Excerpt from design:retail

Few things are more American than apple pie, but with its combination of football, high-tech entertainment, food and retail, the NFL Experience might be a contender. In December 2017, the NFL (National Football League) partnered with Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group to launch its 44,000-sq.-ft. experiential retail attraction at 20 Times Square in New York (at the corner of West 47th Street and Seventh Avenue) that fuses a classic Hall-of-Fame vibe with the excitement of getting to jump, throw and virtually huddle with professional players in some of the country’s most revered stadiums.

Danny Boockvar, president of the NFL Experience, says the attraction, which also includes a food court and bar that overlook Times Square, is the first of its kind. “It’s interactive, giving the NFL a chance to expand its reach, whether it’s to fans or not,” he says. “It’s a way to bring family and friends into the excitement of sport in a way that doesn’t exist anywhere.”

As Cirque du Soleil continues to expand its entertainment offerings beyond live shows, the NFL Experience is its first official sports endeavor. To accomplish this feat, Cirque du Soleil and the NFL teamed up with Los Angeles-based Thinkwell Group to help develop the attraction’s content-driven experiences and Boston-based Shawmut Design & Construction as the project’s general contractor.

Since the NFL Experience spans four floors, Chris Durmick, senior creative director at Thinkwell, says the goal was to move patrons from the Seventh Avenue concierge entrance where they purchase tickets up to the fourth floor to start the experience. Interactive touchscreens and memorabilia from each of the 32 teams set the stage before visitors get fully immersed in the excitement.

Between high-tech offerings like a 4-D theater and a virtual reality-like huddle (Huddle Up) and more hands-on experiences to measure visitors’ vertical jumps and tackling strengths in the Equipment Room, there is pretty much something for everybody.

“The NFL was conscious of not just doing a Hall of Fame,” Durmick explains. “They wanted the general notion of entering as a fan, then moving through the cinema and seeing the sport at close angles, seeing and hearing and touching like a player on the second and third levels, and then getting to engage in a championship experience like a player, so that people feel like they’re leaving as a player.”

The showstopper at the NFL Experience is The Stadium, the 4-D theater that features a 20-minute 2-D movie produced by NFL Films with physical elements like wind, rain and pounding vibrations added by Cirque du Soleil to really bring it to life.

Martinez + Johnson Architecture, which is known for its construction of performing arts centers, was responsible for designing the theater itself. “When we arrived, there were four floors and a hole in one of the floors, which the landlord had put in for us,” describes Stewart Jones, managing principal at the firm’s New York office. “We were fascinated with the project though, because it was incredible to watch the 4-D experience unfold with the amount of technology needed.”

In the Game Plan, visitors have a chance to virtually meet with Coach John Gruden to learn a real NFL play before engaging in an immersive huddle to discuss the play. They then move on to the Quarterback Challenge, where they get to pass with their favorite quarterback using the play. The excitement culminates in the Super Bowl Celebration, an augmented reality experience of a confetti shower and Gatorade dunk before heading to the Champions Stage to virtually receive the Vince Lombardi trophy.

Beyond the activities, Nathan Amondson, art director at Thinkwell, says the NFL wanted to emphasize the authenticity of the space. “Through the use of finishes, they wanted it to have some of the lived-in feeling that you’d get in an actual stadium,” he says. “They also wanted to make sure all of the vocab and the graphics were perfect, even in places like the locker rooms, so that you’d really feel like you were part of the life that a normal fan would not [be].”

Because of this, polished concrete, rubberized flooring and turf abound. It is also not unusual to see old and new stadium finishes like board-formed concrete, cinderblock and brushed aluminum throughout different areas of the space.

Les Hiscoe, CEO of Shawmut, says although his firm has previously worked in Times Square, the magnitude and complexity of the NFL Experience presented some unique logistical challenges, especially when it came to communication and coordination among so many vendors and subcontractors. “On a more technical level, the NFL Experience introduced several custom elements that have never been designed or installed before, which means there was no roadmap for the infrastructure needed to support these elements either,” he notes.

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