How Does Stadium Architecture Affect Match Day Atmosphere?

The atmosphere inside a stadium has as much to do with its design as the fans inside it. We asked an architect who worked on Lyon's new ground how to create a truly noisy match day experience.

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08 August 2016, 11:40am

Peter Powell/EPA

For many football fans, asking "which club has the loudest stadium" is the same as asking "which club has the loudest supporters". But it's by no means this simple: a ground's volume can have as much to do with its design as the fans inside it. A well-designed arena can amplify a chant and spread it around the stadium whereas, in a badly-designed one, an equally loud chant can be inaudible at the other end.

After speaking to Garry Reeves – an architect who works for the firm Populous, and who designed Lyon's brand new and extremely loud 60,000-seater stadium – we've come up with seven key criteria that a stadium needs to maximise atmosphere.

1. A single, large Kop

The 'Yellow Wall' in Borussia Dortmund's Westalenstadion. Credit: Pascal Philp

Ideally, you want the fans to all feel together, to be able to see each other, hear each other, and sing as one entity. To enable this, it's best if all supporters at one end are in a single stand. At Liverpool's Kop, for example, 12,400 fans can sing and wave their flags together, which helps create those 'special European nights at Anfield'™.

The great stadiums in Germany also have super-Kops at one end, where all the hardcore fans can gather. At Borussia Dortmund's Westfalenstadion, 25,000 supporters can (safely) stand on the South Terrace, forming the famous 'Yellow Wall'.

If you can't have one big tier, the next best thing is to have as little overlap between the two tiers as possible. According to Reeves: "Even if there's two tiers at both ends, if everyone can see each other that really does help. You have twice the number of people that are part of that atmospheric chant than you do otherwise."

What you don't want is what happens at stadiums like Stamford Bridge. Chelsea's loudest stands – the Matthew Harding and the Shed – are both divided into a lower and upper tier with quite a severe overlap. This makes it harder for chants and atmosphere to carry organically between the two tiers and reduces the overall noise from those ends. Both ends of Goodison Park suffer from the same thing, as does Crystal Palace's Holmesdale Road end, where those in the upper tier are separated from the black-clad 'Holmesdale Fanatics' and their flags in the bottom tier. Of course, those stands can still make plenty of noise, but not as much as they have the potential to produce.

2. Fans on top of the players

At Portsmouth's Fratton Park, the fans are very close to the team. Credit: Mark Freeman

The more tightly-penned in the fans and players are, the louder the game will be. According to Reeves, the best example of this is Portsmouth's stadium, Fratton Park, particularly in years gone by. "Even though it had such a small capacity, in its day it was a ferocious place to go," he explained. "The atmosphere was enormous purely because everyone's really, really close and the noise holds in." When designing Lyon's new stadium, he took this into account and kept the distance from the front row to the touchline to UEFA's 10-metre minimum.

Even money-driven UEFA recognise the importance of being close to the action. Their Guide to Quality Stadiums says: "In the past, many football stadiums were built with running tracks around the perimeter of the pitch. This does not make for a good match atmosphere, as it reduces the 'cauldron' effect. The stadium structure should hug the pitch in order to maximise this cauldron effect without, of course, compromising the safety of the players and coaching staff, match officials or spectators."

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This is one of the reasons the stands at West Ham's newly acquired Olympic Stadium partly cover the running track. However, following their first game there, fans still complained that they were too far away from the pitch compared to Upton Park. English fans are not used to running tracks, but they are more common overseas with teams like Hertha Berlin, Napoli, Besiktas, Roma and Lazio all playing next to one. While their atmospheres can be impressive, it's fair to say that they're not as good as they would be without the tracks.

It's not just the front row that should be close to the pitch – the back row should be as near as possible, too. The more leg room each seat has, the further away the fans at the back are from the pitch, all other things being equal. So, arguably, there's a balance to be struck between leg room and atmosphere. Newer stadiums tend to have more leg room, making it harder to get as many fans close to the pitch. Reeves uses Twickenham as an example of abundant leg room, with 84 centimetres between the back of one seat and the back of the one in front. At stadiums like Old Trafford, Loftus Road and Selhurst Park, on the other hand, the distance is more like 66 centimetres. That 18-centimetre difference might not sound a lot, but if there are 30 rows the fans at the back are over five metres further away.

