For sports team owners seeking new stadiums or arenas—which is to say, for sports team owners—there are certain tools of the trade at their disposal for convincing fans and politicians to support (and pay for) a new building. They have economic impact studies, ideally compiled by friendly consultants who may or may not have actual economics degrees. They have campaign videos showing how your city will literally be transformed by the application of a magic basketball.

And then there’s everybody’s favorite element of the stadium game: lovingly detailed graphical renderings showing off the glory of the prospective pleasure palace. The rendering drop has become a time-honored tradition in the sports development world, the moment when the local rich guy’s dream building goes from eye-popping dollar figure to eye-popping dollar figure with an image gallery attached to it. The images may be overly fanciful, may bear little relation to physical reality, and may never be built like the illustrators and CAD jockeys intended if they are ever built at all, but they are an important first step on the road to shiny new toys.

So great has the distance become between initial sketch and final steel and concrete in the ground—I mean, seriously, just look at what happened to D.C. United’s stadium or the Brooklyn Nets’ arena—that I’ve coined a term for these marvels of fantastical art: Vaportecture. Vaportecture is a strange artform that combines architecture, marketing, futurism, and a whimsical-bordering-on-psychedelic approach to portraying a fever dream for public consumption. But it is an artform.

That said, it’s not just a matter of plunking down a bunch of money and letting some planners start imagineering like Roger Dean on a bender. (Well, not usually. Some architecture firms—I’m looking at you, Bjarke Ingels—seem to specialize in that very thing.) There are rules, apparently, and they’re easy enough to reverse-engineer from the results available.

So behold, the Laws of Vaportecture:

All fireworks, all the time

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Nothing says excitement like fireworks, even if they’re clearly completely unrelated to the sporting event going on. Here we see plans for FC Cincinnati’s new stadium in Kentucky (since relocated to the site of a high school football stadium in Cincinnati, and nowhere near any photogenic river views), while in the background a fireworks display is launched from, apparently, a submarine lurking beneath the surface of the Ohio River. Now that’s a celebration, even if the soccer game itself appears to have been called off amid an invasion of black-clad insurgents. some of whom are at least three yards tall. But fireworks!

Look, you can even set off fireworks in the daytime:

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This image of a never-built San Diego Chargers stadium, like that from Cincinnati, is also augmented with beams of light shining up from the field, which is not usually how stadium lights work. Unless maybe the fields themselves are glowing, thanks to a new strain of grass infused with jellyfish DNA?

Employ Photoshop filters liberally

You know it, I know it, J.J. Abrams sure knows it: The kids today go absolutely batty for lens flare. If there is one implement in the stadium rendering kit that is absolutely necessary, it is the Photoshop tool that ruined a thousand 1990s websites.

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Why is that glass protrusion even there? For the sun to reflect off it, surely! Just like this new Rays stadium (NOTE: not actually the new Rays stadium, since the team stuck a large fork in it in December when no one wanted to buy it for them) has no seats directly behind home plate, because that would interfere with being able to see the field in the outdoor renderings, though you kind of wonder why they couldn’t have just made the seats transparent like they did with the trees.

If you play your cards right, in fact, you can even just dispense with any identifiable architecture whatsoever, and just show some dimly visible geometric shapes, so long as you apply some truly bitchin’ lens flare.

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What even is that? It turns out to be the Washington Wizards’ new practice facility (actual completed design: much more like an exurban Best Buy), but who cares, as it will clearly look amazing when viewed while looking directly into the sun. (Please pay no attention to the shadows of the tree at right, which plainly show that the sun is behind you, or maybe that a nuclear detonation is behind you, in which case it really doesn’t matter what that building is so long as it has lead-lined walls.)

Depopulate your city

You know what you don’t want to think about when you’re imagining going to a sporting event at a sparkling new stadium? Other people. People get in your way, they clog the highways with traffic and take up parking spaces, they jump through folding tables for some reason. If you want to make your stadium designs really shine, you need to portray sellout crowds that nonetheless somehow leave roads and pedestrian concourses pleasantly empty.

