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Build it and they will come: the keys to developing successful sporting infrastructure

More than a distributor of piping hot meat pies and chips – stadia are symbols of a society’s cultural, social and environmental aspirations. They must also be functional from an athletic and consumer perspective. 

Designing and developing stadia is a demanding task and one which Australian governments and sporting bodies will imminently be tackling.

Governments and major sporting bodies around Australia are committing billions of dollars to develop, redevelop and establish new world-class sporting infrastructure. This in a decade where Australian cities are set to host the:

  • 2022 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup (nationwide);

  • 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup (Sydney, NSW);

  • 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup (co-hosted with New Zealand);

  • 2026 Commonwealth Games (Regional Victoria);

  • 2027 Netball World Cup (Sydney, NSW); and

  • 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games (Brisbane, QLD).

As with any social infrastructure asset, the return on investment for investors (whether that be a social, political and/or economic return) will be at the forefront of project evaluations. This is particularly as the capital and operating expenditure associated with stadia may be considerable relative to utilisation.  

The challenge for governments, sporting bodies and developers is determining how to generate stable long term revenue streams whilst optimising the fan, athlete and community experience and balancing other government priorities. This challenge was apparent when the New South Wales Government abandoned its plans to demolish and redevelop Stadium Australia in 2020 amidst the rising cost of its COVID-19 response.[1]

In dealing with the challenges associated with developing viable stadia, there are four key factors that should be considered when planning for and developing new sporting infrastructure:

  • legacy;

  • innovation;

  • integration; and

  • funding.

Legacy

World-class stadia are not developed for a single purpose. Beyond the short-term need to fulfil the requirements of hosting major events, sporting infrastructure should be designed and constructed with their legacy front of mind.

The term ‘legacy’ may be defined as the tangible and intangible long-term benefits that are generated by the development of new infrastructure. Importantly, legacy must be given more than lip service. Legacy objectives are crucial to realising returns on investment and the long-term development plans of the city and country within which the infrastructure is located.

One does not have to look far into the past to see examples of major sporting infrastructure that have so spectacularly achieved, or failed to achieve, their legacy objectives.

The London Stadium (UK) was constructed between 2008 and 2011 for use during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Post-2012, the stadium was redeveloped into a rectangular stadium and is now home to Premier League football club West Ham United and UK Athletics, regularly hosts major concerts and community events and is connected to no less than 58 trains every hour and 20 bus routes.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Beijing National Stadium (China), more affectionately known as the Bird’s Nest, which was constructed between 2003 and 2008 for use during the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games. We understand that, since then, the Bird’s Nest has only sporadically hosted major events (including football friendlies, concerts and the 2015 World Championships in Athletics) and has no ongoing tenancy arrangements. The stadium reportedly only stays profitable by charging admission fees for tours as the stadium is repurposed as a national monument.

Australia is fortunate to be visited regularly by musicians and host major sporting events played on both rectangular and oval fields – however, the desire for local AFL and NRL teams to take up tenancies at new or redeveloped stadia should not lure governments, sporting bodies and developers into complacency when developing legacy strategies for their projects (particularly if the project relates to the development of less frequented sporting infrastructure, such as white water parks and indoor sports arenas).

Even though legacy outcomes are difficult to guarantee early in the life of a project, stakeholders should consider:

  • following the advice of Simon Wright OBE, the former Director of Venues and Infrastructure for the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games and CEO of London’s Crossrail project, who describes how his team developed two separate master plans for the infrastructure required in 2012 - one for the games itself and one for the ‘transformation’ (or legacy) of all permanent facilities;

  • formalising contractual obligations for designers, builders and consultants to perform a scope of work that facilitates the achievement of legacy objectives that are set by Principals; and

  • prioritising innovation, sustainability and integration during pre-construction phases of a project.

Innovation

Stadia are the ideal conduit for realising innovative design, sustainability and technology solutions.  In the context of current global materials shortages, innovative use of materials may be particularly relevant.

Innovative solutions are not only desirable – the modern-day fan, athlete and broadcaster demands convenience, engagement and comfort in ways that traditional stadium experiences cannot deliver.

