In 1962, as the New York Mets played their first season in the old Polo Grounds, their yearbook touted the new ballpark that would be ready in 1963. "New design concepts will make this stadium the most convenient, comfortable, and attractive public arena on the eastern seaboard," it gushed. "It will have a seating capacity of 55,000, which will eventually be raised to 85,000. At the time of the installation of the additional 30,000 seats, the stadium will be domed in, so rain checks will be a thing of the past."
That same year, an episode of The Jetsons, called "Jetson's Nite Out," showed George Jetson attending a glass-domed football game, where his ticket was scanned instead of torn in half. He was photographed in the stands by a floating cameraperson, and coaches controlled their robotic players via push-button consoles.
As it turns out, the cartoon's predictions were more accurate. Today's tickets are scanned, sporting events are recorded with wire-strung Skycams, and football coaches talk to their quarterbacks via helmet-mounted radios. Meanwhile, Shea Stadium opened a year late, the extra seating and dome never materialized, and good luck finding anyone who has ever described it as convenient, comfortable, or attractive.
In fact, Shea was the first of a now-scorned generation of circular, characterless complexes designed for both baseball and football. That legacy is being purged by HOK Sport, an architecture firm that has designed seven of the past eight Major League Baseball stadiums and several new National Football League facilities, all with a focus on organic, community- integrated design.
With the advent of stadium naming rights, more luxury- and club-level seating, and the explosion in television rights fees, the economics of single-sport stadiums make sense. And city elders have realized that creative architecture can extend a stadium's value beyond the balance sheet. "Watching a home run hit into McCovey Cove [at San Francisco's AT&T Park] is, in part, an advertisement for San Francisco," says HOK Sport senior principal Dennis Wellner.
In the future, says Wellner, more video boards will go high-definition, "so the ability to produce programming that becomes part of the event will be a larger part of the future." Expect more stadiums with retractable roofs, as well as retractable fields, which allow grass to be tended off-site and make facilities convention-friendly.
Which brings us back to the Mets, whose new HOK-designed ballpark is slated to replace Shea in 2009—not a moment too soon, in the view of team COO Jeff Wilpon. "Shea was already an old dog when our family got involved in the '80s," he says. "Our new stadium's seats will be angled toward home plate, and the concourses will be much wider, with clear views of the field." The challenge for Shea, and for other new stadiums such as Baltimore's Camden Yards and Pittsburgh's PNC Park, will be to last longer than their predecessors, most of which were used for only 30 to 40 years. "We're building this one for a much longer life," says Wilpon. "We expect it to be around for a long time."
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.