Why new stadiums aren’t better places to watch sports, in two photos and a french fry story

I took in the Argentina-Ecuador soccer match in New Jersey on Tuesday night, which was my first chance to see the now five-year-old stadium that the New York Giants and Jets built to give themselves a more luxurious setting than the old Giants Stadium across the parking lot. And I’ve gotta say, my initial reaction was much like my first visit to the new Yankee Stadium: They spent more than a billion dollars for this? I mean, here’s the view from our seats:

met-lifeIt has a ribbon board, and those big video screens in the corners, and obviously a bunch of luxury suites and clubs that I didn’t have access to. (Also, yes, that’s snow that you see falling. No more outdoor sporting events in March for me.) But overall, for average fans there’s nothing particularly better about actually watching a game here over the old place — in fact, from the end zone seats it didn’t feel all that different from being at one of the old “concrete donut” multipurpose stadiums like Veterans Stadium, only with more cupholders.

And as for being out of the seats, which is where modern stadiums with their massive footprints are supposed to shine, things were if anything even worse. Here, for example, is the view of the concessions concourse during halftime:

met-life-halftimeYes, soccer halftime is always a madhouse since no one wants to leave their seats during the action and risk missing the only goal, but this was beyond awful. After fighting my way through a crush of people to find the end of one concessions line — but allow me to just quote the customer survey that the stadium people kindly requested that I fill out after I attended the game, no doubt not knowing what they would be in for:

The staff were all fine. The logistics, however, were a nightmare: It took us forever to find our way to our seats (on the 200 level opposite the train station, requiring that we climb to the 300 level then come back down again) and find our way back to the train, the crush to leave after the game was appalling (despite only 48,000 fans in attendance), the concessions lines were the worst I’ve ever seen at any stadium, and the concessions stands were incredibly backed up at having enough food. (Some of this may have been because it was soccer when there’s a big halftime rush to the concessions, I understand, but maybe plan ahead for this a little?) And fortunately we were under an overhang, or it would have been miserable sitting in the rain and snow, especially with your no-umbrellas policy. Also, the ad signage was so irritatingly ubiquitous (video ads even during play, really?) that even my 12-year-old son, who *likes* commercials, was complaining about it.

I’m not sure what to suggest, as a lot of these problems seem inherent to the stadium design, but hiring more staff to direct people and way better signage would be a start. I’d go to MetLife Stadium again if some event I absolutely had to see was happening there, but I wouldn’t be happy about it. And next time I wouldn’t bother to try to get french fries.

This has been the most surprising discovery of my years of research into the new-stadium game, and one I have to keep explaining to people: New sports venues, on the whole, kind of suck. They’re far more geared toward serving luxury customers — who are the ones willing to pay the big bucks that justify these buildings, when they can be justified at all beyond the desire for public subsidies — than toward things like making sure that people can line up for the restrooms without creating a traffic jam. It’s not so much that stadium and arena designers are doing a bad job — though in many cases they arguably could be doing far better — as that making for a better fan experience is fundamentally not the goal of these places. Separating fans from their money, especially fans with lots of it, is, and despite anything you may have heard about the free market supposedly reflecting the demands of customers, there isn’t always a direct alignment.There are many reasons why we’ve seen a rash of new stadiums and arenas in the past 30 years, but one factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is that it’s a land rush to serve a new market: There weren’t that many people with tons of disposable income to blow on upscale ballpark food in the 1970s, whereas now, well, we all know what’s happened. I once wrote an article for the late, lamented Village Voice sports section that talked about A-Rod’s then-record salary and suggested blaming it all on Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts for the wealthy; that was an oversimplification then, and even more so now that we know that much of the rise in inequality was actually the result of Reagan’s SEC rules, but if you want to shake your fist at someone for having to pay higher ticket prices for a lousier experience, you could certainly pick a worse target.


34 comments on “Why new stadiums aren’t better places to watch sports, in two photos and a french fry story

  1. Maybe non-wealthy sports fans have become complacent patsies and masochists. Maybe they should just stay home and see what happens. Maybe they should also boycott some of the products advertised at the games.

