Analyzing stadium trends: Camden Yards marked for death?

J-Doug at Beyond the Boxscore has a lovely graphic showing the history of baseball stadium construction, as depicted in the average age of ballparks around the league.

The upshot: By the 1950s, after four decades of not much new construction, the average stadium was nearly 40 years old, then expansion and the “concrete donut” era knocked that down to around 20 years by the mid-’70s. Average age had crept back up above 30 years by 1990, but then the post-Camden Yards boom brought it back down to around 20 after the turn of the century, where it’s stayed — or, as J-Doug puts it, “the rejuvenation of MLB parks does seem to be more durable this time around.”

Of course, one man’s rejuvenation is another’s mindless destruction, as the Boston Globe’s Derrick Jackson wrote in his Sunday column, in which Jackson noted that on his recent visit to Greece he saw several ancient (as in millennia, not mere decades) sporting facilities that were still in use. Which leads up to his conclusion:

Boston’s Fenway Park (1912) and Chicago’s Wrigley Field (1914) [are] absolute treasures. These stadiums, which underwent renovations that preserved their original charm, are actually going to have 100th birthdays.

Few other stadiums will. No fan screaming for the Pats in Gillette Stadium (2002) or for the Jets and Giants in the new Meadowlands can expect their great-grandchildren to occupy the seats they sit in today. With all the giant scoreboards, blaring sound systems, and high-tech turf, the modern American sports stadium has become just another big-box store for owners. Instead of the centuries of sporting spirits in the air in Greece, our stadiums have all the soul of a Home Depot. Outside of Fenway, Wrigley, and Lambeau, we no longer give them the time to develop one.

And to take one final turn at interpreting that “durable rejuvenation”: If you think about it, the only way to maintain a steady average age around 20 for MLB stadiums is to ensure that most stadiums are replaced after 30 years or so. (It would be 40 years — 20 being the midpoint of zero-to-40 — but those near-centenarian outliers like Fenway and Wrigley skew the average way up.) Since the typical stadium bond is usually around 30 years, that means that the current baseball business model is for every city to be continually subsidizing its team with stadium construction funds, and building a new one as soon as the old one is paid off.

It also means that, if current trends are going to continue, circa-1990 stadiums like SkyDome/Rogers Centre, New Comiskey Park/U.S. Cellular Field, and even Camden Yards would have to be replaced by the end of this decade. Okay, probably not Camden Yards — though I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Baltimore Orioles ask for “improvements.” But it’s going to be very interesting to see whether teams start demanding new stadiums, and if so how they justify them, as the first wave of “retro” parks start going out of warranty.

(In the NFL, of course, we already have our answer.)

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9 comments on “Analyzing stadium trends: Camden Yards marked for death?

  1. Not trying to play Devil’s advocate here, but back in August I couldn’t help noticing how kinda rundown Camden Yards looked on TV. It looks like it has lost some of its luster and looks kinda bland now. The Hilton Hotel doesn’t help things at all, either.

    Ever since Ripken Jr. retired, the Orioles are real afterthought.

  2. Camden Yards was always kinda bland – it’s a generic brick-and-steel box with a gorgeous warehouse next to it. But, really, most stadiums look rundown when they’re only one-fifth full.

  3. I kind of wonder if part of this isn’t because of the construction/architecture that was so commonplace from the mid-50’s until the mid-70’s, too. The best example I can think of, coming from Northern Cal, is Candlestick vs. AT&T.

    I do believe AT&T will last longer than Candlestick has. In general, these newer baseball stadiums seem nicer than typical 1965 designs.

    Not so much with arenas, though. The way people now complain about ugly arenas confounds me. They’re just there to do a job.

    “The concourses aren’t wide enough, so give us $500M.” Um, okay.

    One of the bigger complaints we hear about Arco is that the players are forced to take cold showers because the water heating system no longer works. I am extremely certain this can be fixed for substantially less than $500M.

  4. Thanks for the link-back, Neil. I’m pretty much with you here on every point.

    As to Camden, I live nearby and love going there for a game. It’s still gorgeous, and doesn’t look at all rundown to me. The one negative I can think of is that it doesn’t have a view of the field from the concourse like Nats Park and a few other new stadia have. Instead, in the upper deck, they have 15 year old CRT TVs broadcasting the game with awful pictures. I think Camden just needs a bit of spring cleaning–I sure hope it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

  5. I noticed that on my last visit to Camden as well. Though the non-open concourses actually have a side benefit: You get that magical “emerge from the ramp into sunlight” effect that is lost in so many new stadiums. (And, to be honest, I’ve never been able to see any of the game while on line at open concourses – there are too many people standing in the way.)

  6. From the moment municipalities started paying sports businesses to move (or stay) there, this has been happening. It is never a “one time” gift to put your team on an “equal” footing, folks. It is a lifetime of indentured servitude to a private business owner.

    In most cases, the facilities being replaced have not yet been paid for (by taxpayers, of course), and as Neil pointed out with new Meadowlands, many of the new facilities generate only a fraction of the revenue for their host cities that the previous (cheaper) facilities did.

    As for upgrades, I can’t think of any reason why the new generation of stadia can’t be upgraded for technology or ‘comfort’ reasons going forward (though I’m sure some owner can…). Many have been designed precisely for ‘technology’ changes, and so moving to HD/3D (and order-from-your-seat sushi – hey, what’s a ballgame without fresh Sushi, honestly?) or whatever they try and ram down our throats next should be relatively easy.

    Just one question, though: Camden Yards is generally accepted to be one of the best of the ‘new’ parks (unlike Comiskey). It cost less than $100m if I remember correctly. 20 years on, why do the new facilities ‘have to’ cost $500m?

    Am I the only one who doesn’t earn 5x what he did 20 yrs ago???

    All it takes to stop this madness is for people (in the right jobs) to say no.

  7. While Camden Yards does look a little sad these days thanks to the pitiful attendance (a decade of ineptitude and plain sucking will do that), I don’t think it will be time to replace Camden in 10 years. These new stadiums are as per their design closer to the very long lived abberations Fenway and Wrigley and all have very nice facilities inside and out by any standards even today. Sure the teams may request a new jumbotron or something like that now and again but I predict these stadiums will last far longer than the multipurpose monstrosities they replaced with many of them serving a half century or more as they were designed to do. In short they’ll have more in common with the circa 1910’s ballparks than they will with the 1960’s and 70’s donuts.

  8. I think the baseball stadiums will last—mostly because the designs haven’t changed too much in the last 15 years. Where I have my doubts are the football stadiums. Thanks to JerryWorld and the new Meadowlands, there is a real stadium arms race going on in the NFL. Teams with stadiums built in the early 90s (Rams, Falcons, Redskins, etc) are already thinking about the next stadium.

  9. I think that Camden is safe. Several other ‘new’ stadiums on the other hand, I think, were just built poorly, and all they had were the new label, which once it wore off, kind of made them lose their luster, such as Tropicana and the Skydome. But I think that most of the new stadiums should be fine for a long time-I can’t see the Pirates being able to justify a new stadium, for example.

    Though I will say that the only teams I can see in MLB right now that can justify actually getting a new stadium are the Marlins (who are getting one) and the Athletics, with a theoretical argument for the Rays (though based on poor planning initially).

    At least the Athletics stadium efforts in San Jose look like they’ll be almost all privately funded outside of infrastructure improvements, which were earmarked regardless due to HSR/BART. Oakland’s efforts, on the other hand, reek of financial disaster.

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