Everybody loves an old stadium once it’s dead, San Diego edition

Demolition has begun on San Diego Stadium, aka Jack Murphy, aka Qualcomm, former home of the Padres and Chargers and most recently San Diego State football, as the university prepares to build a new stadium plus other development and parks and such. (As noted here previously, the city sold the 135-acre site to the Cal State system for $86 million, and if I can’t figure out for sure if the Oakland Coliseum sale is a fair price, I’m certainly not going to attempt to calculate it for the transfer of land from one government agency to another.) And because the news media love nothing more than images of new stadiums going up or old stadiums coming down, NBC San Diego offers us not one but two videos of the building in its final days, one a walkthrough and one a drone flyover.

I’ve watched them both So You Don’t Have to, and aside from the generic rock-ish music laid over the video (Shazam identified the songs as this and this, which they’re clearly not, so they must have come on some “Royalty-Free Songs Of The Early 21st Century” CD), there’s not much emotion to be wrung from them. Look, some old pipes! Ooh, the concrete light towers! To be fair, I only went to the place once, in the 1980s, for a Padres game I barely remember; if you grew up going to sporting events there, it’s more likely this was an important place to you, just like my childhood concrete donut was to me. (Though at least mine had weird blue and orange steel panels to distinguish it.)

If San Diego Stadium isn’t especially mournable like some more historic ones, it’s still a notable example of America’s (or more accurately, American sports business leaders’ and elected officials’) fetish for the new. As the videos show, it was a perfectly serviceable old bowl, splitting the geometry nicely between baseball-shaped and football-shaped in a way that too many of the perfectly round multipurpose stadiums of the 1960s and ’70s didn’t. It was mostly concrete, because that’s how architects rolled in 1967, and had kind of a retro “space age” look that architectural critics probably scoff at now. Still, aside from lacking a repurposed warehouse to act as the left-field foul pole, it was more or less just as pleasant a place to watch a sporting event as either of the two stadiums that replaced it, unless you really put a huge premium on cupholders.

Each team getting its own new stadium, of course, is one of the main reasons the old place was abandoned, first by the Padres in 2004 after owner John Moores won a referendum to approve public subsidies by placing ads on the outfield wall during the 1998 World Series, then by the Chargers after owner Dean Spanos absconded to Los Angeles with the team after throwing a hissy fit over nobody wanting to gift him with a new stadium like Moores got. Team owners and stadium builders love to tout the green-ness of their new structures, but I have yet to see an analysis weighing the value of LEED certification vs. the additional carbon footprint of tearing down buildings and replacing them with new ones every couple of decades. And that’s aside from the cost in the other kind of green: Petco Park cost taxpayers about $300 million, and the new San Diego State stadium being built because the old stadium is too big for Mountain West conference football or not state-of-the-art enough (or whatever) comes with a public price tag as well — not say it’s never worth tearing down old to build new, but it’s often overlooked that there’s a certain value in making use of buildings that are already paid for.

When I look at the images of San Diego Stadium, I’m most reminded of Barcelona’s Camp Nou, another stadium of similar vintage (opened 1957) that is also a big concrete bowl, albeit one that is way more beloved by its team’s fans. Camp Nou was supposed to be undergoing a $700 million renovation right now, but it’s been pushed back several times by financing questions, most recently to 2025, maybe, as the Covid pandemic has taken a toll on the team’s finances, and no local governments in Catalonia are eager to pay the renovation costs, so it could well remain unimproved in all its concrete glory for the indefinite future. In the end, the difference between “iconic” and “outmoded” comes down mostly to money, and who can make more of it by which method — at least, until it’s time for the wrecking ball, at which point it’s time to send up the drones and apply the royalty-free music. In America, emotion itself is only another commodity to be milked for profit, and we do it very, very well, mostly, even if the dream images concocted to sell our emotions back to ourselves sometimes go in some weird-ass directions.