  2. Two problems with the “staying home” tactic:

    1) Teams don’t really care whether non-wealthy fans go to the games. I bought the cheapest seats available, and brought in my own food so I wouldn’t have to pay the insane concessions prices (aside from french fries). They could live perfectly fine without us, which they’re showing by building smaller and smaller stadiums (MetLife is an exception) that are more and more geared to luxury seating.

    2) By definition, sports fans like to watch sports, and the big sports leagues have a monopoly on this. Fan boycotts have been proposed over all kinds of things in the past (ticket prices, labor stoppages, steroid scandals) and they’ve never stuck, for the same reason that the crack industry has never been reformed through customer boycotts.

  3. There’s one thing the stadium experience has that TV does not: tailgating. I can’t fit hundreds of fans in my back yard and I don’t have that many friends, anyway. But tailgating allows me to meet others with whom I share similar interests and allows me to make more friends. We talk about the team, the game, share grilling tips, and have a good time for a few hours. I intentionally sacrifice a good view of the game (by sitting behind the goal) to be with these folks.

    Granted, the vast majority of my tailgating experience is with the New England Revolution, where tickets are very affordable (Maybe $20/game for season tickets behind the goal), parking is free, most every game is on a Saturday, and there are so very few locatons to watch the game outside of the stadium or my home. But I have my limits – if I had to pay triple digits to sit in an upper level during a weeknight, I’d probably stay home instead.

  4. You know Neil, I think you (inadvertently, not inadvertently…?) hit upon something here. I think it lies with you taking your 12 year old to the game, and what happened. When I was a kid I loved going to Dodger Stadium – circa 1980’s-early 90’s. We weren’t dirt poor, but we weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but we could afford to go to a few games a year. The ticket prices weren’t exorbitant, I could have (1) hot dog and (1) soda, and that was it, but we could afford to go to, maybe 5 games a year. But then again, the fan experience was different – no video boards, no ads plastered on every available square inch of stadium, etc. In other words, they were selling the game.

    Now I’m all grown up and with kids of my own. Sometimes I think about taking my kids to SF or Sacramento (I’m in Reno now…you may recall writing about the Reno Aces and Aces ballpark) – or even to LA to take in a game – and I don’t think I want to! The ticket prices are ridiculous, the concessions even worse. I don’t see how I could afford to go to 5 games a year like I did when I was a kid, and I’m much more secure financially than I was as a kid. The video board and the ads blaring, everything seems geared towards drowning out the sport and making for a better “fan experience” – which, as you said, is not for the person actually watching the game, but for the person who wants to spend $10,000 at a game to schmooze others and the like. And I think to myself – I don’t want to take my kids to these games!

    And the point here is they are going to lose a generation of sports fans. If the kids of today don’t grow up going to games several times a year, are they, when they become successful, going to want to go to games when they are adults? Moreover – are they going to want to buy the luxury seats?

    In a way, it seems like Sports Owners may be sealing their long term doom in exchange for Short Term profits – in a way slightly analogous to the Motion Picture Industry. It’s now better, cheaper, easier, more comfortable to watch a movie at home on your big screen TV than at a Movie Theater – and it’s rapidly becoming the same with sports…..

  5. “for average fans there’s nothing particularly better about actually watching a game here over the old place”

    This could really be said about any new sports venue that has been built in the last generation.

  6. Neil,
    Look on the bright side – at least MetLife stadium is 100% (more or less) paid for by the the Jets and Giants.

    In Tampa, where Raymond James Stadium is 100%+ paid for by the taxpayers I have never attended an event, because it would make the Glazers even richer than they already are. So I derive great psychic income knowing that their family worth is only $4,600,000,000 instead of $4,600,000,020 because of me.

