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Q&A: Sports architect Matt Rossetti on the future of sports venues

By Bill Shea Jul 10, 2020

Matt Rossetti is a third-generation architect and president of the Detroit-based ROSSETTI design firm that has worked on dozens of arenas and stadiums over the decades since his father launched the company in 1969.

The ROSSETTI portfolio is a mix of fully-designed sports venues and an increasing number of renovation projects. It boasts of having designed or refreshed the Palace of Auburn Hills, Daytona International Speedway, Little Caesars Arena, Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, TD Garden, CenturyLink Field, Red Bull Arena, Dignity Health Sports Park and sports-anchored entertainment districts in Green Bay, Edmonton and Calgary. The firm has been the United States Tennis Association’s master planner and architect since 1990.

The University of Michigan graduate initially went to school to study oceanography because of his admiration for the late undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau. But he changed course and joined the family company in 1989 and has been its president since 1999, billing himself as the “chief architect of serious fun.” The firm employs about 70 people and had about $15 million in billings last year.

Rossetti spoke with The Athletic to share his thoughts on the current state of sports architectural design, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what may be in store for future stadiums and arenas.

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

What project are you most proud of?

Oh, boy. That’s like asking me which of my children I prefer. The one that has the most meaning for me is the U.S. Open Tennis Center. It’s an amazing complex. My father did the first one. He redid their campus in 1990. (Arthur Ashe Stadium was originally designed by Rossetti in 1997, and the firm later designed its retractable roof.) We won the master planning in 2008. We’ve spent the last 12 years (creating a master plan, which includes two new stadiums, Grandstand Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium, anchoring two sides of the campus). I got to re-do work that my dad did. It’s really cool.

In 2016, from L-R: Matt Rossetti; Danny Zausner, National Tennis Center COO; Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Arthur Ashe’s widow; Billie Jean King; Katrina Adams, immediate past president, chairperson and CEO of the USTA; and Gordon Smith, former USTA CEO and executive director. (Rafael Gamo)

I love Ford Field because it was just so well connected to the city. That’s a really good example of integrating a venue into its context. That was one where we did invent a whole new way of suites, putting all the hospitality and premium seating on one side of the venue.

How many stadiums and arenas are on the Rossetti portfolio now?

We’ve worked on hundreds of sports facilities, from training centers to arenas and stadiums. The last 10 to 15 years we’ve been doing tons of renovations. From suites and clubs, to the Cleveland Cavaliers — we gutted the building from the exterior and interior.

How much of your work is sports versus non-sports?

It’s probably 60 percent sports. We do a lot of mixed-use stuff that has a sports component to it. Titletown (in Green Bay) is a good example. The bulk of the work that we did is all related to a mixed-use and entertainment-focused development that happens to be next to Lambeau Field, but there are no real sports pieces to it. It’s all about entertainment for events and non-event days for the Green Bay Packers.

What are your other major client sectors outside of sports?

We have three different residential projects right now that we’re doing in Eastern Market in downtown Detroit. They’re really cool renovations to older buildings there that will become retail on the lower level, residential up above. We’ve got other places where we do retail, hotels, and casino work.

What sports projects are in your pipeline now?

We’ve got a lot of COVID work for different venues, consulting with them on seating, circulation, safety. We’re under construction for a new training facility for the Miami Dolphins, a new training facility for the Packers, along with a big new renovation for Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open, and a bunch of little things.

How much sports work is a refresh or modernization versus design of new venues?

Probably 80 percent. We were really early in the focus on renovations. We started probably 20 years ago with our work at the Palace of Auburn Hills. (Then-Pistons President) Tom Wilson understood hospitality. You’ve got to stay fresh. Every five years, they were doing a major renovation there to the tune of $10 million or $20 million or $30 million. Wilson helped me invent this return-on-the-design concept. We design for ROI. We understood where the money was made and how to create more revenue streams. Once we got on that path, we started winning a ton of renovation work.

How many projects do you bid in a given year?

Maybe 15 to 20. A lot of our work comes to us without bidding. A lot is relationship-based. Word of mouth. Someone calls us because of the work we did for another team owner.

Of those bids, how many do you land?

I’d say maybe 25 percent.

Are multiple design firms involved in bigger sports projects?

It’s getting more like that. It never used to be like that. It was all a singular firm. Now, we’re seeing more of these collaborations. Our project in Cleveland was like that. Our work in New York for the U.S. Open is singular. It’s not a lot, maybe 10 percent is collaboration. If it’s out-of-town work, there is often a local architect involved but they typically don’t influence the design a lot. They are there more for understanding the context of wherever we’re doing the work.

(Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

Has the pandemic affected the sports project pipeline?

It’s had a big impact. Most sports teams are hemorrhaging tens or hundreds of millions of dollars right now. Everyone knows this will pass, but at the same time people are getting laid off. It’s not an ideal time to be making large investments. I think it’s more a mental thing or optics. A lot of projects have either slowed down or paused for a while. We know they’ll come back, but for right now they’re definitely in a pause mode.

Do you think the pandemic will change sports venue design long term?

I don’t. I think right now, there are a lot of temporary changes we’re working on. There are some characteristics that have more to do with technology and operations than real design. That have to do with security and control. We’ve had these roundtables and forum discussions with dozens of team presidents and facility operators, and our suggestion is getting on the leagues to act like the TSA and put together guides that are league-wide guides on how you can maintain better control of who’s coming into your venue and control where they are going. Touchless authentication provides frictionless transactions, coming into the building, buying a hot dog, getting merchandise. If there is trouble, “smart” buildings can track it, and to augment the experience to get around, to a less crowded food place. There is a lot that can go on that would be permanently revolving around that concept.

