May 25, 2020.
What will live sports look like after the pandemic? I’m not talking about COVID-19-related changes like temperature checks, face coverings, cashless facilities and/or spreading people out. I’m assuming an eventual return to some sort of normalcy, say by 2021 or 2022. Based on current ballpark trends, what is the near future of the MLB experience? Stadium Dude plays dime store soothsayer in this edition of “Stadium Swami”
We know the Texas Rangers will be (eventually) playing in climate-controlled Globe Life Field. Among the features of their new facility is a latest-generation artificial turf playing surface. This will bring the number of teams using turf field to five; it was just two the last time the Dodgers lost a World Series (the fixed roof facility in Tampa and the built-as-a-multipurpose facility in Toronto). Texas joins Arizona and Miami as teams moving AWAY from grass (ironic given how the country is doing the opposite). The Rangers are making this move citing the quality of new artificial surfaces. And doing so should: a. eliminate problems with poor conditions in permanently shaded areas; b. help keep the playing surface more even throughout a season (gone will be the burnt August grass that causes balls to skid and bounce higher than anticipated); and c. allow the facility to stay closed more thus reducing wear on the interior. While I can’t foresee a return to the early 80’s when nearly 40% of teams played on turf, if the new surfaces continue to get glowing player reviews, perhaps teams with roofs (Astros), short growing seasons (Twins) or regional fan bases (Royals, Rockies) may also consider a move
But playing surfaces aren’t the only changes. With many parks now into their third decade of service, we may see several major renovations and/or requests for new ballparks from some of the teams with lesser facilities. What are some of the bigger trends from the past few years that could point to where things may be going? Here’s a six-pack of thoughts.
1 A continued reduction in fixed seating capacity. Most MLB markets struggle with moving inventory of their poorer seats. By reducing capacity, demand is created through scarcity, and there are fewer undesirable seats. Expect lower seating capacities between 30,000 and 38,000 for most new parks, and for major renovations to remove distant outfield upper deck seating in existing parks. For instance, the A’s Howard Terminal Stadium is calling for a 34,000 seat venue. The Rays Ybor City park was just over 30,000. The Diamondbacks have been talking about building something 10,000-14,000 seats smaller than Chase Field. “Cozy” will be the buzzword (at least it would have been prior to the pandemic).
2 Much more “flexible viewing options”. It seems like social areas and non-fixed seats are the wave of the present in sports arenas. Fans prefer having ledges for their food and the flexibility to connect with more friends without worrying about seat assignments. New ballparks will build more general admission drink rails as well as experiential stadium features such as game rooms, sit-down bars and perhaps even betting parlors likely at the expense of prioritizing killer postcard views and ornate design.
3 A continuation of the videoboard size race. Screens just keep getting bigger and bigger. Might we soon see the day of a screen that can enclose the outfield in parks without city views? A park like Citi Field, with a disjointed array of outfield boards would look amazing if center and right had one crazy curved ginormous screen. More and more the advertising will be generated digitally allowing for more in-stadium partners, and more flexibility in game day presentation sponsored or otherwise.
4 Smart seats. We’ve already seen premium seating areas get chilled cup holders and USB charging stations. Such features, especially the latter, may become more common across more areas of the park. We’ve already netted the whole place to protect people on their phones, why not go whole hog with chargers? Especially in places offering in-seat ordering: it’s harder to sell $15 beers if the fans’ phones are dead.
5 Free flow parking. The Marlins are doing this, and others should consider it (ahem Dodgers) as a way to expedite parking and reduce pre-game bottlenecks. The idea is to have license plates captured upon entry, and fans pay for parking via an app once they’re in their spot rather than stopping to pay at a toll booth. The goal is to get fans in their seats quicker (and happier) so they can start spending money quicker.
6 An increase in team-controlled revenue generators in stadium adjacencies. While most teams can’t do what the Braves did and essentially build a ballpark neighborhood from scratch, look for more teams to do what the Cubs did by owning the development closest to the stadium, with potential for augmenting their baseball earnings with revenue from restaurants, bars and hotels patronized largely by their ticket buyers. Hell if the Dodgers built a hotel on their parking lot, I’d stay there to avoid the traffic in at least one direction.
Of course the most powerful trend in the short term would be a return of live events. Here’s hoping that we’ll be seeing games again soon.