  7. TRPackman: I’ve thought that as well, as have others. (I seem to remember Rob Neyer suggesting that cheap-seats ticket plans should come with one game a year of front-row seats, just so that kids today have some notion of what baseball looks like from close up.) But using my son as a data point here again, I don’t think this generation is all going to turn off sports anytime soon — he’s a huge baseball and soccer fan, and was thrilled to sit with 50,000 other people to see Messi, even if the only (possible, reports are still conflicting) glimpse any of us got of him was under a giant parka from 300 feet away.

    Also, sports team owners may be greedy, but they’re not such terrible marketers that they don’t know the value of having seats filled. Right now I’m sitting on vouchers for ten free Mets tickets (obtained in exchange for a $25 “kids fan club” membership), plus another four buy-one-get-one deals (for nothing more than being on the Mets’ mailing list and having a birthday, apparently), for those days when we want to go to a baseball game and don’t feel like paying $5 or whatever Mets tickets will be going for on StubHub. Pro sports have become a bit like the airline ndustry — you can get deals if you don’t really care where you go or when, but they’re going to charge through the nose for dates in demand. I just hope sports leagues don’t learn how to start canceling games when there’s low demand and reassigning ticketholders to fill vacant seats on different days, or we’re really in trouble.

  8. White Ants- 2

    Yellow Ants- 1

    I bet the poor guys, especially the ones from Ecuador, were not feeling so “friendly” about having to be out there in the snow.

  9. “There’s one thing the stadium experience has that TV does not: tailgating.”

    Satellite tailgating facilities! Tailgate in our parking lot, then come inside and enjoy the game on our IMAX-sized screen with “Cinema & Drafthouse”-style seating!

  10. The theory that rich people are filling up stadiums just doesn’t pass logical muster. Look at the attendance numbers and then look at the number to suites & “club” seats. The former has far outgrown the latter, especially for baseball.

    We do, however, agree that New Meadowlands stinks. We do not (I’m guessing) agree on the reason: union wages making it cost-prohibitive to make a better NFL stadium in northern New Jersey.

  11. Non-rich people are indeed going to more games, but my sense is it’s become more of a destination thing, as TRPackman implied: You save up to take the family to one or two games a year, rather than going on a regular basis. So you have more luxury seating in the new stadium, more people with cash (or corporations expensing it) buying those, and then everyone else time-sharing in the fewer remaining “cheap” seats.

    That’s a slight oversimplification (see my Mets example above), but in broad strokes it’s a fair picture of the 21st-century sports business model.

  12. ““for average fans there’s nothing particularly better about actually watching a game here over the old place”
    This could really be said about any new sports venue that has been built in the last generation.”

    I would agree on the whole with this, particularly with football stadia and arenas. However there are several exceptions to this. For example I would rate Centurylink Field in Seattle as a huge upgrade over the Kingdome for fans (same for Safeco Field for that matter). Petco Park is another I’d classify as an enormous upgrade over it’s predecessor Qualcomm Stadium for even the regular Joe fan with better sightlines, circulation, concession spaces, etc…. Gillette Stadium was a huge upgrade for fans over Foxboro Stadium (but then almost anything that wasn’t a glorified single level grandstand with bad plumbing would have been).

    That said I can definitely agree with the overall tenant that more often than not there’s not a huge upgrade for regular fans. For instance the Chargers in San Diego are desperately claiming they need a new stadium, but from a regular fan POV I don’t see much difference between a decently built old venue like Qualcomm Stadium and one of the new places like Gillette Stadium. Having been to both the experience was nearly identical.

  13. I’m glad to see someone articulate what I’ve vaguely felt with most new sports venues (new college basketball & football venues are some of the worst). The one exceptions to my mind would be the previous generation of baseball stadiums. The transition from multipurpose donuts to baseball specific fields genuinely has improved the fan experience. Of course that hasn’t stopped the Braves from replacing their perfectly fine purpose built baseball stadium.

  14. “…union wages making it cost-prohibitive to make a better NFL stadium in northern New Jersey.”

    Is there really any evidence that the stadium came up short of being “better” because they ran out of money…because of union wages?

