Stadiums, Sports, and the Imagination Gap (Updated)

Hutong West
Beijing on Sunday
0800 hrs.

Visiting Winnipeg on business in April, I was treated to a personal, behind-the-scenes, roof-to-foundations tour of Investors Group Field, the gleaming, high-tech new sports venue that will host eight matches of the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup, including the sold-out pre-cup friendly match between China and the USA.

You would not necessarily associate Winnipeg with great sports business (beyond, say, sales of donuts at a hockey rink,) but what I found even more impressive than the physical plant of the 33,000-seat stadium was the care and thinking that went into creating a venue designed around a great experience for both spectators and athletes. Everything about the stadium, from concessions to security to the locker rooms, was designed and built to do one or more of the following:

1. Create the best possible experience for fans from the minute they leave home to the minute they get home: parking is ample, buses to and from the venue serve neighborhoods throughout the city; there is a huge grassy area just for toddlers where parents can still follow the game on screens: there are areas designated for people who want to watch the game in a bar or club-like environment; and seats and bathrooms are spotless;

2. Maximize revenue opportunities at every event, but do so without making people feel like their being gouged or nickel-and-dimed: concession selections were eclectic and reasonably priced, and there were numerous ways to “upgrade’ your experience;

3. Simplify the jobs of the people who have to bring the talent to and from the stadium, whether the managers of the home or visiting team, or Taylor Swift coming to do a concert: the venue was set up so that fans could see the stars pulling into the stadium and their specially-designed dressing rooms, but not obstruct or endanger them in any way;

4. Maximize revenue from the venue even when there are no events scheduled but in ways to make the events themselves more exciting: the venue had a series of boxes that are rented for parties (both for kids and adults) focused on the sports events; there was a huge fan store open year-round on the main level; plans are now afoot to commercialize the tour that I was given;

5. Make the venue as practical and simple to maintain as possible: there were numerous places where the designers could have added some flair and touches that would have made the venue more visually stunning or that would have been very “cool,” but they wisely chose to make the venue beautiful, comfortable, and hardy.

As I rode to dinner after the two-hour walk, I could not help but compare Investor’s Group Field with so many of the beautiful stadia in China. The nation has built temples to sport that are uplifting in their architecture and stunning in their scale. And yet few, if any, are delivering lasting value to their owners, to their neighbors, or to sport.

Beijing’s most iconic sporting grounds have become silent, aging white elephants. Yet Winnipeg, a city of around 700,000 that is so cold for five months of the year that locals dub it “Winterpeg,” can boast two new, prospering sports venues with two league-leading sports teams and dozens of events and commercial activities to support them.

I recognize that prosperous sports leagues and venues are, for a “developing” nation, nowhere near as high on a list of priorities as, say, putting a man on the Moon. But the constellation of decaying stadia that dot China’s cityscapes stand in mute testament to a national failure, not in finance or audience, but above all in imagination.

China’s leaders have focused on technological innovation as the nation’s pathway out of the middle-income trap. The focus is valid, but myopic. The silence of the Bird’s Nest is a hint that something else is lacking. In its quest to lead the world economically, culturally, and politically, Beijing must dare to stoke the imaginations of its people, its merchants, its scientists, and its athletes.

David Fieldman

Hello David.

Many thanks for your kind comments. As a Canadian originally from Saskatchewan and later Quebec, whose relatives lived in “Winterberg,” I was heartened by your so very positive and passionate review of the newly-built sports stadium in Winnipeg.

Winnipegers, by tradition, take a great deal of pride in their city. It’s evident from the galleries, parks, the roadways, the river and the meticulous care and governance by the civic leaders and its citizens. It’s a truly cohesive city where everyone listens to everyone’s opinion and then acts for the betterment of their society.

Warm regards,

David