As well as reducing leg room, another method of bringing fans closer to the pitch is by building more tiers and having a bigger overlap between the lower and upper. However, this contradicts the first 'have one big Kop' rule – stadium design is never straight forward.

3. Steep sides

Valencia's Mestalla resembles a ravine. Credit: Jose Saez

The biggest stadiums on the continent tend to be a lot steeper than in Britain. This prevents the atmosphere from escaping out the top, and keeps fans closer to the pitch. According to Reeves, the San Siro's upper tier is as steep as 40 degrees in places. Camp Nou, the Bernabeu, Mestalla and Juventus Stadium are all similarly steep.

In Britain, however, post-Hillsborough guidelines recommend a maximum steepness of about 35 degrees so as to avoid fans suffering from vertigo. Any steeper than that and you have to install safety measures, such as hand rails. The closest thing we have to the steepness of the San Siro is the Millennium Stadium, where football is now rarely played.

4. A closed roof

The Millenium Stadium is one of the biggest covered stadiums in the world. Credit: Nick Richards

A closed roof helps to prevent noise from escaping out the top of the stadium. While this is common for NFL grounds, the only British stadium to have a roof that can close is the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Abroad, retractable roofs can be found at Poland, Romania and Singapore's national stadiums, and at clubs sides Schalke, Galatasaray and Ajax.

The next best thing to a roof that closes completely is having a solid wall between the top of the upper tier and the roof, as Wembley does. This stops the atmosphere escaping between that gap.

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The worst thing, of course, is no roof whatsoever. As well as leaving fans exposed to the elements, any noise they make quickly disappears into the ether. Thankfully, this is now rare in the top tiers, but persists in the lower leagues. Gillingham's away stand is one example.

What the roof is made out of matters as well. An old-fashioned tin roof will echo a lot of noise, but if you find it hard to hear what's being sung, or said on the loudspeaker, that's because the tin just bounces the sound around rather than tuning it, as other materials do. As Reeves says: "A tin roof makes it noisy, but it's not necessarily good noise."

5. A wrap-around stadium

At Leicester's King Power, noise can not escape at the corners. Credit: Dom Fellowes

As well as escaping out the top, sound can escape from the corners of a ground if they're open. This is a problem in most stadiums in the Football League, but particularly the smaller and older ones.

The new fashion is for 'wrap-around' stadiums like the Emirates, Etihad or King Power. While these are arguably somewhat soulless, they do keep the sound in better. A compromise is to keep a 'four corners' ground with four separate stands but to box those stands in with walls on both sides, as clubs like Bournemouth and Burnley have done.

6. Away fans near the action

At Stamford Bridge, away fans are right next to the pitch. Credit: Brian Minkoff

Having a loud and obvious away fans' section builds the atmosphere. Not only do they make a lot of noise themselves, they also rile the home fans up and thus increase the sound they produce.

In most stadiums, the club has no choice but to place away fans quite close to the pitch – there's simply nowhere else for them to go. Clubs with 40,000-plus stadiums can chose to seat away fans up in the gods, which could arguably benefit the home team but not the overall atmosphere. Of the teams that can take this route only Newcastle do so, giving away fans a great view of Tyneside's skyline.

7. A stadium in the heart of the community

For all its faults, the Emirates has stayed in the heart of Islington. Credit: Peter Mcdermott

It's hard for a pre-match atmosphere to build if fans are travelling by car to an out-of-town retail park, rather than collectively taking public transport and drinking near the ground. Reading's Madejski Stadium, Shrewsbury's New Meadow and Scunthorpe's Glanford Park spring to mind as places where local pre-match drinking options are limited.

But, as land becomes more expensive and stadiums grow ever larger, some clubs must choose between building a bigger ground and staying in their historic community. Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham are the exceptions, but they have considerable financial clout, and to shift a London club outside the city would be unthinkable.

According to Reeves: "If the stadium's not in the community, you have to work incredibly hard to [prevent it becoming] an out-of-town driving experience where you park your car and go straight to your seat. If they are out of town, you have to design the public realm better, so that it becomes a place rather than a stadium and a car park."

@joeloyo