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April 30, 2010

One-Hoppers

Old New Stadiums, Revisited

by Neil deMause

The New York Times' Ken Belson has been writing a lot on the stadium beat of late, not all of it good. But today's paper brings an interesting look at the Orioles' plans for upgrading Camden Yards, which is (gulp) 18 years old this season — a cause toward which they've brought back Janet Marie Smith, who was project manager for the park's original design.

Whatever you think of Camden Yards (I'm in the "overrated, bland other than the warehouse" camp myself), Smith is undeniably great at tweaking stadiums to make more fan- and revenue-friendly without mucking too much with their character, something she most notably put on display with her oversight of the recent renovations to Fenway Park. Smith has already ruled out wrap-around ad boards, à la the light show that rings New Yankee Stadium, telling the Times, "Let’s not look like the NBA."

The most interesting bit of the article, though, may be an aside about the kinds of rethinking that teams in '90s-era ballparks are now considering, as they see their stadiums' honeymoon periods disappearing in the rear-view mirror:

The club levels at Camden Yards will get a second look because the corporate appetite for expensive suites has diminished. It hasn't helped that the Orioles last had a winning record in 1997 and drew their smallest crowd ever at Camden Yards earlier this
season.
The
Orioles are not the only team thinking about makeovers. The Cleveland Indians, who opened Progressive Field in 1994 (it was Jacobs Field then), are among the 10 teams looking at ways to revive their parks, said Earl Santee, a senior principal at Populous, the architectural firm that designed Camden Yards, PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Coors Field and other retro stadiums.

This is something I've been wondering about for a while now: What do you do with modern stadiums designed for the luxury market when that market evaporates? In olden times, it was easy enough to just rejigger ticket prices, reclassifying a level from "box" to "reserved." Today's class distinctions, though, are cemented in concrete and steel — you can't easily take a chunk of glassed-in seats with their own restaurant and private entrance and turn them back over to the great unwashed. Cleveland in particular is going to be an interesting test case for this, with that vertical wall of club seats that separates its lower deck from its upper. Given the team's current attendance woes and the dismal local economy, they're going to need to find some way of redemocratizing their architecture, but it's not likely to be easy.

In any case with the number of candidates for new stadiums now countable on one hand (A's, Rays, conceivably the Jays or even the White Sox if they decide that modern luxury seating and food courts don't make up for missing out on Camden's retro sheen) and the economic doldrums looking like they're not going to end anytime soon, these kinds of retrofits are the sort of thing we're likely to see spreading across baseball in the next few years. That'll be good news for Janet Marie; whether it will be for fans, especially the less-deep-pocketed kind, remains to be seen.

Neil deMause is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Neil's other articles. You can contact Neil by clicking here

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