    Didn’t think so.

  15. Oh, sure, there were plenty of terrible stadiums before this latest era — it would have been hard to replace the Vet with anything worse, for example. But they’re sure giving it the old college try.

  16. Neil,

    Agreed on the Disneyland aspect ( saving up and making going to a game a special event), but I disagree with the idea that it’s rich people filling up expensive seats. I think it’s middle class people who just prioritize attending games over having a big house, going back on vacations, saving, etc.

  17. Keith,

    I you’ve seen what Jerry got in Texas compared to what the Jets & Giants got in Jersey, it’s had to come to any other conclusion.

  18. @Dan: And all three of the new venues you mentioned replaced stadiums that were irredeemably bad places to take in a game.

    The newer venues (particularly in baseball and football) have the double whammy of having smaller seating capacities and worse views of the field of play. Club suites have pushed the cheap seats higher and further away from the action — I remember seeing the side-by-side comparison of the old and new Cleveland ballparks a few weeks back, and the last row of the upper deck at the old Cleveland Stadium was actually much closer to the action than at the Jake, supposedly a more intimate venue.

    But so long as teams can make more money from selling a luxury box or a row of field-side seats than they can from selling an entire section in the upper deck, they’ll be free to leave the regular fans to their own devices.

  19. https://twitter.com/MLBcathedrals/status/572497268374446081

    Okay, so more of an overlay than a side-by-side, but it’s still an interesting comparison.

  20. The “cookie cutter” stadiums get a bad rap. Even the Vet was decent before the city went broke and decided not to fix it anymore. Cincy was a nice stadium to take in a game, and so was St. Louis. Did anyone say the Colosseum was a boring design for gladiator competitions?

    Modern football stadiums are all boring and few have struck me as anything special (except maybe Seattle), regardless if union labor built them or not. Arguing who got the better football stadium for their billion dollars strikes me as missing the more obvious and relevant question.

    What was foolish was spending so much money to replicate (expensively) the odd dimensions of old baseball stadiums shoehorned into small urban neighborhood blocks by cheapskate owners who (nonetheless) built their own parks. Houston strikes me as the most absurd in this trend–building fake “features” in city that has more room than anyone.

    As for luxury seating–I’d agree that middle class fans might buy (more) expensive tickets a couple times a year or look on StubHub for a deal, but teams are pricing their tickets for the season and corporate market–wealthier audiences that can afford to not go to the game. Looking at marketing bang for the buck–it makes more sense to put a lot of effort into convincing corporate customers to buy in because they tend to buy year after year regardless of performance. Casual fans don’t do that. Nor do casual fans buy $380 tickets at Fenway Park to sit near the dugout, particularly if they can’t make the game.

    Smaller cities are trying to replicate the price points (at a lower level) but cities without wealth or corporate strength are really just wasting their time. This is why the Milwaukee arena (among others) strikes me as complete insanity–the city simply doesn’t have the corporate strength or casual basketball tradition to support an unsuccessful basketball team at the price levels demanded by a new arena. Arguing that “it will be full if the team does well” doesn’t answer what happens when the team struggles. Most people don’t make financial or lifestyle decisions on the criteria of a 25 year old guy with his first job.

  21. “The reason sporting events cost so much now, Luker’s research shows, is because they are designed to be affordable only to those making $150,000 or more a year… His August poll discovered a third of Americans are less interested in sports because of the declining economy. That’s bad news, made worse by a problem he first noticed in 2004 and which has continued since: For the first time, the largest number of sports fans aren’t 12- to 17-year-old boys. The baby boomers are the group that shows the greatest increase in a love of sports, and they’ll be dying soon.”

    http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=091005yankeestickets

  22. That’s from 2009. I remember another report around the same time that tracked the average income of baseball ticket buyers, but haven’t been able to put my hands on it just yet.

  23. Admittedly, I don’t know how much better Metlife is as compared to Jerry World or vice versa — but I do know that that the cost of real estate is way higher in Bergen County than in Arlington, and so is the cost of living. Ergo, construction workers/contractors in Dallas cost less than in the NYC Metro.

