Architect: We can fix MLB’s attendance problems if we just architect hard enough!

MLB attendance is on pace to fall again for the fifth straight year, and while all evidence is that this is mostly a self-inflicted wound by team owners — some combination of setting ticket prices too high and too many teams not even trying to compete — SBNation’s Scott Hines has a different idea: He thinks the problem is too many ballparks are like Camden Yards. No, seriously:

The retro-nostalgic trend in baseball park design started by Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992 has grown stale. A familiar palette of materials and grab-bag of design touches has shown up in new ballparks everywhere, like brick and stone, quirky-for-quirk’s sake outfield angles, and historicist allusions to baseball’s supposed Golden Age. While a few stadiums — notably Miami’s Marlins Park, which we’ll get to later — have bucked convention, there’s little separating a Comerica Park from a Nationals Park, or a Great American Ballpark from a Citizens Bank Park.

That’s all mostly true about the cookie-cutter modern stadium designs, but why would it be causing attendance to drop? Are baseball fans so fickle that they’ll only turn out to games if they’re presented with a dazzling new architectural experience every decade or two? Do millennials and Gen Z have some aversion to brick and stone that baby boomers and Gen X didn’t?

The answer, it appears, is mostly that Hines is a frustrated stadium architect (“When I did a career-shadowing trip to an architecture firm as a high-school freshman and saw not-yet-public drawings for what would become Milwaukee’s Miller Park, I was hooked”) and wants a reason to say how he would design baseball stadiums if only someone would give him a chance. Which, fine, everybody has a right to be a critic. So what are his ideas for building better ballparks?

  • Section off parts of stadiums for supporters’ groups, as is done in European soccer: And not only that, but then let the supporters’ groups actually design those sections: “Cushy seats or hard bleachers? Scrap both for standing rails? Favor a first-come-first-serve daily admissions, or a program that rewards perfect attendance with seating preference? It’s up to you, the fans.” That’s certainly interesting, but presupposes that supporters’ groups existed for MLB, and that they’d be organized enough to come up with design plans, and that they wouldn’t get tired of those designs quickly just like they allegedly did with Camden Yards, all of which seem dubious. (Also, choosing between types of admission plans doesn’t actually require building a whole new stadium for, does it?)
  • Open up the stadium concourses to be part of the surrounding streetscape: This is not actually a new idea, having been pioneered by, wait for it, Camden Yards, where Eutaw Street between the stadium and the adjacent warehouse was turned into an outdoor concessions concourse (inside the stadium turnstiles, of course, because you want to make sure only ticketholders could experience it). And this “erase distinctions between inside and outside” gimmick has been tried at other new sports venues as well, in particular the new Red Wings and Pistons arena in Detroit, where it isn’t exactly sparking tons of fan excitement.
  • Put your more rabid fans right behind home plate where they’ll show up more on TV: I’m not at all sure how this is supposed to boost attendance, unless people are supposed to see regular folks sitting in good seats instead of bored corporate fat cats and think, “I wanna be one of them!” and then rush to buy tickets. Except that then invariably the price of the regular-folks seating would soar to unaffordable levels (anyone here tried to buy Cubs bleacher seats lately?), and anyway couldn’t this be solved much more simply just by offering more seats in current stadiums’ field levels for lower prices, except that teams don’t want to do that because it would cost them money?
  • Increase home-field advantage by designing stadium roofs to make the acoustics louder, and adding adjustable modular sections so that outfield fence distances can be changed year to year depending on whether you have a better pitching staff, better fielding outfielders, etc.: This is a kind of brilliant update on Bill Veeck’s move, when he owned the old minor-league Milwaukee Brewers, to add a movable fence in the outfield that could be raised when the opposing team was at bat and lowered when his team was at bat. (The league immediately outlawed it.) It’s hard to see how it would increase overall baseball attendance, though, since every time one team wins another team loses — unless the idea here is that fans like to see their team win at home, which could easily enough be solved by, say, giving the home team a free runner on second base to start every inning.
  • “Don’t just make a park, make a statement”: Here’s where we get to the heart of nearly every modern architect’s case, which is that buildings shouldn’t just serve as buildings, but as conversation pieces. As for how well this has worked out in the past, consider that Hines’ one example of a baseball stadium that has tried to make a statement is Marlins Park, and “we’re taking that one step further.” This is not likely to get him any stadium design commissions anytime soon.

