’s Franklin Field (1895), Harvard Stadium (1903), and Texas A&M’s Kyle Field (1904).  A few short years later, professional baseball caught up to the trend with Fenway Park being built in 1912 and Wrigley Field being built two years later in 1914.

The trend of building large, concrete structures to house sporting events was firmly established by this point in the United States, and stadiums were built from coast-to-coast with emphasis on packing more and more spectators into these stadiums.  The modern history of American stadium engineering has seen its fair share of notable triumphs and failures, and our fascination and financial dedication to seeing these projects realized has not been without scrutiny.

One valid thread of criticism from this wave of building is that these large, densely-packed structures did little to provide accessibility to spectators with disabilities.  In a quest to build bigger structures, little attention was paid to obstacles that could potentially bar a fan with disabilities from enjoying the game or even entering the stadium.  Design features common in these early American stadiums–such as concrete stairs, doorknobs, elevated sinks and paper towel dispensers–stood in the way of providing a truly universal experience for spectators.

However, in 1990 President H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which changed the way engineers and architects designed not only stadiums, but all public places.  Along with protecting people with disabilities from discrimination, the ADA required employers to make reasonable accomodations for employees with disabilities and required public spaces to provide a decent level of accessibility to those individuals.

From the signing of the ADA onward, older stadiums began renovating to accommodate spectators with disabilities.  This process involved altering original designs to install wheelchair ramps, which posed a challenge in terms of space.  Additionally, professional organizations and colleges began replacing door knobs with easy to use handles and lowering and modifying features attached to the walls such as soap and paper towel dispensers, light switches, sinks, and toilets.

Still for much of the 90s and into the early 2000s, many in the disabled community criticized these institutions for not fully embracing the spirit of the ADA.  This led to a number of lawsuits leveled against institutions claiming they had not done enough.

Notable among these lawsuits was that of Mike Harris against the University of Michigan in 2007.  A former University of Michigan football player, Harris was paralyzed in a car accident in 1986.  Since the accident, Harris found difficulty attending games at his alma mater where his seating options were limited to 45 seats in both the North and South end zone sections.  To add to the frustration of Mike and others in the disabled community, these designated sections did not have access to the rest of the stadium.

In 2010, the University of Michigan renovated the “Big House”, adding significant upgrades to their previous accessibility design features such as: upgraded and expanded accessible seating, a shuttle service to and from an accessibility-designed parking area, and assisted listening devices.  These and similar upgrades were made to venues across the country in the decade following, but the movement for truly accessible sporting venues pushed on.

Recent additions to the movement for accessible sporting venues have also been geared towards disabilities other than physical impairment.  In Minnesota, U.S. Bank Stadium was designed with a sensory room for spectators who are on the autism spectrum.  Many stadiums are also now designed with alternate viewing methods in mind, featuring interpreters, enhanced listening devices, and flash warnings for strobe lights and pyrotechnics.

Venues and stadiums are continuing to adapt their experience to fit not only current legislation, but also the technology available.  Many stadiums, such as Ohio Stadium in Columbus, now offer interactive digital maps of the latest accessibility features.

From the earliest days of civilization until now, there is a common societal bond that forms around live sporting events.  Now, in the current time it is important to remember that bond when thinking about how stadiums and other venues are constructed.  It is vital that we think about how certain segments of the population have been isolated by designs in the past and put their humanity at the forefront of our thought when designing sporting venues.


Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.

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