  24. I’ve always been a “get me in the stadium” type guy. I have season tickets in two sports. One plays in a venue that’s less than 5 years old, the other is ancient.

    I agree the seats in these new venues are much higher, etc…but I have to disagree about not seeing the action as a result.

    They know there are hundreds of fans like me. That’s the issue.

  25. “http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=091005yankeestickets”
    Utterly sickening. Even if I was a millionaire, I could never justify a $1,200 seat. I reached my breaking point in 2008 & haven’t been to a game since. Recently of how “great” paperless tickets is becoming the norm – they don’t get it. I still have all my ticket stubs, including the first game I ever went to in 1991.

  26. Kei & etc: Old vs New Comiskey:Kei – Old vs New Comiskey: https://twitter.com/DolphRudager/status/584388548633169920

    “What was foolish was spending so much money to replicate (expensively) the odd dimensions of old baseball stadiums shoehorned into small urban neighborhood blocks by cheapskate owners who (nonetheless) built their own parks. Houston strikes me as the most absurd in this trend–building fake “features” in city that has more room than anyone.”
    While I don’t like the expense, I appreciate the concept. Cookie cutter stadiums were boring. Maybe they were okay to watch from, but were not pleasing on TV or in video games, and that awful Astroturf.

  27. Agree on the astroturf (Busch Stadium was much improved after switching to grass), but the sightlines and comfort of the 1970s stadiums was just as good as what is being built now, if not better (unless you are in a “dugout box” or other premium seating). It’s 90 feet to first no matter if there’s an irregular outfield wall or not.

  28. “I you’ve seen what Jerry got in Texas compared to what the Jets & Giants got in Jersey, it’s had to come to any other conclusion.”

    Yeah, sure, cuz the difference in cost-of-living in different parts of the country can all be blamed on the impact of unions.

  29. Old College football stadiums are much better than the new NFL stadiums in my opinion (although other than in the state of Colorado I’ve only seen games on TV).

  30. @Keith
    Yeah, that comment had me scratching my head as well…typical Tea Party propaganda; unions are evil & greedy, but large corporations lobbying for tax breaks and other government subsidies are apparently A-OK Upstanding “citizens” as the Supreme Court deemed.

  31. One exception is AT&T Park, which offers Giants fans a wonderful experience. It’s a vast improvement over that windy concrete bowl, Candlestick Park.

  32. MetLife Stadium is one of the worst stadiums I have ever been in. The sight-lines are awful. I spent many many many Sunday afternoons in Giant Stadium & the game experience between Giants Stadium & MetLife is night vs day. Giants Stadium you felt like you were sitting on top on the game, players never looked like ants, no matter how high your seats were, because the configuration made you feel much closer to the action. Sitting in the Mezz area, you almost felt like you could reach out & snatch the ball on long sideline passes. MetLife Stadium makes you feel like you are sitting on exit 13 on the NJTP even in the bottom seating. You feel so far away & detached from the players & the action that sitting in the lower level in the higher row seats makes players look like ants. IT’S AWFUL. In addition, the old stadium had SEPARATE escalators for each level when entering & leaving besides the 2 silo’s on each side of each “gate” or entrance. Getting in & out was MUCH less dangerous. MetLife Stadium it’s ONE escalator that splits on each level. People are CRAMMED coming in & leaving & this is a nightmare waiting for a tragedy. People keep PUSHING other along, it’s as unpleasant as a experience can be entering a new sporting venue. Unsafe is being kind. MetLife Stadium is disappointing, nicest thing that can be said…..

  33. Very late to the party here but, in regards to the Cleveland stadium overlays, keep in mind that the old Stadium had much larger foul areas and a much larger behind the fence area in the outfield than Progressive Field so while you may have been closer to the field (the grass) you might not necessarily be closer to the action. Plus, there were the poles. Lots and lots of poles. Love the Jake but I do miss the old place too.

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