July 24, 2008
Lies, Damned Lies
Shrinking the Ballpark
Trivia question: Yankee Stadium seats 57,545 fans, which is presently the largest capacity of any park in Major League Baseball. When it closes this year, and is replaced by a ballpark that seats roughly 6,000 fewer fans, which facility will take its place as the largest stadium in MLB?
The answer is Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, which has a seating capacity of 56,000. To my mind, this is remarkable. Dodger Stadium is not some 1970s-era behemoth; all of those parks are closed now. Instead, it is a beautiful and well-designed baseball-only facility. Dodger Stadium doesn't just have 56,000 seats-it has 56,000 pretty darned good baseball seats.
The Dodgers have taken good advantage of the large capacity at Chavez Ravine, their ballpark having placed in the top three in the National League in attendance in 43 of the 47 years that it has been open. What's interesting, then, is that so many teams seem to be in a rush to decrease their seating capacities. Of the 14 parks that have opened since 2000 or are scheduled to open-I'll be especially generous and count the Marlins' proposed facility in this category-13 had reduced seating capacity from that of the team's old stadium, and the lone exception is Cisco Field, which qualifies only because the A's refuse to sell tickets in the upper deck at McAfee Coliseum. Collectively, these 14 stadiums will take about 10.8 million seats per season out of circulation.
Table 1. Seating Capacities of New Facilities
Open New Park Capacity Old Park Capacity 2000 Comerica Park 40,950 Tiger Stadium 52,146 2000 Minute Maid Park 40,950 Astrodome 54,816 2000 AT&T Park 40,930 Candlestick Park 58,000 2001 PNC Park 38,365 Three Rivers Stadium 47,971 2001 Miller Park 43,000 County Stadium 53,192 2003 Great American BP 42,059 Riverfront Stadium 52,952 2004 Citizens Bank Park 43,000 Veterans Stadium 62,382 2006 New Busch Stadium 46,861 Busch Stadium 49,676 2008 Nationals Park 41,888 RFK Stadium 43,739 2009 Citi Field 45,000 Shea Stadium 55,601 2009 New Yankee Stadium 51,800 Yankee Stadium 57,745 2010 New Twins Stadium 40,000 Metrodome 55,883 2011 New Marlins Park* 37,000 Dolphin Stadium 42,531 2012 Cisco Field 35,000 McAfee Coliseum 34,077 Average 41,915 Average 51,479
This phenomenon is not anything especially new. The median capacity of a major league baseball stadium peaked in the 1980s at a little over 50,000, and has steadily declined since, as the once-fashionable multipurpose donuts are replaced with more intimate, HOK-designed facilities. The chart below documents the median, maximum, minimum, and inter-quartile range (25th and 75th percentiles) of seating capacities at major league parks, beginning with 1908 and proceeding at ten-year intervals. I also provide the projected figures for 2012, once five new facilities come on line and the Royals complete a redesign that will reduce their seating capacity.
Are teams making a mistake by limiting their seating capacities in this fashion? In a global sense, they can't be, since as seating capacities have decreased, attendance has increased. In previous regression analyses that I have conducted, I have found no predictive relationship between seating capacity and per-game attendance, and there are some hints of an inverse relationship between capacity and ticket revenues.
Nevertheless, there are a few teams on that new stadiums list that look like they're leaving money on the table. The Mets are one of them, certainly: why limit seating to 45,000 at Citi Field when you're selling almost 50,000 seats per game at a dump like Shea Stadium? The Nationals and Phillies would also seem to play in large and prosperous enough markets that they could have fit in a few extra seats.
So let's reverse the question. What are the reasons a team might have for limiting seating capacity, even if it expects to have excess demand for its tickets?
After having articulated all of this, you might conclude that I think teams like the Mets are making the right economic decision by substantially reducing their seating capacities, but I do not. I think it may be the right near-term decision, but I do not know that it is the right long-run decision. By limiting their number of seats, a large fraction of which will be occupied by season ticket holders, corporate clients, or fans that are wealthy enough to pay above-face prices to scalpers and brokers, teams risk shutting out a large fraction of their fan bases from the ballpark experience.
When this subject came up at the Symposium on Statistics and Operations Research in Baseball that I attended last week, the counterargument put forward-most articulately by Alan Schwarz-was that the ballpark experience just isn't all that important anymore. The home viewing experience has been significantly improved by innovations ranging from HDTV to MLB.tv. If fans can watch multiple games at the same time on their flatscreens, and follow their fantasy teams in the process, this may actually be more desirable than attending a game at the ballpark, irrespective of the price of the seats. Speaking personally, I am nowhere near that way with baseball yet, but I remember having attended a block of NCAA (Basketball) Tournament games at the United Center while in college, and regretting that I couldn't catch up with the close finishes elsewhere around the country.
More broadly, there are many ways to follow baseball these days without actually watching it, such as being into fantasy, video games, or even sabermetrics. What might seem like anti-social behavior to a 50-year-old-sitting on one's computer, flipping back and forth between several games, obsessively checking one's fantasy statistics, and IM'ing or text-messaging friends-may seem like the most natural thing in the world to a 20-year-old.
Still, I'll bet you that most of those 20-year-olds were significantly influenced by having attended games as 12-year-olds, or by continuing to attend games occasionally as young adults. The experience of watching a game at the ballpark need not necessarily be a superior experience so much as it is a different experience that allows these younger fans to enjoy and embrace the game in different ways. Conversely, I tend to think that, if one's engagement with baseball becomes overly virtual, it is at more risk of being displaced by other virtual pursuits, such as playing Grand Theft Auto or renting something from Netflix.
For years now, baseball has sought-and has largely succeeded-to make the home experience more like the ballpark experience. It may now be time to make the ballpark experience more like the home experience. Specifically, teams could consider installing large, closed-circuit video monitors that have their backs facing home plate, enabling fans in further-away parts of the ballpark to follow the action on television simultaneously with that on the field. Ballparks can become more wireless- and fantasy- friendly, displaying real-time highlights from other games, allowing fans to share in the communal experience without having to sacrifice the luxuries they might get from watching the game at home.
In addition, with cheaply-priced tickets, as at the Rockpile in Denver, teams could adopt a razor-and-blades approach in which they make significant revenues off concessions while building fan loyalty. Ultimately this may be a moot point, as the era of stadium construction is drawing to a close. But while baseball has become smarter about drawing revenue out of its wealthiest and most passionate fans, it ought not forget about the guys in the cheap seats.