Minnesota United FC's safe standing section as seen in initial renderings.

The Angle

Safe Standing Takes Shape in Minnesota Stadium Plans

by on 24 May 2016

Lead designer for Populous, Bruce Miller, speaks exclusively to FiftyFive.One about the ‘safe standing’ supporters section planned for the Minnesota United stadium.

When Minnesota United FC publicly unveiled its stadium design back in February, primary owner Dr. Bill McGuire made a point of highlighting the club’s plans to incorporate a large, single tier supporters section behind the venue’s south goal.

To the delight of the team’s two largest supporters groups, the Dark Clouds and True North Elite, McGuire went on to note that this area would feature what has come to be known as safe standing. Since the February announcement, however, specifics on Minnesota’s stadium have been sparse, leaving many fans anxiously awaiting additional news.

Late last week, when it became clear that progress was finally being made on the team’s legislative asks at the state capitol, the stadium’s lead designer, Bruce Miller of Populous, offered FiftyFive.One exclusive insight on how Minnesota United is approaching the supporter experience at its new home in St. Paul.

Details Emerge

Miller confirmed that safe standing is still very much a part of Minnesota’s plans, which have now reached the end of the Schematic Design phase. With this news, Minnesota joins Orlando City – whose stadium was also designed by Miller’s team at Populous – as pioneers of the safe standing movement in the United States. San Jose’s Avaya Stadium, it should be noted, also incorporates a small standing terrace, but it is a fraction of the scale of what is being built in Orlando and proposed in Minnesota.

It is believed that Minnesota’s supporters’ section will be the steepest stand in Major League Soccer and will give fans a commanding view of the field and a looming presence over opposing goalkeepers.

Capacity of Minnesota’s standing section has been a subject of speculation since the initial announcement. While the number has fluctuated some as the design has been refined, Miller confirmed that Minnesota’s standing section will have a capacity of 3,000. Orlando’s final standing capacity is slightly larger at 4,000, but Miller noted that Minnesota fans will be pleased with the fact that the rake or angle of Minnesota’s stand will be steeper. It is believed that Minnesota’s supporters’ section will be the steepest stand in Major League Soccer and will give fans a commanding view of the field and a looming presence over opposing goalkeepers.

When safe standing was first announced, many assumed that it would take the form of the so-called rail seats commonly found in Germany. The rail seat configuration features a galvanized steel guardrail with a built-in rudimentary flip up seat that can be locked in the upright position when standing is desired and can be converted to seating when required for international competition. Manufacturers like German company Stechert and English outfit Ferco have carved out a niche market making and distributing rail seats – or vario-seats as they’re often called in Germany – to clubs and stadium operators across Europe. While these products are widely accepted as the preferred approach to safe standing, they are not yet readily available in the US, and as architect Bruce Miller pointed out, they come with a significant upfront cost equal to “about the same price as padded armchairs.”

The system to be implemented at Minnesota United’s stadium, as described by Miller, is as simple as attaching a continuous guardrail in front of each row of steeply raked concrete risers.

Populous’ solution to these challenges is simple; lose the seat but keep the rail. Rather than attempting to import expensive all-in-one units from Europe, the design team is working to create the same effect with a slightly different kit of parts that is easier to source in the United States. The system to be implemented at Minnesota United’s stadium, as described by Miller, is as simple as attaching a continuous guardrail in front of each row of steeply raked concrete risers. The integral seat typically seen in Europe will be omitted altogether leaving fans with a large embankment intentionally designed as a standing-specific environment. The architect was also quick to point out one perk that Minnesota’s fans will surely appreciate; each and every one of the new stadium’s 3,000 standing spaces will have its own cup holder.

If international competition requires the installation of seats, Miller suggests that the club could install temporary seats that are pre-mounted on a track for rapid installation using a product similar to the seats recently installed at US Bank Stadium. Miller, however, is optimistic that these seats won’t need to be purchased, adding that he is hopeful that officials at CONCACAF and FIFA can eventually be convinced that Populous’ take on modern, safe standing enhances fan safety to a level that far exceeds the status quo of standing in seated areas.

Vikings Track Seating

Vikings Track Seating

The Case for Standing

While Miller, a leading voice in global stadium design, is now a believer in safe standing, it’s not a position he arrived at lightly. With tragic events like the 1989 Hillsborough disaster still making headlines, Miller and his team approached the idea with great caution. When asked how he first reacted when a client (Orlando City’s ownership group) first asked him to incorporate a large standing area into a design, Miller replied:

I must’ve watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on Hillsborough 20 or 30 times. I wanted to understand how it happened. I wanted to understand why it happened. I needed to do this before I could feel comfortable making the case that it [standing in large numbers] can be safe.