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One way to do this is to simply cull the herd, leaving a few representative individuals to stand in for the madding crowd.

Now this is the kind of concessions concourse that is truly state-of-the-art: Not just a trained staff of artisanal bakers (you can tell they’re trained because they’re wearing chef’s hats) serving up food that doesn’t need a menu beyond the single word “PIZZA,” but there are hardly any lines at all! Truly the Utah Jazz have reconceptualized the very consumption of food, to the point where no one is even carrying any, because state-of-the-art concessions purchases are about the joy of buying food, not eating it.

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If you want to imply that more than a dozen people will show up for your sporting event, you can always make your rendering feel airier by employing other tactics. For example, you can make your fans see-through.

As an added bonus, translucent people at this Texas Rangers game can apparently walk right through each other, Kitty Pryde–style, as the woman in the foreground has apparently just done to the man wearing a T-shirt depicting a mystery city’s subway map (it sure isn’t Dallas), leaving so little sign of her passage hasn’t even looked up from his phone.

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If even sparsely dispersed see-through people feel too agoraphobia-inducing, you can swap out your people for ghostly blobs who are totally absolutely not Cybermen in disguise on a mission to prep earth for a coming invasion.

Fortunately, whatever the Worcester Red Sox serve at their stadium diner, it will emit an aroma that repels featureless inhuman shades, keeping them at a safe distance.

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If you really want to see post-apocalyptic future sports at its best, though, we need to return to that Wizards practice arena.

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Why the Wizards owners want you to imagine sliding to their practices across a featureless gray plain or enjoying brick walls with film reel countdowns projected on them, who can say. But as Anvil drummer Robb Reiner so astutely noted in Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, “I find it very appealing when you see a scene but there’s nobody in it. It’s a very quiet place.”

Program your Sims

Since you’re going to need to have some people in your scenes, think carefully about what it is they should be doing, because if they’re all standing and cheering in unison, it’s going to look like an NBA 2K6 crowd. They should probably be wearing some kind of sports gear, and doing, um, whatever sports activities sports people presumably do, like pointing excitedly at sports things!

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Or they could be raising a fist for that most exciting of all baseball plays: the batter stepping out of the box to call time.

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Or they could just be doing, you know, whatever.

The above image, of the scene outside an alleged Worcester Red Sox game, is the best evidence yet that architectural rendering designers have some sort of Wacky People Clip Art package that they pull out when in need to populate their creations. In this one image alone, we have Kids In Oversized T-Shirts Putting On Shower Caps, Woman Hailing A Cab Far From The Curb On An Empty Street, and Man With Two-Foot-Long Beard. Sure, they seem to have been applied a bit indiscriminately to the scene—that dude carrying the backpack and wearing a winter coat when everyone else is dressed in shorts isn’t suspicious at all, so it’s totally fine there’s no bag-check line—but the important thing is they’re there, and also translucent.

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Don’t worry if you know nothing about sports

It’s not only fans that have to be portrayed as doing sportsy things — if you’re designing a stadium or arena you’ve probably learned that there are athletes at sporting events as well, performing feats carefully circumscribed by the rules of the game! So you want to be sure to accurately show a scene that could be taking place at a real sporting event.

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The visiting team here is engaged in the rare zone defense designed to guard the halfcourt line, ignoring the Bucks player standing wide open in the paint, daring the referee to call a three-second violation. The Bucks have countered by sending one of their players into an alternate dimension visible only on the video board, where he is either collecting a rebound, delivering a two-handed set shot, or maybe signaling for a touchdown.

By my count, the orange team is down to nine players and the white team eight, no doubt due to multiple red cards for mouthing off to the refs about the non-rectangular goals. No wonder the fans have given up on trying to watch the action on the pitch, and are instead showing off their team scarves to people wandering by on the concourse.

