AFL Architects’ Rita Ochoa examines how the rise of women’s football is shaping the stadium of the future.

Competitive sport has always been a bastion of masculinity when looked at through a sociological perspective. It seems hard to believe but Olympic events have only included women since 1900 and the 2012 Games in London were the first in which women competed in all the sports on the programme.

In European football, apart from a brief moment just after the First World War, women’s football only started to become significant in the 70s, the most important decade of the century in terms of female emancipation and redefinition of gender roles.

Stadiums are amazing buildings made of multiple layers of symbols and uses that can easily shape cities and culture in many countries. And they are also a great observatory for watching this social development of gender. 

From an architect’s point of view, these buildings’ scale, and social and geometrical complexity, are only comparable with large hospitals and airports, with the difference that they are not occupied 24/7. Within a very short period of time, a stadium must accommodate an enormous number of people, offer them protection, safety and, mainly, a unique (and many times euphoric) entertainment experience. Then the visitors leave, and the building might be left almost empty for a week.

This scenario usually represents the common football stadium that hosts one or two men’s football matches a week and maybe a similar number of small corporate events in specific rooms inside the building. 

Because music concerts have partially shifted to arenas where the acoustics are usually significantly better, many stadiums are left with only football as their main events. The limited peaks of events make the stadiums some of the less efficient buildings in cities and this is an issue that clubs, stakeholders, and architects have been trying to address in the last few years. 

Flexibility is the key word for the future of these venues in order to achieve a higher degree of sustainability, not just affecting the environmental aspects of the building itself, but also the impact on the local community by offering more permanent jobs, and the revenue of the clubs / owners.

In parallel, attendances are growing for women’s football all around the world. According to FIFA there are 29 million women and girls playing football around the world. Of those, 1.27 million play in Europe (this number has gone up 5 time in 20 years). 

According to the FA, football is now officially the biggest female team sport in England with an impressive record of 3.4 million women and girls now playing the game.  The drive to recruit women referees and coaches moves on apace specially in Europe and the USA.

But there is still massive growth potential and barriers to overcome. The “Women in Football” survey analysis points to the insufficiency of grassroots playing pitches and lack of provision of facilities for women (such as changing rooms) as the main factors that will influence the future of the game of football. 

The survey only demonstrated the direct feedback we have with the users: our proximity with female players and board members from several clubs has allowed us to understand the barriers in the stadiums and training grounds and address that into our projects at an early stage. 

Typically, stadiums are designed by mainly male architects for male players, male technical teams, male officials, male stewards, male journalists, and male spectators and because they aren’t easily adaptable buildings, no investments are made for the “exceptions”. 

And those exceptions are, sometimes, female referees having to change inside a disabled toilet just before a UEFA match, just because the rest of the technical team is male and therefore has the right to have a changing room. This example illustrates the type of situations we don’t allow to happen in our projects, making the stadiums more accessible and flexible.

Women’s football has flourished so much that now women’s events are a regular element of a stadium’s fixtures, adding value to their sustainability. The UK has a higher male spectator attendance than the south of Europe, but we strongly believe that women’s football will help to bring more women and children to stadiums, thus elevating the match day experience and adding to the club’s revenue. 

And this will change the layout of buildings, the fan zones and the types of services, food, drinks, and entertainment to be offered at the events around the country. Stadiums will soon stop being “gendered” buildings that only reflect the masculinity of the sport and the spectators to became much more inclusive and, somehow, democratic. Women’s football events and larger female fans attendances are also proven to create safer environments. 

For example, in our recent projects we have put an enormous effort into the design of family areas, including sensory rooms that cater for children and adults who might be sensory challenged. The family concourses are much more than just a dedicated family concession – they include easy access, playing areas, breastfeeding rooms, selfies walls and numerous opportunities for sponsorship.

We have also challenged the conservative layouts of the technical changing rooms by delivering female referees to have their own changing areas and designing the team changing rooms in a much more gender inclusive way, from ergonomics to the location of the urinals.

Finally, in terms of football in general, we know how the women’s team “brought it home” this year at the Euros.  The awareness, attendance and euphoria around women’s football was never so high. At the beginning of October, the European playoffs for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World cup will begin, with the tournament starting in July 2023.   The other good news is that if you want to watch “the game” live in the stadium, a season ticket for Women’s Super League costs only an average of £60 compared to £565 for the men’s Premier League season.

Rita Ochoa is a Senior Project Architect at AFL Architects and a former motocross racer who, in the majority of the competitions she entered, was the only female. Rita has worked for major international sport clients in stadia and arena projects in Portugal, Spain, Brazil, UK, Qatar and Denmark. Her work includes a UEFA 5 Stars and an Olympic Committee /IAKS winning projects,  the Bonus Arena Hull, UK capital of Culture 2017 and the brand new Gtech Community Stadium in London, the only stadium to be selected for the Women’s Euro 2022 before it was even completed. She also enjoys watching women’s football and supports both the Portugal and England teams and hopes that they will never have to play against each other in a major final.

Image Editorial credit: katatonia82 /