So what are we left with? A grab bag of design ideas, some of which might be worth pursuing, hardly any of which seem to require new stadiums in order to implement, and none of which can be expected to have much impact on attendance, which was supposed to be the point of this whole exercise. Also, he completely ignored my revolutionary idea of replacing the entire field with an LED screen that could project the images of computerized players with superpowers, though I guess that’s probably more of an NFL idea anyway.


18 comments on “Architect: We can fix MLB’s attendance problems if we just architect hard enough!

  1. It is funny if you think about a supporters section for the Marlins, especially when you consider the few fans who regularly go are too old to stand.

    • A lot of this does seem to come down to “You know what’s fun? Soccer matches. Can’t we have baseball be more like soccer? But in some way that requires my services as an architect?”

      • A few small market NBA teams have actually something like that. About a decade ago, Andrew Bogut bought up a section of tickets and basically created a fan section in Milwaukee. I think it has been something the highest paid Buck has adopted as his duty to continue. I don’t think it makes a world of difference, I remember it being fun when they had ten different flags flying when they had a very international team, but it is no substitute for what a good team does. Certainly, baseball – at least in the US- has a very laid back style for fans, which is fine. If baseball players don’t like bat flips, I can only imagine flag waving or confetti tossing behind the plate.

        that said, I can’t lie. If I could expense a trip to Europe or South America, and call it “research” I would. Heck, I think baseball can learn a lot from Aussie rules football and their stadium design and atmosphere. How do you incorporate?

        • For a few years I was a regular attendee at one of the closest things MLB has come to that: The Yankee Stadium Bleacher Creatures, who were such a tight-knit community that the team had to offer them special playoff tickets with assigned seats so they wouldn’t freak out when they got to the game and found someone else in “their” seats. (Bleachers were general admission for the regular season in those days.)

          There was definitely a camaraderie that helped get me out to the ballpark instead of watching on TV. (One guy would collect money for runs to a local Chinese restaurant and then come back with food for everyone.) But mostly it was the fact that tickets were $1.50.

          • Not only were tickets cheap but it was the Yankees who have a tremendous history and are good basically every year. You don’t get those things coming together for most of the teams with the worst attendance issues.

            Same basic problem comes into play with basing ideas off of what successful European soccer teams do. Namely, they already have a tradition of passionate fans so whatever they do with those fans ISN’T what made them passionate in the first place. They need to get some passionate fans first and THEN find cool stuff for them to do to attract still more.

            This is like the old joke about the guy wanting to be rich so he goes out and buys a Mercedes because that’s what he sees the rich people driving. There’s a critical step missing in there.

  2. I always question whether these “innovative” baseball stadium designers ever have seen baseball played. There’s a pretty good reason the backstop areas in most stadiums are almost identical to each other.

    Does the architect hate catchers or something? That square area behind home plate with the angles as the field opens is asking to get catchers hurt. The ricochets of any balls that go back there will be tons of fun. Of course they could try to pad it to reduce the ricochets, then balls will die back there and you’ll have guys running from first to home on passed balls/wild pitches.

    And then the dugouts would also have to be way up the lines from where they normally are. One advantage of current dugout positions is they’re far enough up and at a significant angle they don’t get a lot of line drives hit into them. This design would require them to have doors leading to them to avoid line drives flying into them. And I guess no on deck circles unless you want them killed too.

  3. I just read somewhere – I think Fangraphs – that “attendance” is down only because of lower season ticket sales, and that walk up tickets are actually the highest ever right now. Which begs the question of whether the same number of bodies are in seats – i.e. “attendance” is *not* down – even as *sales revenues* are somewhat down.

  4. Japanese baseball has rooting sections. But then they also help clean up the section after the game. So, no way we’re doing that.

