Stadiums—whether built for international or local sport—have a long history of technology, design, and construction innovations. Some improved the experience for athletes and fans, while others were failures. See where your favorite stadium falls.Less
This Guide is from the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History. We empower the public to solve problems, navigate challenges, and effect change in their communities. Since its founding in 1995, the Lemelson Center has led research, exhibition, and educational initiatives that advance new perspectives on invention and innovation and foster interactions between the public and inventors.
The Panathenaic Stadium, originally a natural amphitheater used for athletic competitions beginning in the 550s BCE, was rebuilt of marble in 144 CE. Innovations include staggered starting blocks for runners on a circular track and a horseshoe design that brought crowds closer together and amplified sound. It was abandoned in the 4th century and then excavated in 1869 for Olympic events organized by businessman Evangelis Zappas; it then hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896 and again in 2004.
With room for 50,000, the Colosseum hosted spectacular events and competitions including gladiator combats, dramatic hunts, wild animal fights, and battle reenactments including at least one staged naval engagement. At 157 ft. tall, with 80 entrances, subterranean levels, and built of stone and concrete in an elliptical shape, it has influenced stadiums to the present day. Seating was hierarchical, but giveaways included wooden balls falling from above with tokens for food, money, or prizes.
In the late 19th century, teams and communities around American baseball fields built bleacher seating in a distinctive open U-shape running along the baselines. A wave of baseball stands and then stadiums were built in the U.S. from the 1870s through the 1910s, initially out of wood, then brick or concrete and wood. The structures, however, suffered from frequent fires, and grew incrementally and chaotically as additional elements were added over time to accommodate growing attendee numbers.
English soccer originated at universities, but then expanded its appeal when factory workers established teams and built fields adjacent to their workplaces. In 1892, Everton F.C. opened Goodison Park in Liverpool as the first soccer-specific venue in England. Later expansions made it a four-sided stadium featuring three tiers of stands. The team still calls the facility home.
Built rapidly for the 1908 Olympics, White City Stadium featured a visible steel frame and a design that positioned a cycling track around the exterior while the athletics track and swimming and diving pools were in the center. After the 1908 Olympics, it was used for a variety of sports, including running competitions, greyhound races, boxing events, rugby, and soccer. It was demolished in 1985.
Opened in 1909, Shibe Park in Philadelphia was North America’s first stadium built of steel and concrete. The transition to steel-frame stadiums was not immediate; stone and brick Colosseum-styled stadiums continued to be built into the 1930s, including Franklin Field in Philadelphia when rebuilt in 1922, or perhaps most famously, Berlin’s 1936 Olympic stadium.
In 1935, Crosley Field started hosting nighttime games when President Franklin Roosevelt flipped a switch activating 632 floodlights. Baseball attendance had fallen due to the Great Depression; those with work could not attend day games and the unemployed could not afford them. Attendance at Crosley doubled the first lighted season, and other stadiums soon followed; Chicago’s Wrigley Field, the last holdout, added lights in 1988.
A multipurpose American football and baseball stadium, RFK was the first of the “concrete bowl” generation of stadiums built in 1961. It offered a new level of luxury, including wider seats, air-conditioned locker rooms, a machine-operated tarpaulin to cover the field during rain, yard-wide aisles, and ramps that made it possible to empty the stadium in 15 minutes. The stadium offered 12,000 parking spaces and could be reached by many bus lines, and later a subway station.