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Friday Night Lights: The architecture of high school football stadium design in Texas

January 16, 2020

By Scott Klaus

High school athletics facilities in Texas can come at a high cost, but the evolution in their design can also provide more value to our communities

After growing up just outside of St. Louis, Missouri, attending the University of Kansas, and starting my architecture career in Kansas City—considered by many as the sports architecture capital of the world—one could almost say I was destined to have a passion for athletic facility design. I was fortunate to spend the first half of my career gaining valuable experience working on athletics projects for major universities, including the University of Kansas, Tulane, Notre Dame, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Fast forward 10 years, and I would soon find myself moving to a new state. You might think this had me concerned for my path in sports design, but I was relocating to Texas—and if I had to leave Kansas City, I couldn’t think of a better place to go than to the home of the “Friday Night Lights.” So, I brought the skills to Houston that I had learned in Kansas City, and I’ve been designing high school athletics facilities across Texas ever since.

Of all the project types I’ve worked on here—including arenas, natatoriums, and indoor practice facilities—it’s the football stadiums that have attracted the most attention. They’re a highly visible component of the communities they serve, and while they provide great opportunities for community gathering, they are truly created for students to showcase their talents.

They also often receive a lot of attention for the cost required to build them.

The vision for McKinney Independent School District’s new $70 million districtwide stadium was to create a college-like atmosphere and intimate fan experience in a bowl stadium.

So, why do they cost so much?

To answer that, we should start from the beginning. According to Texas Bob, who has catalogued more than 1,200 high school stadiums over the last 20 years, the oldest high school football facility in Texas is Lang Field at St. Anthony Catholic High School in San Antonio. Built in 1910—10 years prior to the formation of the American Professional Football Association—Lang Field was essentially a grass field with some concrete bleachers built into a berm on a hill. It supported a small spectator capacity of 750 and provided very limited parking for the newly invented automobile—and if you look at Lang Field today, not much has changed. Small capacity. Limited parking. And virtually none of the amenities that have occurred slowly over the past century to support modern day game play.

Here is a look at the evolution of 8 design features and amenities that can contribute to high school stadium design costs we see today.

1. Districtwide Use

“Friday Night Lights” games can attract thousands of spectators for a big rivalry. The need for a more robust facility and much higher capacity than Lang Field is one reason why we typically build stadiums in Texas as districtwide facilities serving multiple high schools. In this scenario, athletes will practice at their home campus and then travel to a central facility for games.

A district stadium can serve up to five or six high schools before scheduling requirements set by the University Interscholastic League (UIL)—the governing body for high school extracurricular activities in Texas—call for an additional facility. This means very large districts will even have multiple district facilities!

2. Lighting

The first nighttime football game west of the Mississippi was played in 1905, but it wasn’t until 1929 that a Midwestern high school stadium hosted the first game under lights.

When someone says, “Friday Night Lights” today, everyone I know thinks of Texas high school football. Although I mostly contribute this to the movie and subsequent TV series of the same name, it cannot be denied that Friday night high school football games are a huge part of Texas culture. Drive around Houston on a Friday night, and it’s not long after you pass one stadium that you can see the glow of the next one off in the distance. Luckily, lighting technologies have improved over the last century, and the LED options we now use are more efficient and offer better control than the older metal halide technology.

LED lighting located on the home press box and visitor grandstands at Alvin ISD’s Freedom Field can be tuned to match school colors and represent other district and community events held within the stadium.

3. Turf

Synthetic turf was invented in 1965 and installed for the first time in the Houston Astrodome in 1966. It has continued evolving since then to be more grass-like and is being installed at high schools all over Texas due to its low maintenance and ability to improve practice time. Heavy or consistent rainfall expectations can also a driving factor for investing in synthetic turf as it allows student athletes to stay practicing on the field during mild weather. 

There have been many changes over the years, but the goal has never changed: to support learning and provide an experience to be remembered.

4. Parking

Older football stadiums were in the heart of small communities, and spectators would naturally park all throughout the surrounding neighborhoods on game night. However, many cities are now passing ordinances that require additional land to support on-site stadium parking as well as water detention during heavy rain events. I’ve seen some ordinances call for as many as one parking space for every four spectators.

5. Scoreboards

The first electronic scoreboards were developed in the 1980s and used relay switches to independently control incandescent light bulbs. Today, digital scoreboards are becoming the norm, and everyone seems to be competing to build bigger and bigger displays.

Students are learning the technology to operate them and create advertisement content for display during the game, which generates some revenue for districts. We are even starting to see ribbon boards show up in some facilities, which add some extra life.

The largest high school scoreboard in the country when it debuted, the 1,400 square foot display at New Caney ISD’s Texan Drive Stadium integrates high-tech features such as instant replay and slow motion.

6. Restrooms and concessions

Stadiums built in the mid-1900s only supplied a small number of restrooms, which were typically located behind the bleachers alongside the concessions. Regulatory codes and ordinances have changed construction requirements over the years, and in 1997 the International Building Code (IBC) was established and required a certain number of toilets based on stadium capacity. For example, the IBC requires one toilet for every 40 women and 75 men up to 3,000 seats. You’ll find that some of the new stadiums with capacities of 10,000 require almost 150 toilets to serve spectators!

7. The spectator experience

Historically, bleachers have been constructed out of wood, concrete, aluminum, steel, or a hybrid of these materials. The aluminum bleacher systems commonly seen at stadiums today were not prevalent until the 1960s and ’70s. Steel and aluminum systems come in at half the cost of a formed concrete bleacher, providing a cost-effective seating option. Concrete stadiums are also still being constructed due to their long-term durability and ability to provide refuge for spectators during a weather event.

Stadium seating and access has also been greatly influenced by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Prior to the ADA becoming law in 1990, hundreds of stadiums had been constructed without accessible seating and elevators to press boxes. Today, wheelchair seating must be provided in multiple locations throughout the venue in quantities determined by overall stadium capacity. Any press box larger than 500 square feet is required to have elevator access. 

Speaking of press boxes: these spaces were originally small, one level, and accessible only from the stands. Dedicated coaches had to deal with the uncomfortable Texas heat—and some coaches are still weathering the conditions in historic facilities like House Park in Austin, which was built in the early 1930s and still uses the original press box. Press boxes today are elaborate, multistory structures and include suites for the coaches, timer, announcer, and district staff.

8. Multipurpose facilities

My most recent stadium designs have also included a community or banquet room. These multipurpose spaces can typically accommodate 300 to 500 people in a banquet configuration. The facilities, which have a commercial kitchen, are heavily utilized by the district and community for numerous activities including game day events, fundraisers, board meetings, teacher training, professional training, weddings, and birthday parties. 

The ultimate stadium goal

There have been many changes to the designs over the years, but the goal has never changed: to support learning and provide an experience that will always be remembered. As I continue to share more over the coming year about the athletic facility design trends we are shaping in Texas, I look forward to highlighting the importance of student athletics in the learning environment as well as the impact these facilities have on local communities. I also hope to learn more about my passion for sports architecture along the way. 

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