Australian architects, engineers and builders are pioneers in developing innovative solutions to resolve complex issues and meet customer expectations:

  • the design of Queensland Country Bank Stadium’s (Townsville, QLD) cantilevered pandanus leaf inspired roof and Optus Stadium’s (Perth, WA) bronze façade supplemented by LED lights to reflect Western Australia’s unique geology not only solved engineering dilemmas but elevated the profile of these stadia in the surrounding area; and

  • the sustainable solutions embedded within CommBank Stadium (Sydney, NSW) earnt the stadium international recognition as the first stadium to receive LEED v4 Gold certification for sustainability by the US Green Building Council for its water efficiency, use of photovoltaic solar panels, reduction of embodied carbon and waste diversion solutions.

Those planning the redevelopment of the Gabba (Brisbane, QLD) ahead of the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games or other stadia may also look to SoFi Stadium (USA) and Levi’s Stadium (USA) for innovative technological enhancements to fan experience.  As America’s newest major sporting facility, SoFi Stadium unsurprisingly is one of the most technologically advanced in the country, having a digital twin used for operations and maintenance, a high-speed Wi-Fi system, cashless operations, a partnership with Samsung to deliver an augmented reality app for fans and a 4K HDR 80 million pixel infinity screen suspended from the roof.  The operators of Levi’s Stadium also offer their fans an app that distributes real-time information to assist fans with finding the best parking spot and the shortest bathroom line. We understand that the development of digital twins (similar to the technology which is used at SoFi Stadium) is one of the priority actions arising from the Queensland Government’s 2022 Infrastructure Strategy.

Engaging the private sector through competitive procurement processes should lead to participants preparing innovative solutions to differentiate their bid from others.   Comprehensive design briefs, unambiguous expectations and collaborative work methods will enhance (and speed-up) this process.

Historically, principals and participants have been averse to thorough competitive procurement processes due to the costs incurred by participants (and the principal’s preference to avoid paying the bill for unsuccessful bids).

Greater value for money may be achieved long term if principals commit to fairly fund the preparation of a limited number of bids in a transparent and competitive procurement process.  

As with other forms of infrastructure, there may also be considerable benefit in working with the limited number of participants to establish a set of common information (for example, in relation to site conditions and utilities) which can be relied upon by all participants so that greater focus can be given to matters of innovation, rather than to establishing the ‘baseline’.

Integration

The development of social infrastructure requires considerable planning dedicated to ensuring that the completed asset is not a ‘white elephant’ – that it is situated in an accessible location, is visually appealing and supports the growth of local businesses and other social activation.

Integrating stadia within the communities in which they are situated goes hand-in-hand with:

  • optimising the commercial opportunities that can be realised within and around the asset;

  • increasing accessibility to and from the asset via pedestrian access, carparks, easy access to major roads and public transport; and

  • ensuring there are high levels of community input and stakeholder engagement on how the asset can enhance the liveability and useability of the surrounding area.

Urban sprawl has meant that successful integration can rarely be achieved by constructing new sporting infrastructure within the inner circle of a major city (due to a lack of space), nor is it usually feasible to construct significant new assets in vacant outer suburban lots tens of kilometres away from major transportation links and population centres.

Cities such as Adelaide and Melbourne have instead opted to redevelop existing stadia rather than construct new infrastructure on brownfield residential, commercial or industrial land (even if that means demolishing and rebuilding existing stadia). For example:

  • the Adelaide Oval (Adelaide, SA) was rebuilt between 2012 and 2014 and with the addition of the connecting River Torrens footbridge, reinvigorated the neighbouring Riverbank and parklands precinct (which involved developments of the Adelaide Convention Centre, Festival Plaza and SkyCity casino and entertainment precinct); and

  • the Victorian Government and Melbourne Cricket Club have both undertaken feasibility studies to rebuild the Shane Warne Stand in the Melbourne Cricket Ground (Melbourne, VIC) which will increase the stadium’s capacity to around 105,000.   Although a final investment decision is yet to be made, preliminary plans reportedly improve the availability of food and beverage outlets, include a number of barbeque decks and potentially a five star hotel.

