Munsey on Ballparks

New ballparks are getting old

by Paul Munsey (archive)

April 30, 2005

Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the ballpark that started the stadium revolution, is thirteen years old. In Minneapolis, that means it's just about obsolete.

Unlike many of the new ballparks, the one in Baltimore is a classic. It will likely be there when all the others are gone. The designers of Oriole Park didn't go looking for that famous warehouse to incorporate into their ballpark. Rather, they were close to tearing it down until someone suggested that it would actually enhance the project. This is the kind of thing which ads character.

When the owners and leaders of other teams and cities saw what had been accomplished in Baltimore, almost all of them decided they had to have one of those for themselves. The sentiment wasn't confined to baseball. A stadium and arena construction boom ensued, which left no city untouched.

Recently, the Minnesota Twins and Hennepin County have agreed on plans for a new ballpark in downtown Minneapolis. It doesn't look like they will be building the retractable roof the Twins want and I'm sure the team will have to settle for other things if they want the public to pick up most of the tab.

The plan is to build the ballpark next to the Hennepin County Energy Recovery Facility, also known as the "garbage burner." I can't say that I know the history behind it, but I suspect that the "garbage burner" was built when nobody thought the land where it sits would ever be used again for anything. Now they want to build a ballpark which holds 42,000 people next to it.

It appears that everyone involved wants this to happen so badly, that they're willing to overlook just about anything to make it happen. I suppose most of the people involved in the decision believe that it's this or nothing. If they build nothing, then the team will be playing in Las Vegas in a few years.

My advice to the people of Minneapolis, for what it is worth, is to look around at other MLB cities before they build this. It was once assumed that a new ballpark equaled lots of money and a successful team. Back in the mid 1990s there were a handful of new retro-style ballparks in the country (Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver and Dallas) and they were all successful. However, most of the other teams have built their own new ballparks since that time and success has been elusive for many of them.

My point is that building a new ballpark does not automatically mean success. There are many factors which contribute to success and location is one of the big ones. As long as there is a "garbage burner" next to their ballpark, the Twins are going to have a tough time selling tickets. Then, in another twenty years, the team will be demanding another new stadium. Perhaps everyone involved understands this, and they are willing to spend that kind of money. It just seems like there is a pattern of short-term thinking when it comes to sports facilities by those who have been entrusted with the public treasury.

That brings me to my next subject. I am just about convinced that there is very little long-term thinking going on when it comes to building stadiums and arenas. If you look around at MLB, there are already signs that teams will be asking for another round of stadium construction in the not-so-distant future.

The retractable roof ballparks in Arizona and Houston are having trouble growing grass. I suspect it's not much better in Seattle or Milwaukee. Their solution has been to replace the turf periodically. I've heard reports that the turf gets completely replaced three of four times a year. That is an expensive process. What's going to happen in a few more years when the novelty has completely worn off and these ballparks are just another place to see a game? As the teams' profit margins evaporate, are they going to be willing to spend millions of dollars to keep the natural grass looking good? Who will be the first to cave in and install artificial turf?

They spent hundreds of millions of dollars on side-by-side stadiums for the Tigers and Lions (NFL) in downtown Detroit. Both had much smaller seating capacities than their predecessors in order to encourage sold-out events. However, attendance has not lived up to expectations. The Lions, which play only eight regular season games per year at Ford Field, are not selling out their games. The Tigers have averaged about seventy percent of capacity.

In the past couple of years, new ballparks in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and San Diego have failed to meet expectations. Part of that may be that it just isn't very special anymore for a team to have a new ballpark. Another reason is that there has to be something that people want to watch. In San Francisco, attendance has shown weakness for the first time since SBC Park opened in 2000. Why? Because Barry Bonds is on the disabled list.

Meanwhile, they keep packing them in at Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and, yes, Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Paul Munsey is the editor of

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Munsey on Ballparks © 2005 by Paul Munsey.

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