Industry Connection: Collaboration between academia, athletics, and architecture for a post-COVID future of sport

by Kiernan O. Gordon, Department of Business, University of New England and Scott R. Schiamberg, Perkins Eastman

A group of professionals with expertise across sport architecture, design, athletic administration, and academia convened as a response to the COVID-19 global pandemic to consider resultant impacts of the pandemic on sport. The group’s formation, collaboration, and corresponding growth may offer insights to colleagues across sport who may wish to establish future partnerships across industry and academia. In particular, three aspects of the group’s dynamic–knowledge diversity, time unboundedness, and psychological safety–have been valuable in their collaborative process, which has catalyzed group member engagement and enhanced its outputs. 

Core Group Members (alphabetical)
  • Merrily Dean Baker, Former Director of Athletics, Princeton University and Michigan State University
  • Kiernan Gordon, Assistant Professor, Sport and Recreation Management, University of New England
  • Jason Harper, Director of Health Care, Principal, and Board Director, Perkins Eastman
  • Josh S. Jackson, Senior Associate, Perkins Eastman
  • Glenn MacCullough, Founding Principal, MacCullough Architects
  • Rebecca Milne, Director of Design Strategy, Senior Associate, and Board Director, Perkins Eastman
  • Scott Schiamberg, Director of Sport & Exhibition, Principal, and Board Director, Perkins Eastman

In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the United States, Scott Schiamberg of Perkins Eastman, a global architecture firm, convened a group of thought leaders across sport architecture, design, athletic administration, and academia to consider the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the future of sport.

The group’s goal was to develop insights and provide meaningful guidance to the respective communities of design and sport, as well as the public at large. Schiamberg noted that early in the pandemic, a variety of professional groups (e.g. architects, etc.) formed in an attempt to react to the pandemic’s potential impacts on their respective professional practices.

In contrast, his approach was to synthesize input from a diverse group of people across professional disciplines, including those outside of Perkins Eastman as well as those within the firm in practice areas tangential to sport with relevant knowledge on the topic.

The group is comprised of seven core members. The aforementioned Scott Schiamberg is a Principal, Board Director, and Director of Sport and Exhibition at Perkins Eastman.

He has worked around the world for major international sports clients and has been intimately involved in the planning and design of some of the most prestigious facilities and sporting events, including stadiums, arenas, and training facilities for teams in Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, and the NCAA.

This includes the planning of Olympic Summer and Winter Games, such as serving as an advisor to the 2012 London Olympic Organizing Committee and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Committee.

Rebecca Milne is Director of Design Strategy, Senior Associate, and Board Director at Perkins Eastman. Her background in neuropsychology and architecture informs her investigations on how design affects physical and mental well-being, as well as the human experience more broadly.

As an architect and published researcher, Milne has led several studies that examine how people collaborate and the importance of individualization in activity-based workplace environments.

A Senior Associate at Perkins Eastman, Josh S. Jackson serves as a planner, designer, and strategist for public and private assignments with over fifteen years of experience. He is particularly experienced in guiding educational and civic institutions toward fulfillment of their missions through strategic planning of the built environment.

Kiernan Gordon serves as Assistant Professor at the University of New England. A former men’s college basketball coach and administrator with over a decade’s worth of experience within intercollegiate athletics, Gordon’s research largely examines the role that emotion plays in sport spectators’ consumption of sport venues and related products.

He has served as a guest speaker at various institutions, including Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, and is a Research Fellow with the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security. Glenn MacCullough has over thirty-five years of experience in the practice of architecture and leads his own firm, MacCullough Architects.

MacCullough has a broad background in sport and entertainment projects, urban design, and commercial and community institutional work. He has served in Project Architect, Project Manager, and Project Director roles for many major national sport venues, including Nationals Park in Washington, DC, Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, and The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas. He has also had major design roles for arenas in top–tier university athletic facilities and for community recreation centers.