Failing to successfully integrate stadia can have detrimental time and cost effects on projects during design and construction phases, particularly where there has been a failure to define the interfaces between those involved with the development of separate parts of the stadium precinct. Beyond the construction phase, a lack of integration can also affect the legacy of the stadium.

The number of contractual interfaces on large scale projects with multiple works packages can be overwhelming but their importance cannot be understated.  Contractual interfaces define the allocation of time and cost risk between parties that necessarily interface with one another, whether on the same or separate projects.  

Comprehensive inter-party and inter-project contractual interfaces will enable parties to efficiently and effectively resolve minor disputes and avoid significant delays and cost blowouts.

Funding

Stadia and stadia precincts rarely look or feel the same but they are all expensive relative to the number of times they are utilised in any given year. For example, the ongoing redevelopment of the Sydney Football Stadium is reportedly set to cost more than $820 million and Optus Stadium in Perth was built at a cost greater than $1 billion.

Governments and sporting bodies will inevitably seek to share the burden of these high upfront capital costs with private sector investors and, in such cases, the public-private partnership model (PPP) has proven to be the financing model of choice both within and outside Australia.

  • The Stade Pierre Mauroy (France) is a multiuse 50,000 person capacity football stadium that is home to Ligue 1 football team LOSC Lille. The stadium was constructed between 2010 and 2012 using the common form Design, Build, Finance, Operate and Maintain PPP contracting model. The project was financed through availability payments and a debt to equity ratio of 81.5:18.5.

  • Perth’s new Optus Stadium was also procured using the Design, Build, Finance and Maintenance PPP contracting model (the Western Australian Government contracted VenuesLive, a third party operator, to operate the stadium). The Western Australian Government’s state capital contribution equalled 60% of the cost of construction and it currently pays monthly service payments (subject to an abatement regime) to cover operational expenses and private financing costs.

It is important to recognise that each project presents unique challenges and that the overall contracting model and source of project finance will need to suit and adjust to those challenges. We suggest there are five key principles by which successful PPPs are financed:

  • diversification of revenue streams through a range of user pays facilities – this could include revenue streams from multiple venues in different locations.   Those venues may be pre-existing or part of the works to be delivered by the private sector;

  • access to refinancing mechanisms to share potential gains;

  • offsetting the level of availability payments against diverse revenue streams available to the private sector;

  • inclusion of obligations to conduct periodic market testing of reviewable operations to ensure value for money; and

  • incorporation of guaranteed private sector revenue streams (such as tenancies and revenue based performance guarantees) to achieve revenue certainty.

Outside of the contracting model, governments may also wish to consider the use of value capture mechanisms to offset some of the costs of the project where the completed infrastructure has materially enhanced the value of the surrounding land.  

However, we note that direct value capture mechanisms are rarely implemented by governments and may be difficult to implement in the short to medium term with businesses and individuals grappling with disruption from COVID-19 and geopolitical issues, as well as high inflation.

The innovative design solution of stadia, which seamlessly enables the hosting of non-sport forms of entertainment (such as concerts) and successful integration with the surrounding neighbourhood, will ensure that the asset can be used more consistently for ticketed entertainment beyond the regular sport seasons. In this way, an increased stream of revenue throughout the year should offset the initial high cost of developing the stadia.

Final thoughts

Stadia developments are quite similar to other social infrastructure projects – notwithstanding the unique engineering and accessibility challenges, it is difficult to produce strong financial returns given the purpose of the asset is to provide a space for the community to access services (rather than generate revenue).

World class sporting infrastructure does, however, allow architects, engineers and builders to develop innovative and integrated facilities to establish stable sources of revenue to support the development. In a modern day world where fans expect convenience, comfort and new ways to engage with their favourite sports, the strongest financial, social and environmental returns may only be achieved by developing long-lasting, innovative and integrated assets.



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Construction, Major Projects and Infrastructure Government

This publication is introductory in nature. Its content is current at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. You should always obtain legal advice based on your specific circumstances before taking any action relating to matters covered by this publication. Some information may have been obtained from external sources, and we cannot guarantee the accuracy or currency of any such information.

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