Spectator Splash

By Scott W. Hester

Published in Athletic Business – May 2015 issue

Spectator Splash

Spectator seating is universally associated with competition in any sport and can often become a hot button topic when designing a natatorium.  It seems like almost everyone has their opinion.  Topics such as quantity of seats, type of seating, location of seating, permanent versus portable, spectator viewing angles and many more questions will arise when making this important decision.  While there is some level of subjectivity when making these decisions, and expectations can widely vary, make no mistake these choices can have a significant impact on your facility.

Let’s start our discussion with identifying the preferred viewing direction for aquatic sport events.  While there have been natatorium designs that have incorporated 360 degree peripheral seating, you’ll find that in a natatorium environment the spectator’s viewpoint is preferred to be congruent with the field of play.  Therefore, unlike sports such as basketball, football, baseball and hockey, spectator seating for aquatic sports is almost always located parallel with the field of play so as not to significantly diminish the experience.  This allows spectators to follow the event from end to end.  For natatoriums that include a pool providing race course configurations in perpendicular directions such as a 50-meter by 25-yard pool, seating along two sides of the pool might be preferred.  This type of spectator seating configuration would be a consideration when the primary 25-yard racecourse is across the pool in the short course direction.  Under these somewhat unique conditions, providing spectator seating along multiple pool sides should be provided.  Other aquatic sports such as water polo and synchronized swimming have also traditionally preferred spectator seating that is parallel with the field of play.  While some fans may actually prefer a frontal view for diving, industry precedence has been to maintain viewing for springboard and platform diving from the side as well.

Seating locations vary significantly with generally the most advantageous being elevated one story above the water.  The varying factors are viewing obstructions by people walking back and forth along the deck, i.e., officials, athletes and coaches, as well as separation of athletes from spectators.  As a result, a preference from swimmers and officials is to provide elevated seating where the first row is maintained approximately 10 feet or greater above the pool deck.  This situation can commonly be found in natatoriums that contain long course pools or pools with diving springboards and platforms.  In these instances, the vertical space for providing second story elevated seating is almost always available.  With second story seating a design that combines permanent seats and portable seating can provide additional opportunities within the natatorium space.  Areas where portable seating is provided can make for an ideal space to conduct dryland training or other non-water based activities.  During larger meets, portable bleachers are staged in this dryland training area, resulting in a higher spectator seating count.  In addition to the viewing advantages that elevated seating can offer, space beneath seating allows opportunity to locate locker rooms, offices, classrooms, meet management, pool mechanics and storage.  Sometimes budget or other influencing factors leads the designer to create mezzanine seating where the first row is 4 to 6 feet above the pool deck which improves the line of sight over deck seating but is not quite as desirable as second story seating.  Spectators located in areas that are a minimum of 4 feet above the pool deck can still provide an excellent viewing experience.  However, like spectators located in on-deck seating, mezzanine seating can still present challenges with obstruction of views from athletes and officials who might be walking on the pool deck.  The least desirable, but still acceptable, is deck level.  Deck seating is usually found in smaller natatoriums containing only short course pools (i.e., 25-yard and 25-meter).  For locations that provide only deck level seating, control of spectators becomes a key part of the design as multiple entrance/exist points will be required.

As with other sporting events, ensuring that each spectator has the ability to adequately see the entire field of play is critical to the fan experience in a natatorium.  To achieve this, ample deck space will be needed to provide a complete line of site to water surface.  This becomes particularly critical with elevated seating where deck spacing up to 20 feet may be required, resulting in capital cost implications to your project.  The line of site, or viewing angle of the spectator seating is another key design element for consideration.  Ideally, each spectator can view the entire field of play with standing or repositioning oneself to view beyond the spectators sitting in front of them.  To achieve this experience, the quality of one’s clear view beyond spectators in front of you (or known in the design community as C Value) must be considered.  The higher the C Value, the better one can see above a person sitting in front of them.  In very large stadiums such as those found in professional baseball and football venues, the quantity of seats make it prohibitive to develop a constant viewing experience from every seat.  There is almost always a tiered pricing schedule for seats.  However, in a natatorium that may include only few thousand seats, it is unlikely a tiered pricing schedule will be developed.  Therefore, creating a spectator view that is somewhat consistent will be likely.  As the old saying goes, having a facility where there’s not a bad seat in the house can and should be achievable.

Other factors that must be considered with spectator seating include controlled access, traffic patterns that do not cross wet decks, ADA design issues, emergency exits, spectator-only restrooms, and custodial care.  Each of these items should be carefully evaluated so a clear understanding among both the professional design consultants and owner are consistent.   It is also likely that jurisdictional code requirements may impact several of these design considerations.

Seating construction can vary. Permanent seats are often considered the first choice due to easier housekeeping tasks and lower annual costs. Considering that natatoriums can become warm and humid environments wreak havoc on building materials and finishes, material selections are important.  As expected, non-corrosive equipment should be selected, and in some instances, concrete step seating may provide sufficient seating with offering the advantage of low maintenance.  In addition to material selections, other issues to be considered include capital costs, ability to convert spectator seating space to multi-use space, frequency of competition events, emergency exit requirements, density of spectators, and requirements for parking to seating ratios.  A mixture of seat construction types are considered, i.e., retractable, temporary and portable.  Permanent seating can be either bleacher style or individual seats.  For most facilities, bleacher seating provides the most economical solutions and can maximize the seat counts within the available space.  However, for larger facilities that are expected to host national and international competitions, individual seats may be preferred.

When determining the total quantity of spectator seating, several factors may have influence.  Besides budget, the most common factors are the size of pool and expected events.   A typical seat count for a short course pool (25-yard or 25-meter) natatorium is 125-250 seats.  Facilities hosting multi-team meets will usually require 250 to 500 seats.  Since these events are infrequent, a combination of permanent and temporary seats is the most cost-effective solution.  Some pools are in locations with many age group teams that desire the ability to frequently host large multi-team meets.  These facilities can justify 500 to 1,000 combined seats.  A long course pool (50-meter) that will host major competitions, will typically require a minimum of 1,000 permanent seats, with space for installing additional temporary seats.  Larger attendance may occur for a United States age group invitational meet.    U.S. Division I universities with highly developed swimming and diving programs that wish to attract the National NCAA Championship meets frequently provide 1,500 to 2,500 seats made up of both permanent and temporary seats. The U.S. Olympic Festival requirements were 2,500 to 3,000 seats prior to that event’s demise.  Major international swimming events such as the FINA World Championships or Pan American Games would typically require 7,500 to 10,000 seats.  At the top of the scale are Olympic venues for aquatic sports with a requirement of 15,000 to 20,000 seats, which includes up to one-third reserved for VIPs, athlete family members and the media.

As you can see, designing the appropriate spectator seating location, style and quantity involves many considerations.  Not unlike most sporting events, spectators can influence the results of aquatic sports. Providing ample space for spectators in a friendly and comfortable environment is critical.  All factors should be considered by developing a list of preferred solutions that are prioritized and matched to fit your budget.  While this goal may seem difficult to achieve at the onset of your next natatorium project, proper planning and design can provide you with a facility that can meet spectator expectations for many years.



About the author

Scott Hester, President of Counsilman-Hunsaker, is an award-winning design principal with a wealth of experience in the planning and design of aquatic facilities with the aquatics engineering firm, Counsilman-Hunsaker. Scott’s expertise and understanding of the aquatics industry provides practical, cost effective, and efficient designs along with a unique understanding of aquatic programs and their requirements.