Miller and the team at Populous then did extensive research on the subject, focusing particular attention on the German Bundesliga, a league with modern venues where roughly one out of every four tickets sold is for a Stehplatz or standing space. What the team of architects found was a wide range of standing configurations, all with different variables that affect fan safety.

Many German stadiums, for example, feature the previously mentioned rail seats, but configure them in a way that allows standing capacity to be greater than seated capacity by placing two risers between every rail. This practice of intentionally double loading the space between each rail was not something Populous felt comfortable with. As a result, the standing configuration to be used in Minnesota and Orlando will be a direct 1:1 ratio with each fan having a numbered standing space on a single loaded riser with one rail in front and one rail behind. In the event that seats are ultimately installed for international competition, the capacity of the stands will remain the same.

Double loaded safe standing with rail seats in Hannover, Germany. Courtesy: Jon Darch (http://www.safestandingroadshow.co.uk)

Double loaded safe standing with rail seats in Hannover, Germany. Courtesy: Jon Darch (http://www.safestandingroadshow.co.uk)

The one fan per one marked space approach ensures that planned, safe capacity is not exceeded and does so in manner that is far easier for in-stadium ushers and other officials to track. Reacting to the question of whether or not he has received any push-back from American building officials or fire marshals unfamiliar with the notion of safe standing, Miller stated without hesitation “No, it’s an easy, safe proposition for me to make.” Safe standing in a 1:1 configuration with guardrails in front of each fan, Miller argues, is simply a more honest, responsible strategy for stadium designers to acknowledge the way in which many soccer supporters already use their stadiums. The possibility of what Miller called a “domino effect” of fans standing on benches, seats, and seat-backs – which often leads to injuries and unintentional damage – is completely removed with safe standing. Trip hazards in the form of low seat-backs and the danger of forward crowd surges are no longer a concern when fans are given a level surface to stand on and a protective rail in front of and behind them.

Single loaded safe standing with rail seats in Innsbruck, Austria. Courtesy: Jon Darch (http://www.safestandingroadshow.co.uk)

Single loaded safe standing with rail seats in Innsbruck, Austria. Courtesy: Jon Darch (http://www.safestandingroadshow.co.uk)

Driven by Owners’ Passion

One of the more interesting items Miller discussed is the degree to which safe standing in Major League Soccer has been championed by individual ownership groups. Orlando City’s owner Flavio Augusto da Silva, it seems, can be credited with leading the charge, and Minnesota United’s ownership group led by Dr. Bill McGuire soon joined the ranks. Both groups have repeatedly stressed the importance of fostering a supporter-driven atmosphere in their new stadiums and both felt strongly that a large safe standing section, coupled with an atmosphere enhancing roof canopy, is an effective way to achieve it. By contrast, there are no plans at present to include safe standing in DC United’s new stadium at Buzzard Point, also being designed by the team at Populous.

In a November 2015 article by Sports Illustrated’s Tim Newcomb, Miller noted the importance of spectacle and procession in the soccer fan experience. He reiterated that point last week and described the vigorous discussions that have taken place internally about where to locate Minnesota’s supporters section. On one hand, there is argument to be made for locating the Dark Clouds and True North Elite at the geographic north of the stadium. The obvious connection to the club’s rallying cry – The North Is Rising – was difficult to ignore. When looking at the location in the context of the overall site, however, the stadium’s southern end began to make more sense.

Miller, who said he understands the appeal of both locations, is supportive of the entrance spectacle made possible by locating supporters in the south end. He cited conversations with team officials in which they envisioned groups of new fans walking into the stadium from the plaza for the first time and being presented with an unobstructed view of 3,000 black and blue clad, flag waving fans across the length of the emerald green field. It may still be a few years from reality, but that’s a vision we can all support.

 

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  • bmaurisak

    Even though the seats are “numbered” I surely hope this will be General Admission.

    • Adam Jarvi

      That’s really an operational decision that the club will need to make. Code concerned with allocated net space per occupant and overall capacity.

    • Abe

      I’m great with GA from the perspective that anyone with a SG ticket can stand there, but I definitely won’t have any patience for interlopers who aren’t supporters in that section. Hopefully they derive some kind of methodology to make sure only the people who should be in that section are allowed entry into it.