Merrily Dean Baker possesses a thirty-plus year career as a university Director of Athletics, most notably Michigan State University. Baker also served as Director of Women’s Athletics at Princeton University and the University of Minnesota.

Baker has also been a member of Olympic NGB Boards of Directors and served as a member of the Office for Civil Rights Task Force that wrote the initial interpretations and initial implementing guidelines for Title IX when it became federal law in 1972.

Jason Harper is Principal, Board Director, and Director of Health Care at Perkins Eastman. He has managed the design of large-scale projects, successfully guiding global healthcare clients through complex, multi-phased planning and construction projects.

Harper is Co-Chair of the American Institute of Architects’ New York Health Facilities Committee. After Hurricane Sandy, he led efforts to increase the resiliency of New York City’s hospitals and healthcare facilities and frequently speaks about health district planning and healthcare facility design at conferences and authors articles on these subjects for various publications.

The focus of this paper is on the group’s formation and collaborative process. While ongoing discussions have occurred during bi-weekly meetings since May 2020, multiple conversations with the group’s core members from September 2020 are included herewith.

The details of this collaborative process shed light as to how this group has explored sport event delivery as a consequence of the pandemic while doing so in a way that has allowed all members to simultaneously engage in a collaborative process.

Its members hope that others who are looking to establish partnerships across industry and academia in the future will find value in the experiences that members of this group have found to be both positive and productive.

In this brief paper, themes related to the group’s evolution and collaborative process will be discussed and lessons will be offered that may assist sport-oriented colleagues in future partnerships across the field.

Emergent Themes

Early in the group’s formation, the group focused on addressing the immediate issues that emerged from attempts to deliver sporting events amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Defining the problem of the impact of COVID-19 on sport venues, though, was challenging and proved elusive.

Group members discussed the difficulty associated with grasping the problems caused by the pandemic as new information about COVID-19 and its impact on society was constantly evolving.

Schiamberg explained that while the pandemic was the impetus for the group’s formation, its members realized very quickly that directing focus on an immediate response to the pandemic was a Sisyphean task, especially as the world began to witness how the pandemic revealed multiple issues involved in the participation and spectatorship of sport.

Or, as Merrily Dean Baker put it more succinctly, “We talk about design changes for the ‘new normal’, but the ‘new normal’ is changing every twenty-four hours.”

The difficulty in defining the precise problems resulting from COVID-19 was coupled with a broader industry trend, which was that organizations were attempting to solve the immediate challenges associated with the pandemic at sport venues through task forces established within their respective organizations.

This group, though, ultimately adopted a different approach by recognizing the degree to which the problems associated with opening sport venues in the COVID-19 age are enmeshed with other aspects of social life and the problems that the pandemic creates therein.

Correspondingly, the group’s conversations began to expand beyond the immediate scope of COVID-19. As Schiamberg noted, “trying to advise clients on how to open up their facilities with what was transpiring at the time didn’t appear to make sense given the fact that we were still trying to understand the severity of the issue more broadly and its consequent impact on sport.”

While the pandemic remained the focus of the group’s conversations, the conversation shifted to how the COVID-19 experience revealed underlying problems for both participants and spectators, at all levels of competition.

“Its not that the viewing experience will change [after COVID-19], its that returning to the previous viewing experience will be slow . . . Given the amount of time needed to deliver a vaccine, the resistance some have to taking a vaccine, and the possibility that this may not be the last pandemic of our lifetime means that we should expect a return to normal to be slow and the ability to respond to a pandemic has to be swift.”

Glenn MacCullough

Rebecca Milne’s comments represent this shift. She stated that the pandemic has really demonstrated just how important sport really is to society, while also highlighting so many of the problems inherent to sport across a variety of levels.

Most notably, the fact that “sport wasn’t equitable for all prior to the pandemic has been made clear during the pandemic. So, our focus has largely shifted to the question of how can sport be used to build better communities in the future?”

