Architecture, Careers, People Spotlight, Sports, United States

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has elevated Jon Niemuth, Director of AECOM Sports, to its prestigious College of Fellows. This distinction is the AIA’s highest membership honor, recognizing architects who have made significant contributions to the field and achieving a standard of excellence in their profession.

Over the last 25 years, Jon has focused his career on three distinct areas: developing a business-based transformation delivery model, integrating a previously disassociated building typology with its urban context, and creating career paths and new education modalities – not only for architects, but individuals in the sports administration profession as a Sport Business Executive Fellow for the Ohio University College of Business.

We invited Jon to tell us more about his career, the lessons he’s learned along the way, and what he sees for the future of the industry.

How do you define successful sports architecture?

Very simply: successful sports architecture performs on both the balance sheet and the field of competition. Long ago I formed a personal treatise that for sports architecture to be thought of as “great design” it needed to be more comprehensive. In the field of architecture there is no shortage of dialogue on the qualities of “good design.” In sports I felt that narrative needed more development and substance. I was seeing project after project that were clearly competent, but not beautiful.  I saw facility after facility being constructed which placed a significant financial burden on the client without a clear return on that investment.   At some level this is a fundamental challenge with the arms race in facility construction where clients are choosing to build and architects are pushing to design facilities that are clearly detrimental in their overall analysis.  Early in my career it seemed there were two choices: beauty or function, but rarely, if ever, both. To me it was and remains a simple, but guiding principle: beauty without sports performance is not enough. Beauty without an intimate spectator experience is not enough. Beauty without revenue performance is not enough. Beauty without athlete performance excellence is not enough. All of these can flip to their inverse and still be just as true. With the changing fiscal landscape of professional and collegiate athletics, the pressure will be on facilities to better contribute revenue to support an increasingly diverse array of challenges.   Once again it is time for the design profession to answer the call with a better business-based approach to athletic facilities.  I have made it my passion, those who know me might say it’s a mission, to connect all these disparate dots to create a project development model and firm culture that unites all and compromises none.

Can design and architecture really impact sports business?

I have spent 99 percent of my career focused in a very specialized practice area. At the heart of it, sports venues are an inherent part of the social fabric. One of my passions has been connecting the previously dissociated sports venue with its social context, knitting it directly into the urban fabric as a social benefit for all people.  When done successfully and with commitment by all parties there are demonstrable results of the impact extending far into the community, beyond just athletes, coaches and facilities.  However, there is still work to do, and I believe sports can be better contributors to the social, economic and cultural fabric of their communities. Secondly, as the typology continues to mature and we are now seeing generational levels of practice and professionals, it’s our responsibility to interrogate our best practices and model design assumptions so that we as leaders continue to press for innovation and advancement of this typology’s core principles. This can be felt in a variety of ways, from venue operations to sponsorship sales, to media and broadcasting.  When all these elements are interrogated, integrated and challenged, these significant pieces of civic architecture and infrastructure can contribute in a more fiscally and socially responsible way.

What do you think the future of sports/evolution of the fan experience is in a post pandemic world?

Like other similar events that have had both significant cultural and even traumatic societal impact, time will be the key to heal our uncertainties. Before our world was changed there had been some conversations across the sports industry suggesting a sea change away from long-held traditional premium inventory and even a questioning of the “social spaces” that have become vogue. Experiences that present the option for smaller scale, pod-focused seating, or even a community-type familiarity could see a rise as the industry explores new ways to be more reliant in the future. While resiliency has been a common concept in many elements of government or business, the pandemic has introduced this concept into the sport and entertainment industry. Among the changes this new perspective has already begun to impact is an increase in the role consumer-facing electronics are having and will have on the guest experience by streamlining and enhancing what was already becoming a move towards increased “contactless” experiences. In many ways this move towards a more robust, digital-driven experience from payment, fan engagement, or similar will create customer-facing improvements as venues, promoters, and teams accelerate a movement which was underway albeit at a much slower pace in 2019.

Over the course of your career, what has been your most memorable moment as an architect or what moment has shaped your approach/philosophy?

There have been several moments which have shaped my career today — some good, and others “formative.” If I were to summarize and select a few, it’s the moments when individuals — professors, firm principals, and other influential members of my life — have pulled me aside to express their belief in me and to impart encouragement, support and advice. Early in your career and even in moments along the way, knowing others believe in your ability to execute, be a leader, or solve some vexing problem is empowering. The dearer you hold those individuals, the more their words resonate and have lasting impact. A key piece of advice was given to me as more of a parable about inevitable change and the strategic value of taking advantage of it in terms of having the confidence in yourself to simply raise your hand regardless if you feel you are inherently qualified or ready to meet the challenge. This self-belief is a key hurdle we all face. Not missing an opportunity to “raise my hand” continues to serve me well in my professional development. It’s one of the core pieces of advice I try to pass along to anyone I have the privilege of mentoring today.  Specific to business strategy, I have had unique relationships with clients where they really want to dig in on the specific performance elements of projects and refuse to simply accept status quo, whether that’s an approach to market studies or cost/design solutions to drive client-specific results. Those moments of true collaboration and partnership promote a transparent dialogue that exposes solutions and challenges that are resolved together. The satisfaction of these experiences has influenced the types of clients and project opportunities I, and as a result our team, actively seeks out to this day.

AECOM Editors

Originally published Mar 22, 2021

Author: AECOM Editors