  • Spence

    Great info Adam. Super happy to see they’ll be adding the Safe Standing even though I’ll be one of the lame-o fans in the regular seats.

    I don’t want to get too far ahead of the ball on the stadium design and potential amenities, but I’m wondering what plans (if any) the club and/or Populous has for transitioning some of the current gameday experiences from NSC to the new venue.
    Two things in particular… Pre-game tailgating and Kid-friendly activities.
    It’s obvious that tailgating will be difficult without a big lot, but can something be coordinated in the big green space? And there clearly won’t be the space for kids to run around during the match like there is at NSC, but CHS Park at least has some games and things for the kids behind the centerfield wall. Trying to get pre-teen kids to sit still for a whole match can be draining.
    Possibly some space in the concourse for small sided courts? Access to some outdoor space that is gated off from the outside?
    I’m hoping that the designers are thinking holistically about the experience of family attending a match and not only on a standard stadium checklist.

    • Adam Jarvi

      Thanks for the kind words. We will certainly be following up with additional info on things like gameday experience in the weeks and months to come.

      As for tailgating, I think you’ll see this transition into something more akin to a block party on that new public plaza(s).

      I experienced this firsthand last year in St.Louis prior to the USvSt Vincent WCQ game. The official AO “tailgate” was in a public park. It was amazing. Best “tailgate” experience I’ve ever had and no cars or hot asphalt to be found. It’s a slight change in mindset, but I think folks will be pleasantly surprised.

    • BJ

      >Possibly some space in the concourse for small sided courts?

      That’s a great idea. Depending on how this thing gets built some small futsal type space would be incredible.

  • Spence

    One other note to consider on the North v. South orientation for the ultras…
    If you were hosting a concert you’d probably set up the stage at the supporters’ end and not use the safe standing seats. Which way would you want to be blasting the noise? Into the neighborhood north of University or in to the neighborhood across I-94? I’m not sure which would be less objectionable or if it even makes a difference. Which direction does Tom Goldstein live? (just kidding Tom)

    • Brian Quarstad

      Haha. He lives to the North so your scenario is perfect. We think the roof will probably keep a lot of the noise in but the wind will drift some of it no matter what direction. It probably would hit less residential going south where the density doesn’t really start until a half mile away.

      Lastly, as of this point and time, MN United has said they don’t plan on having a lot of concerts at the venue.

  • Tom G.

    Great article! I’m super excited for the new standing terraces, and am also glad to hear that we will be on the South end. No more retina damage while staring into the setting sun!

  • Kyle Eliason

    Steep is excellent. Better lines of sight, better atmosphere.

  • ErR

    Gotta say I’m disheartened that international fixtures will most likely be impacted by this decision. I’d club a baby seal to see a USMNT or USWNT game here. I know the article addresses it, but it feels the architects glossed over the point as not important, when in fact having a WCQ match here could seemingly bring in decent revenue. Also, the hope that FIFA and CONCACAF might change their minds is wishful thinking in my opinion. (At least in the near future.)

    • Adam Jarvi

      I don’t think it’s a matter of glossing over the issue, but rather that there’s a very simple solution to it that doesn’t need to be overthought. Bolting on temporary seats once or twice every year or so is not problematic at all. In fact, it’s very likely a more cost effective way to do it than spending multiple times as much money importing the Euro model rail seats that will be kept in standing configuration 99% of the time.

      I also agree with Miller that there is a very strong case to be made with CONCACAF and FIFA to allow safe standing. It’s objectively safer than many of the questionably designated “all-seaters” we see used during WCQ in Central America. I think you’ll see it approved for use in int’l fixtures eventually.

      Either way, the use of safe standing during MLS matches will not affect our ability to attract USMNT or USWNT matches. There are straightforward ways to address standing/seating conversion that are implemented by many other clubs.

  • Adam Jarvi

    I don’t think it’s a matter of glossing over the issue, but rather that there’s a very simple solution to it that doesn’t need to be overthought. Bolting on temporary seats once or twice every year or so is not problematic at all. In fact, it’s very likely a more cost effective way to do it than spending multiple times as much money importing the Euro model rail seats that will be kept in standing configuration 99% of the time.

    I also agree with Miller that there is a very strong case to be made with CONCACAF and FIFA to allow safe standing. It’s objectively safer than many of the questionably designated “all-sweaters” we see used in WCQ in Central America. I think you’ll see it approved for use in int’l fixtures eventually.