Re-energizing the Ballpark Experience
By: Bruce Miller
Throughout the history of baseball, societal trends, demographics, technology and economics have all influenced the evolution of American ballpark design. Part of the charm of the modern ballpark experience is how it harkens to the history of the game, the franchise and the rituals.
While history is an important aspect of the game day experience, looking forward to the future is essential to keeping our treasured baseball venues viable over the long term while maximizing the fan experience. As the needs of the modern fan evolve, so must the facilities that house them.
A number of teams have undergone renovations of varying scope to update their stadiums while maintaining the charm and history associated with their respective ballparks and teams. Kauffman Stadium, Target Field, Coors Field, PETCO Park and Rangers Ballpark, among others, have added to the fan experience through key modernizations. How did they do it? By following a few key strategies:
*Courtesy of Steve Lyon on Flickr
Technology elevates the expectations of the modern baseball fan. High Definition videoboards, and camera and production equipment, high density WiFi access throughout a facility, improved Distributed Antenna Systems (DA) and a top-of-the-line sound system all are integral to fulfilling fan expectations for the game-day experience.
The modern sports team competes with in-home technology that has made high definition video, surround sound, and streaming access common place in the American home. Fans attending a ballgame have come to expect access to streaming video on their smartphones, the ability to text and post to social media sites, a high-quality video replay display and excellent fidelity.
Some systems installed just a few years ago in stadiums are no longer adequate due to the proliferation of smartphone technology and the evolution of in home technology. Just five years ago, it would have been highly unusual for someone to bring a computer to a ballgame but now, the modern fan is often seen with their iPad at a ballgame, allowing them to get instantaneous information on demand from At Bat, the iPad app from mlb.com. Kaufmann Stadium and Target Field are both examples of recent facilities making ongoing improvements to keep up with this proliferation of technology.
While technology continues to deliver content to the palm of our hands wherever we are, one of the unique aspects of the ballpark experience continues to be the authenticity of the in-stadium experience. While technology can deliver an impressive virtual experience, the real, authentic experience is still AT the game, celebrating the moment with others. Saying “I was there” continues to trump “I was watching.”
No matter how good our technology is, we can’t fully replace the in-game experience – the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and feeling of the game. However, we often forget that the stadium experience and in-home experience are reliant on one another. If the in-game experience isn’t great, the virtual experience declines as well.
As architects, we strive to improve the in-game experience of the fan with more technology, more convenience, more comfort and more value in each category of seating we design. One of our challenges is preserving the character or authenticity of the place while modernizing the actual offerings of the facility.
Seating for Every Fan
Recent renovations of Major League Ballparks have focused heavily on finding opportunities for unique seating and more variations in premium and general seating options for fans. Some trends that originated in Minor League Ballparks have carried over and come to be important parts of the seating offered at today’s MLB parks. Picnic decks, loge boxes, event suites and bar areas with seating overlooking the field have all been popular additions to ballparks over the past several years.
In order to accommodate every fan, from the traditionalist who stays seated for all nine innings to the next generation fan who considers a ballgame a social event, spaces are specifically designed with behaviors in mind. Young people want the ability to roam, to change location and socialize in different venues within the park. What used to be known as Standing Room Only at a railing has now become a ticketed position with the addition of a stool and a drink rail. These areas allow for more socializing, more movement and more visibility than a traditional seat.
Family areas with games, kids’ activities and kid-oriented food and beverage options have made the ballpark more accessible to families on a budget. Many of the individual corporate suites are being combined and converted to event suites sold on a game by game basis. The expansion of choice in seating types and areas continues, as each park strives to find the right mix of seating to accommodate the team’s fan base. The growth of variable pricing structures may continue to evolve the types and locations of seating.
Ballparks can become an intrinsic part of a team’s brand and can become so beloved by fans that they transcend the success of the team on the field. From Minneapolis to Miami to Kansas City to Denver, the best ballparks are the ones in which the fans continue to come and support the hometown team year after year because the experience at the ballpark is still worth paying for. Going to the ballpark is part of family tradition, summertime outings and a great place to hang out for a summer evening.
While adding all of the new amenities the fans have come to expect, we have to remember to embrace and respect the spirit of the place the ballpark creates. Renovations should value the history of a venue and the team while preserving and enhancing essential features of the place, features like the fountains at Kauffman Stadium, the view of the Rockies at Coors Field and new places like the Clevelander in Miami.
In each of these categories, what we know for sure is that demands of the fan base will continue to change and ballparks will need to follow suit in response to these demand shifts. Strategic renovations that incorporate the latest trends and elevate the ballpark experience will keep our ballparks fresh and extend their useful lives. For seven months a year, after all, they become America’s living rooms.