Consequently, the group is now attending to these more deeply embedded issues for sport spectators and participants that the pandemic has elucidated. While the COVID-19 pandemic remains, as Glenn MacCullough has stated, the group’s “jumping off point”, the group has adopted a more pragmatic approach, which is the realization that trying to solve the intricate, everyday demands and constraints posed by the pandemic is analogous to trying to hit a moving target.

Rather than focusing on how to return to normal amidst the pandemic, Josh Jackson clarified that the group has “shifted its focus towards the questions of what is the pandemic catalyzing and what will be the permanent conditions on the other side of that? We’re interested in this for two reasons: i) What can we prepare for? and ii) What opportunities to re-shape sport will emerge?”

Sports venues have not really changed over time. What we’re seeing from the NBA demonstrates that the blend of the physical and the virtual may speed up the evolution of sport architecture in a way that hasn’t yet happened.

Rebecca Milne

In reflecting upon the group’s evolution and collaborative process, members spoke very positively about working with each other because of each member’s different sport-related experiences and perspectives. As Rebecca Milne reflected, “Level of expertise or experience with sport has not been the focal point of the group.”

Instead, the group has a very much ‘come as you are’ philosophy, where level of expertise or experience with sport is not essential; all perspectives matter. Milne continued to say that the group members’ discussions over time have allowed it “to go in and out of scales” and be “focused on the discovery process.”

Jason Harper reinforced this in referencing his primary design expertise in stating that, “In health care architecture, so much of what we do is focused on controlling the invisible. It’s been very fascinating to explore how to control the invisible in sport venue design” through engagement with others.

Merrily Dean Baker and Kiernan Gordon, the two core group members in sport and academia, have repeatedly mentioned how working with designers has been beneficial.

Gordon stated that there are certain taken-for-granted aspects of sport that members of this group have forced him to re-examine through their own insightful comments, which, he said, “is refreshing.” Other group members’ unique perspectives of sport and design “have forced me to reconsider my own assumptions, which has really been kind of fun.”

From a cognitive perspective, which is interesting that the virtual doesn’t replace [attending a contest in person] because watching sports uses brain power in a way that we don’t think about . . . [it] activates mirror neurons, especially when you’re in person, meaning you feel one with the sport . . . the virtual can’t replace that feeling . . . The significance of mirror neurons is interesting, since they fire when we’re engaged with others in person, but don’t fire through virtual engagement. So, connections on a deep level aren’t present–and the experience not as fulfilling–when we engage in sport virtually.

Rebecca Milne, regarding the communal nature of spectatorship

      “The same is true for architects”, as Glenn MacCullough noted, “Architects talk to architects all the time . . . so, diversifying this group instantaneously was fantastic.” Josh Jackson agreed, “The purpose of those who work within the built environment, such as architects and engineers, is trying to solve problems. One of the great things about having Merrily as part of this group isn’t so much the answers, but [determining] what questions should we be asking.”

Future of Sport Venn Diagram

Scott Schiamberg likened the group’s ability to learn from one another while still communicating effectively to a Venn Diagram.

While everyone in the group is interested in sport, he pointed out, each member has different perspectives regarding it and, “This is very interesting and healthy for us to share.

That said, we often use a different language to express these perspectives. It’s almost like a Venn diagram; finding the overlap in our respective languages has been crucial to considering the issues and our role in addressing them.”

This prompted Gordon to follow up, “Scott brings up an interesting and helpful point. In some ways, we’ve been navigating through that Venn diagram with each other as we work to understand each person’s perspective and use those perspectives to move the group forward.”

One of the things that I’ve found fascinating from a place and space perspective is what happens from a performance perspective in the bubble. Some individual players have scored at such an incredibly high level, multiple times, it makes me think that the norms of the regular season, such as home court advantage, air travel, and fans in the stands, are really significant to player performance and overall productivity.