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(Alternate hypothesis: Given that the appearance of the Cincinnati skyline in the background indicates that this stadium is located precisely on the site of the Reds’ current stadium, perhaps this is just what baseball will look like after the current round of rules changes are complete.)

Don’t worry if you know nothing about physics or geometry

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One of the biggest challenges of sports venue designers is how to build stacked seating decks that keep the upper levels close to the action without obstructing the view of fans down below with supporting pillars. Here the architects of the new Worcester stadium have solved the problem with a second deck that simply hovers over the lower one with no supports whatsoever, providing everyone with not just a good view of the game, but a good view of human stubbornness thumbing its nose at gravity. That’s just the kind of fancy technology you can afford when you sell naming rights to your stadium to the deep-pocketed folks at Signage.com.

So, a couple of things here with this early Texas Rangers stadium design. First off, even assuming a rather severely distorting lens, the foul lines do not appear to be at right angles to each other, which seems a rather extreme response to Joey Gallo’s terrible range.

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More worryingly, the image designed to show how fans will be able to “get as close to the game as possible, specifically in the upper deck” manages to show fans with a view of players who are literally indistinguishable specks. Worse yet, there are at least two decks of seating shown even higher than this deck, where their view of the field will be even worse, and they probably won’t even be able to see that schmancy new scoreboard in left field, since the roof will block their view. Though if you can break the laws of geometry, what’s a law of optics or two between friends?

And finally, here we have a lovely image of a new football stadium south of Washington, D.C., filmed during a night on an evening when electricity has gone out to the entire surrounding region, the better to showcase the stadium’s requisite unearthly glow:

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This is likely a September game, given that the sun has just begun to set beyond the D.C. skyline to the ... north ... okay, maybe we now have a better idea of exactly what sort of apocalypse caused the power grid to collapse.

When in doubt, go batshit

All of the above tricks may be enough for your run-of-the-mill stadium campaigns, when all you need to do is show something suitably shiny to wow a few city councilmembers. But for special cases—when, say, your owner is a renowned asshole who demands stadium subsidies so he can buy more yachts—you might need to pull out all the stops and go directly to fantasyland.

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For example, you could imagine future Calgary arena-goers witnessing what is sure to be the most popular entertainment option of the mid-21st century, concerts where alternate versions of reality leak into our universe through a rip in spacetime.

Hands down the most memorable example, though, is Dan Snyder’s proposed Washington NFL stadium, which may or may not ever be built (odds aren’t looking great at present) but which will be forever remembered for The Moat.

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There are so very many things wrong with this image that it’s hard to know where to start: The surfer riding a wave on an otherwise calm surface is worrisome enough, but then what of the sunbathers who are about to be drenched, not to mention the rollerbladers who are almost certainly going to plunge into the water thanks to a lack of guardrails? Little wonder that two terrified citizens are attempting to climb their way to safety; though since that overhang means they will have no footholds, maybe it’s actually Harry Tuttle coming to the rescue.

For bonus points, Bjarke Ingels also provided an image of the same scene in winter. Because there’s nothing D.C. residents love to do more than to venture out during a snowstorm.

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There are a couple of ways of understanding these fantastical images. The simplest is that they’re ways to try to bypass all the qualms and intellectual objections we may have about whether a new building is necessary—visual information is much easier to process than textual, and therefore tends to sink into our cerebral cortexes without stopping to see if it makes any goddamn sense.

But the best explanation for all this—certainly the moat surfers, but really the entire Vaportecture package—is as misdirection. If you’re talking about moats or lens flare, you’re not debating who’s going to pay for the damn thing or why your team even needs a new stadium at all when the last one was only 22 years old. And to forget that so many new buildings end up like this.

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Of course, that’s when it’s time for new renderings. I know what I’m telling my son to study if he wants a viable career when the robots come.


Neil deMause has covered sports economics for more publications than even he can shake a stick at. He’s co-author of the book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, and runs the website of the same name.