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.