Adapting the Horseshoe Shape: A History of Stadiums

Stadium design has changed little from ancient Greece to Victorian England to contemporary America.

Attribute the horseshoe shape of the stadium to the Greeks, while the Romans are responsible for the elevated bleachers. However, on the bright side, thanks to these two civilizations, we have early examples of stadium architecture, which we lacked for centuries until the nineteenth century.

Time immemorial

Stadiums, whose name derives from a Greek word for a unit of measurement, first appeared in Greece, where they surrounded U-shaped tracks with seating areas. Some of the stands were carved into hillsides, while others were constructed out of various types of stone (including marble) to create an elevated platform from which spectators could observe the footraces below.

The Greeks introduced stadiums to the world around six centuries before Christ, but the Romans deserve the credit for truly revolutionizing stadiums in the early centuries after.

The Colosseum, which opened in 80 AD, is considered the progenitor of all contemporary stadiums. Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California was designed by Tim Cahill, who told that he was inspired to create the stadium by a “Roman amphitheater.”

Though the Colosseum in Rome has great potential as a political and cultural study, the 157-foot-tall, 50,000-seat stadium could easily pass a design board today. There were eighty entrances to the auditorium; seventy-six were numbered, and four were considered grand entrances. Seating was divided into tiers according to social status, with the lowest tier reserved for spectators.

The elliptical shape of the stadium allowed for three levels of travertine (a limestone), concrete, stone, tiles, and other materials to surround the field of play, which was unfortunately used far too often for something quite unsporting.

Over the course of centuries, hundreds of these amphitheaters were constructed across the Roman Empire, giving rise to a new type of venue: the circus.

Unlike the amphitheater, which was built to accommodate as many people as possible by completely surrounding a gladiator field, the circus style stadium, a variation on the Greek horseshoe, was constructed with stands based on the precise measurements of a track and left one end open. The Romans took things a step further than foot racing by making chariot racing the main attraction at circus-like stadiums.

Up to 250,000 spectators could be found in Rome’s Circus Maximus, a circus stadium made of three stories of stone. 

It’s Empty

Since Roman culture relied heavily on amphitheaters and circus-style stadiums for up to six centuries, there was a dearth of new stadium design in Europe during the Middle Ages. As a spectator sport, jousting provided us with a scattering of bleacher-style seating in fields or castle courtyards over the course of several centuries. However, stadium construction lacked excitement for more than a millennium.

Amphitheaters and jousting fields merged to create a modern style of stadiums that brought the Colosseum back into the spotlight in the nineteenth century.

Change of Age

After stadiums in Italy and Greece were completed, work began on Lord’s Cricket Ground in London in 1787. In 1812, Lord’s moved to its current site and construction began on what is now likely the world’s oldest stadium. In 1867, a grandstand measuring 30 feet in height and 175 feet in length was built, and the Prince of Wales was given his own private box.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australia’s first bleacher-style cricket venue, opened in 1854.

Stadiums with wooden bleachers became increasingly popular in the late 1800s. Steel and concrete began to take shape at venues ranging from the All England Croquet Club (now Wimbledon) in 1868 to a few baseball parks in the United States.

Franklin Field, the oldest stadium still in use, was built by the University of Pennsylvania in 1899 for football games and is located in Philadelphia, where the sport first gained widespread popularity. In 1895, it opened to the public for the Penn Relays and featured the country’s first scoreboard. In the 1920s, the stadium’s capacity grew to over 78,000, making Franklin Field the largest in the United States at the time.

Goodison Park in Liverpool was the first stadium built specifically for soccer when it opened in 1892, thanks to Everton F.C. After some renovations, Goodison Park became the first English soccer stadium to feature a three-tiered stand and a four-sided stadium with two-tiered stands.

Stadiums became more diverse in the early 1900s, after seeing a surge in the number of baseball parks in the United States and soccer stands in Europe in the late 1800s.

Building Material Abundance

Multiple English soccer stadiums were designed by Scottish architect Archibald Leitch beginning with Manchester’s Old Trafford in 1910. It was the first soccer stadium to feature continuous seating in all four corners.

White City Stadium, which hosted the 1908 Summer Olympics, was the first stadium to feature continuous seating tiers around the outside of a track rather than just standing terraces.

In the United States, football was instrumental in the development of concrete stadiums. Harvard Stadium, the oldest permanent concrete college stadium in the United States, first opened in 1903.

Osborn Engineering Company’s 1923 design for old Yankee Stadium resulted in the first three-tiered stadium in the United States, and possibly the world.

The first twenty to forty years of the twentieth century saw an explosion in stadium construction, with Leitch designing soccer stadium after soccer stadium in England and many colleges across the United States embracing concrete bowls for football. If you want to learn about UK Football, check out

The West Coast entered the fray with the opening of the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1923 and the Rose Bowl in 1922, both of which showcased the strength of a Roman-styled bowl stadium constructed out of concrete, joining the old Wembley Stadium in 1923, a towering structure in London.

Those are Not Appealing

Wood, concrete, and steel were just some of the materials that began to be used in stadium construction in the first half of the twentieth century. However, as stadiums grew in size and popularity, they ushered in an era in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s in which massive concrete structures were constructed in a style that was neutral enough to accommodate a wide variety of events. Coliseum in Oakland is one of the few examples still standing; it opened in 1966 and is the only stadium in existence to host an NFL and MLB team. Domed stadiums, the first of which was the nearly 68,000-seat Astrodome in 1965, were also conceived along these lines. The need for synthetic grass emerged concurrent with the development of fully enclosed stadiums. In addition to popularizing domes and artificial turf, the Astrodome also pioneered the use of luxury boxes, which have since proliferated and are now frequently at the forefront of design debates.

What Caused the Backlash

In the 1970s, however, Kansas City opened Arrowhead Stadium and Kauffman Stadium, two stadiums designed specifically for baseball and football, respectively, to put an end to this trend.

Some teams opted for a sport-specific layout, such as the Dodgers’ Dodger Stadium in 1962, which featured engineering that minimized the number of poles in the way of spectators’ views. The SkyDome in Toronto, Ontario, was the first of its kind when it opened in 1989 with a retractable roof.

By the time 1992 rolled around and Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened, stadiums tailored to individual sports were once again all the rage, and not just for the American pastime.

Both American college football and European soccer continued their pushes for larger stadiums in 2014. Camp Nou in Barcelona holds nearly 100,000 people, while Michigan Stadium in the United States holds 109,900 for non-racing events. For sports that don’t attract crowds of over 100,000, however, the creation of a more personal atmosphere has taken center stage. There is, of course, a clear distinction between the VIP rooms and the rest of us.

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