Retrofit versus rebuild: why expansion and renovation in sports venues is a growing trend

Will Goring

Director, UK Sports & Leisure Lead


The outstanding success of some of the UK’s most famous sporting events has invigorated clubs to invest in better, larger and more modern venue infrastructure to meet increasing demand. With cost and climate considerations coming to the fore, the industry is increasingly embracing retrofit as a go-to option.

As we saw with the success of the 2012 Olympics or, more recently, the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, world-class venues sit at the heart of the UK’s enduring passion for sport. 

The excitement of the venue doesn’t stop with the games. The country’s greatest sporting arenas also now play host to pop concerts and music festivals, bringing together entire swathes of local communities in increasingly mixed-use stadia. 

Against this backdrop of greater creativity and complexity in use, the industry is weighing up its approach to development – whether to commit to new-build projects or retrofit existing assets. 

On one hand, significant cost pressures are making grand rebuilds harder to justify. On the other, the need to meet sustainability targets adds to the increasing demand for clients to make essential improvements. 

The decision to retrofit or rebuild will ultimately be made on a case-by-case basis, but new technology has enabled clients to embrace a wide range of strategies. As the UK eyes bids for major sporting events, including the 2028 UEFA European Championships, it is increasingly weighing up these options. 

Doing more with less 

Cost remains the most pressing issue to evaluate. From our own modelling, we’ve seen how embracing retrofit can bring an intrinsic cost benefit compared to rebuilding. Any major renovation is going to have a substantial bill at the end of it and with rising material and labour prices, investors will likely think twice about spending heavily on a new stadium. As construction looks to do more with less, finding the most efficient pricing strategies is an essential starting point.   

To make informed decisions, we need to re-evaluate how we define value within the business and benefits case.

Upgrading assets often comes down to traditional models of cost per seat. However, the uniqueness of scope interventions requires a smarter forensic approach. Venue investment impacts far beyond the stadium, creating jobs, affecting land prices and bringing social benefits.   

Within the venue itself, value needs to be considered beyond adding seating capacity. There is an attractive business case that making a flexible venue that is capable of hosting multiple types of events will increase expected revenue of the stadia, both in terms of enhanced seating and additional hospitality capacity. For example, a new retractable roof might look expensive, but totally transform a venue’s commercial base. 

Staying green – on and off the pitch 

Having established the business and benefits case, costs then need to be weighed up against an increasingly critical factor: carbon. 

As net zero and sustainability become both cultural and legislative concerns for clients, the retained value of embodied carbon is reshaping the debate on retrofit versus rebuild.   

An understanding of the possible options is essential. In our own work we’ve seen how redeveloping existing stadia has an intrinsic carbon benefit. For example, implementing retrofit at No.1 Court at Wimbledon saved 9,000 tonnes of embodied carbon, compared to a new-build alternative.   

To take an example from our evaluation of cost models using our Carbon Calculator, we can estimate that building a brand new 40,000 seat stadium could have almost eight times the upfront embodied carbon as that of improving an existing asset.  

On top of this, the operational carbon costs, especially on major and complex projects like sports venues, will be high and must be considered as part of whole-life return on investment.   

As venues become more climate-conscious, we’re seeing these discussions take centre stage across the sporting world. Whereas Wimbledon has been an early trailblazer of more carbon neutral approaches, more recently we’ve seen UK football increasingly embracing this agenda too.   

Considering physical limitations 

The challenge of greening assets is coupled with the limitations surrounding space that many clients face. While the UK has seen several major regeneration-led relocations of flagship stadiums, not least at the Emirates in north London, this option is not available to all.  

Rebuild on the same site is challenging, with stadiums often situated in densely populated areas, making logistics of construction potentially costly and disruptive to local residents.   

Wider infrastructure, particularly transport, also needs to be a critical consideration and while relocation brings the opportunity to trigger new infrastructure, the expense of doing so can favour existing sites.  

The tipping point for these decisions in the context of the rebuild or retrofit debate ultimately comes down to the number of interventions you need to do on a venue and the logistics of whether or not this is feasible.

Clients need to consider the challenges of the current site, the age of asset, the venue’s history of renovations and how big the planned intervention will be.  

For example, a retractable roof or rolling pitch is going to be difficult to achieve in an existing venue in constant use. Ultimately, it comes to down to the business case and the potential revenue generated by a more flexible asset, as well as sustainability and carbon considerations. 

Staying true to the heritage 

Finding areas that have enough space for new builds comes at the cost of potentially abandoning venues that have a distinct local history that communities and fans are tied to. Football is perhaps one of the best examples and in recent years we’ve seen a trend from foreign investors in particular recognising the value in heritage connections.     

While brand new stadiums represent a new chapter for a club and provide a chance to realign themselves with a new ambitious vision, it is vital that clients remember that remaining in familiar territory is important for fans.  

Ultimately, most supporters want to see better facilities for both themselves and their team. Clients should be looking to grow their asset by expanding their audience: catering for families and providing the necessary facilities.  

There needs to be a capacity for future community use, which will be an essential part of planning for the project and getting local support. Often new stadia lack the connection to their traditional base, but renovated stadiums maintain that heritage, while bringing in more modern infrastructure. 

Examining all the options 

The debate of retrofit versus rebuild will continue over the coming years as investment in British sport increases. It’s important that those in charge of delivering improved stadiums understand the options that they have in front of them, and the numerous challenges they face in achieving their goals.  

The cost benefit, sustainability progress, space considerations and sensitivity to heritage make retrofitting an option that is coming to the fore. New stadiums allow clubs to expand – both culturally and through their infrastructure – but the business and environmental case for upgrading existing assets must not be ignored as the sector moves forward. 

For further information contact:

Will Goring
Director, UK Sports & Leisure Lead