Going to a hockey game with my dad is one of my earliest memories. I can remember the cold Central Ohio winter night, my dad lifting me out of the back seat of our Plymouth Valiant and grabbing my hand as we walk across the wide open, snow filled parking lot towards a massive barrel-roofed brick building. We enter a low-slung brick box on the side of the building under a faded neon sign displaying “tickets”. He lifts me in his arms and sets me down at the edge of the counter and buys our tickets. I recall watching a lit cigarette dangle from his mouth while he reaches under the set of iron bars to take the paper tickets from the older woman in horn-rimmed glasses. We walk into the dimly lit, smoke filled concourse teeming with people, buy some food from a concession stand with a scratched up stainless-steel counter, and walk out the portal to our old, wooden-slat fold-down seats. I still hear the slice of skates on the ice, see the hazy smoke in the lights, and feel the sudden drop in temperature welcoming me to my first sporting event at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum – home to the Columbus Owls of the International Hockey League.
The experience was memorable – my father yelling at the players, the chicken wire shaking as the players crashed into the boards (yes, chicken wire), the smell of beer and hot dogs, and the roar of the crowd. I’ve been blessed with a brain that recalls many early childhood memories – this is one from around 1975 when I was just three years old. Now, fast forward to 2023. The work by our teams at MSA Sport on sporting venues shows the revolutionary evolution of the fan experience over these past 40+ years.
Gone are the days of a crowded, tiny room with workers behind bars selling you scraps of paper for cash. The pandemic catapulted holdout institutions, sports teams, and venues to fully embrace electronic ticketing, and transformation of traditional ticket windows and box offices to “concierge stations” to help people with specific needs and individualized experiences. These cramped ticketing lobbies are being designed to accommodate the additional technology of advanced ticketing scanning systems to accelerate fan entry into venues. These spaces are bright, airy, easy to navigate, and serve to enhance “flow” into and out of venues.
The concessions and circulation experiences at modern venues are worlds away from my early childhood memories of Fairgrounds Coliseum and its dingy concessions counters. Wide concourses, custom architectural lighting, state of the art audio visual technology, custom branded experiences, abundant signage & graphics, and even exterior views to bring in natural light result in open, welcoming places that double as special events spaces to activate the building on alternate dates. A variety of customized food and beverage experiences are provided to appeal to a variety of consumer choices. Traditional fare, unique cuisine to the local market, and prepackaged food options are just a few of the options that modern fans expect at their venues. MSA Sport has also worked on the design of several automated “grab and go” concessions that allow patrons to scan a credit card, pick their prepackaged items, and walk out without having to go to a cashier station – allowing them to get “back to the action” as soon as possible.
Long gone are the wood slatted folding chairs and narrow aisles in the main seating area from my 1930’s Fairgrounds Coliseum experience. Wide, comfortable general seating options are provided by many indoor/outdoor venues, a variety of premium seating priced options include everything from field/court level clubs that have “behind the scenes” pregame/postgame experiences including courtside seats, speakeasies, and night club post-game parties to a variety of premium seating options within the general seating bowl. Traditional suites are now mixed with “super suites” and specialized branded clubs to allow for a variety of sizes of hospitality groupings, as well as varied experiences for different demographics.
In a moment of professional “Deja vu”, MSA Sport was hired in 2020 to design a series of infrastructure renovations to the “grand old dame” at the State Fairgrounds, now known as Taft Coliseum. While these updates mainly focused on engineering systems and ice plant upgrades, the fond memories of Owls hockey with my Father in the mid 1970’s, and the decades of other experiences I had in the building growing up as a “Columbus Kid” (Chill ECHL Hockey, OHSAA Basketball Districts, and hours at the State Fair Horse Show) merged into a “full circle” personal moment of gratification that affirmed my decision nearly 30 years ago to enter Ball State and major in Architecture. And yes, that old ticket lobby is still there, the concourses are still narrow but have new lighting and fresh paint, the concessions are “refreshed”, and the tobacco smoke haze of 3,000 hockey fans has given way to new lighting and updated ventilation.
It’s an immense sense of personal and professional gratification to see buildings like the Coliseum live on to invoke memories for future generations. As I visit our offices and see the projects underway by MSA Sport for teams in the NHL, MLS, MLB, Colleges & Universities, Cities, and Communities – I only wonder who, in the next generation, will be retelling their first sports stories from a building or place our firm had a hand in designing?