Kiernan Gordon, regarding the NBA’s ‘bubble’
Insights & Recommendations

The group’s experiences as a consequence of its members’ emergent, collaborative process offer three, valuable takeaways for those looking to bridge the divide between the sport industry and academia in future pursuits. They are: knowledge diversity, time unboundedness, and psychological safety.

The value of building a team whose members’ experiences and expertise cut across a broad swath of a topic is not new. The members of this particular group, however, universally found joy in hearing others’ perspectives, which increased their engagement and enabled fruitful discussion.

Why? Scott Schiamberg’s thoughts on a Venn Diagram approach to the group’s formation is helpful. As he noted above, the appropriate balance of knowledge diversity–where there is enough difference to stimulate thought and expose members to new terms and concepts without being so esoteric as to alienate others–is key.

Group members very often referenced how others’ comments have provided them with the language to articulate that which they have been thinking or, as Josh Jackson asserted earlier, incorporating others’ perspectives doesn’t so much answer questions as to help frame what questions the group should be asking in the first place.

I keep thinking, you know, ‘what would the new sport architecture be [as a result of the pandemic]. A lot of people in health care are ‘re-tooling’ as a consequence of the pandemic in anticipation of another at some point. How can sport venues do this? How would they change? How will technologies allow the experience to remain or change for the better?

Jason Harper

Group members noted on multiple occasions that the shift away from a singular task focus toward a broader, inclusive examination of sport as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled stimulating conversation and thoughtful attempts at addressing sport-related challenges.

That is, while deadlines are certainly helpful, this group has benefitted from the temporal and intellectual freedom to explore tangents and welcome members’ corresponding thoughts, which has proved useful in the context of a problem that is constantly evolving.

Perhaps the clearest example of this ‘time unboundedness’ comes from Rebecca Milne, who noted that the group’s emphasis on “the journey” has allowed interesting ideas and unique perspectives to take shape through collaboration that may have not been possible for a task-specific, schedule-driven group.

This group started along the same lines as others’ approaches across industry because “that was the model that we were seeing . . . We realized that we didn’t have to look at ‘the now’ because it may not be as relevant as the future. We didn’t have immediacy placed on our group, which allowed us to expand our minds”, Milne remarked.

I’m very concerned about some of the myopia I’m seeing because of the pandemic. The pandemic did not cause the problems in intercollegiate athletics but the pandemic has brought intercollegiate athletics to its knees temporarily.


The freedom to explore topics and issues with one another–to, essentially, ‘think out loud’ with other group members–has arguably been the most consistent undercurrent through the group’s discussions.

Group members often echoed the sentiment that Merrily Dean Baker shared when she said, “all perspectives are welcome”. As referenced earlier, Rebecca Milne also noted that all levels of experience with, and expertise related to, sport have been accepted throughout the group’s work together.

Kiernan Gordon mentioned how easily any one of the group members could dismiss another’s thoughts on sport based on each person’s own expertise and, yet, that has not happened. These comments all reflect a level of psychological safety—empathy and support—that permeates the group.

Additionally, group members have often built upon others’ comments relative to their own expertise during discussions, mentioning how others’ thoughts have given them the language to articulate something that they’ve considered but haven’t yet been able to express.

Colleagues wishing to partner across academia and industry may find value in amplifying others’ voices in these ways. As has been the case with this group, acknowledging and supporting others’ perspectives enables thought leaders to emerge within the group creating a heterarchy, the result of which enables both dynamic conversation and corresponding outputs. Scott Schiamberg’s comment sums this up nicely, “Anyone could run this meeting [in my absence] and I’d feel, like, ‘great, I wonder what happened from it?’”

Knowledge diversity, time unboundedness, and psychological safety have been consistent aspects of the group that have allowed its members to feel engaged as they work to contribute towards the group’s ultimate products. The group continues to meet to explore numerous topics of inquiry relative to the future of sport as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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