How have stadiums and arenas changed in the 21st century?

Venues have become so much more socialized. The popularity of spaces like open decks and places for people to gather not in the seats, those are the hottest places in venues. The idea of being only connected to your seat is kind of a thing of the past. There’s a whole cultural shift of going to venues for different reasons. It’s not only about seeing a show or team. It’s about being there with friends and family. Selfie moments and sharing it with them. These spaces that will get more socialized but they’re the antithesis of what people want to do during COVID-19. What we’re suggesting is enhanced open spaces that can be used for queuing people. Once it’s over, they can go back to being socialized spaces.

What have been the milestones in stadium and arena design during your career?

There have really been only two major changes. The Palace of Auburn Hills was the first venue to ever integrate suites (both atop the seating bowl and via a ring of them around the middle of the bowl). They used to be called skyboxes because they sat at the top of buildings. It was the first indoor arena to have upholstered seats. People that went to concerts and games were wild animals. The old venues were painted concrete blocks. We designed the Palace in 1986 (and it opened in 1988). From then on, you watched in the 1990s and 2000s, the spaces and clubs are incredibly luxurious. They’re every bit as nice as airports and museums.

Second, there’s been this transition to these socialized spaces. Basically, the seating bowls haven’t changed. You still have suites in the middle of the bowl that act as a separator between the upper and lower bowl. The thing I cannot wait to see is a true shift in the seating bowl configuration where you lose the upper bowl. The ROI for an upper bowl is just not there. Essentially every row you move away from a performance you earn less money, but it costs more to build. You have this inverse relationship financially.

What will happen, in your view, with sports venue design in the far future?

What I think and what I hope is they will become more wedded to the fabric of cities, so they’re no longer standalone facilities that light up only when there are events. You’ve got all kinds of things connected, office space and retail. There should be civic uses. No reason not to have a fire station or police station or daycare or teaching facilities (inside the building), so they become more part of a community rather than a folly for billionaires.

I think the other thing, I think the size will shrink. The Tier 1 sports events or concerts will become so expensive they basically get more and more corporate-oriented. But there will be a plethora of other events, almost like the minor leagues.

Will future stadiums and arenas have fewer seats as people opt to stay home to watch more cheaply on their HD televisions?

There’s always been this talk about your home system (being) so great that people are going to stay home and watch. To me, it’s relative. People sat home and listened to the radio instead of going to the game. I’m not a believer in that alone keeps people home. I think it’s other things like COVID and security issues, parking. If venues can take the friction out of the experience, how you get there … if you’re within a city typically you have public transit that brought you to the venue. That’s where facilities belong, within urban scenarios. Remove the friction of waiting in line for transactions. You can order from your seat and have a pick-up place. We’re stuck in these old models of a concession stand and waiting at a counter. A lot of those things, we just need to get rid of these old habits and focus on technology to alleviate those fiction points. People want to continue to come. We are tribal beings and we want to be with our tribes.

How has the influx of corporate money for suites and premium seating affected design?

It plays a big part of design, for sure. But there’s been a swing back. Until about 10 years ago, the whole focus was premium, premium, premium, and how to design for that. The general admission was left completely unattended. People had to eat food on their laps or on trash cans. Now we create more accommodations for the general admission patron. More places to eat and mingle. The smart (venues) have areas that are both premium and public. The two can see but not touch. It engages both groups and leverages one asset.

Is the trend of tax dollars for private arenas and stadiums drying up, and if so, does that affect design?

That’s changed dramatically over the last bunch of years. Little Caesars Arena was about the last one to get the gravy. You don’t see that happening much anymore. That will be one of the reasons people will look more carefully at the size of these venues. Why not bring baseball down to 30,000 seats? And arenas down 12,000 to 13,000, and football down to 40,000?

What project do you look back on and wish you did something differently or pushed back more strongly on a team or owner’s bad decisions?

The Ottawa Senators’ arena (now called Canadian Tire Centre). They did it on a shoestring budget. There were so many corners trimmed, short cuts. In the end it did not represent what we started with at all. It’s like a little haircut trim, but by the time you’re done, you’re bald.

What venue do you wish you had designed?

I guess I don’t look at things like that. There are always things of interest.

The “cookie-cutter” stadiums of the mid-1960s and 1970s are reviled for their dull design today. What do you think of the retro trend that began with Camden Yards?

Those (cookie cutters) were awful, holy cow. They were really bad. (The design shift) goes back to Camden Yards. It was such a hit, people realized we can have personality to these venues. It made a huge change. But I think it ruined baseball stadiums for a long time. Like Comerica Park, they became like Disneyland, retro and fake. That was the new cookie cutter – the fake old. I admire Minnesota (Target Field). That was one of the first modern venues and the best-looking design.

Who influences the design most often in sports – team owners? Executives? Public officials?

It really depends. We’ve had everything from team owners, like (Dolphins owner) Steve Ross, who really gets involved with the interior design of facilities and will be selecting fabric and colors and materials. He really gets it. He had a really good knack for interior design. Other times, owners are really hands-off, and they rely on team presidents and facility managers. Some are interested in just the financial side.