  5. This is somewhat of a tangent but I wanted to mention Union Berlin is in the 1.Bundesliga this year (and even beat Dortmund). I mention them because a few years ago their supporters did not design the sections they sat in but they did build them. Well over 1000 volunteers contributed 10s of thousands of hours to rebuild their stadium. That whole rebuild cost $22M in 2009 (one thing if the fans themselves are paying they are going to be more economical). I saw one cost estimate say that the volunteer help was valuable but there were costs to organizing that many volunteers. Anyway, that accounting estimated that Union saved about 13% of the cost it would have cost them (majority was still professionally built). The stadium was such good value because the fans did not ask for seats (about 90% of the stadium is terraces).

  6. I remember, decades ago, when the Red Sox and Cubs were perennial second division teams, and their “nostalgic” ball parks weren’t swooned over. Fans weren’t beating down the doors to get tickets. Attendance was mediocre. On the other hand, Cleveland fans were in general agreement that the old Municipal stadium was sub standard for watching baseball, but it set attendance records during the Indians’ glory years in the 40’s and 50’s. Bottom line: fans go to sporting events to watch sports, not stadiums.

    • I agree with you in general. In the case of the Cubs and Red Sox, however, ownership has spent a great deal of money (not always their OWN money, but…) upgrading the facilities.

      I have not been to Wrigley since the franchise developed “Ricketts”, so I can’t comment directly on it… but I am told that the fan experience has improved.

      Not all long time Cub fans would agree that these improvements were necessary (or even improvements, in some cases), but they have been made nonetheless.

      There were plenty of “nostalgic” old ballparks that were uncomfortable rat infested dumps. But that didn’t stop fans from going when they wanted to.

  7. “Section off parts of stadiums for supporters’ groups, as is done in European soccer:”

    I hope this doesn’t lead to teams trying to force things like The 7 Line Army & Patone 294. Let it happen organically and they’ll find a nook of the stadium to have their group congregate in.

    As far as architecture goes I personally dig brutalism. Give me whatever they’re calling Qualcomm Stadium these days but in the form of a baseball only stadium.

  8. Neil.

    Love your idea. Beats mine.

    Movable stadiums!

    When a city doesn’t concede to an owners demands or the owner simply wants a change of scenery, the owner picks up (theirs, yours, mine, does it really matter who’s stadium it is at this point) the stadium, loads it onto railway cars and moves to another city.

    Voila! Problem solved. Brand new city. Increased attendance (unless you’re the “Memphis Oilers” or Los Angeles Chargers). New city grants owner all the incentives they could possibly want.

    The sky’s the limit. A share of the new city’s hotel taxes, all downtown parking revenues, (hey) a new restaurant tax, etc., etc. If the owner doesn’t get their demands met, it’s time to move. There’s always another city in the wings waiting and willing.

    Don’t forget those Snap-On Improvements (SOI’s) the new city has a responsibility to provide for the movable stadium. Bars, Dining Areas, Hot Tubs, Huge 60’ by 360’ LED Scoreboards, Large Concourses, Lounges, Luxury/Party Suites and Club Seating with all the necessary amenities, Swimming Pool with Swim-Up Bar and Water Park/Slide (last two includes Lifeguard on duty at all times).

  9. Damn! When it comes to movable stadiums, Qatar was light years ahead. And the winner of the 2017 Vaportecture Award goes to ….. Fenwick Irribarren Architects.

    https://youtu.be/mXTxb3DikXc

  10. In tangentially related news, here’s some vaportecture renderings from a group that wants an MLB team in Nashville.

    https://ballparkdigest.com/2019/10/01/potential-nashville-mlb-ballpark-renderings-released/

  11. So the supporters zone seating idea proves he is an idiot.

    The movable fence idea is against the rules

    And he hates Camden Yards.

    The problem with baseball is supply and demand. Make it so I don’t have to see a loan officer and I will be there. I live in St. Pete. Home of the much maligned Trop. And the basic fact is that that place is perfectly comfortable for me. The seats are nice, I have AC, and I am out of the rain.

    What it is not good at is making Stu Sternburg money, but that is not my problem.