He's pumped up. He's high maintenance. And though you know he costs too much, you hope the fan turnout will make it worth the price. No, he's not your new all-star baseball player — he's your new all-star baseball stadium.
Actually, make that two new all-star stadiums, both in New York. This month, the Yankees and the Mets will move into new homes. The stadiums, designed by HOK Sport Venue Event of Kansas City, Missouri, were ordered up when financing was easy and the economy was strong. Both hark back architecturally to the glory years of New York baseball, but both hint at how the design — and the role — of the stadium is evolving.
Baseball fans are loyal not just to their teams, but also to the history of the game. Ever since Camden Yards opened in Baltimore in 1992, new stadiums have chased nostalgia. "Teams want to rebirth themselves into who they were in the first era of baseball," says HOK Sport senior principal Earl Santee. "People want to see a traditional sport like baseball played in a traditional building." So the Yankees' new $1.3 billion park echoes their original 1923 one, with the same vaulted arches and stone facade. The main entry is still at Gate 4, guarded by golden eagles, and the seats are the same blue.
For the price, the Yankees didn't make much architectural progress, but that's not what they intended. "U.S. clients are more conservative, especially in the baseball industry. Architects get roped into doing retro ballparks over and over," says Manica Architecture principal David Manica, who is designing stadiums in China and Belarus. "We're trying to push clients in the U.S. to think in a different way, but international clients are just more open to experimenting." For example, Manica has a project in Guangzhou, China, that will look like a spaceship, while HOK Sport's Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre, also in China, has huge, glowing red arches that show the firm's daring side.
If there's one area in which the New York teams didn't hold back, it's tech. Santee, who also designed Washington, D.C.'s Nationals Park, says Yankee Stadium is the most technologically advanced ballpark he's worked on. It has a massive 59-foot-by-101-foot HD scoreboard as well as more than 550 LCD screens, so you won't miss a single at-bat while you're in line for a hot dog. There are numerous entertainment centers with PlayStation 3s, in case the kids (or, to be fair, the adults) get bored, and computer kiosks throughout, so you can check stats. Fans in luxury boxes can order delivery from the concessions on touch-screen phones.
The driver in these decisions is less aesthetics than economics: Teams can deduct new-stadium costs from revenue they must share with the league, but huge homes are still pricey. The Mets' $800 million, unfortunately named Citi Field will have 15,333 fewer seats than the old Shea Stadium, a choice that allows the team to sell intimacy and exclusivity at nearly double last year's ticket prices. More space at the Ebbets-inspired field is going to concourses, concessions, luxury boxes, restaurants, and bars — places for fans to spend on high-margin items. Citi Field's four restaurants seat 3,100, up from just 500 seats at Shea's two eateries, and the new Team Store is a whopping 4,600 square feet larger than its predecessor.
The focus on nonbaseball elements foreshadows a more multidimensional future for stadiums. Until now, they've been mostly single-use venues plopped on a plot of land with little regard for the surroundings. Fans came, they saw, they left. But the stadium of the future must be — and do — much more. "These very expensive facilities just cannot sit empty for days and days," says Steve Burrows, director of the London-based venue-design firm Arup Sport. "You need to build some retail and commercial to give the stadium life every day. When it works, it's like a magnet."
"When it works" is the key phrase. "If we build it, they will come" is a hope, not a guarantee. But HOK Sport says that, beginning with a new park that the Florida Marlins want to build on the old Orange Bowl site by 2012, we'll see more diverse facilities integrated into a ballpark, from commercial to retail to residential. That means more revenue opportunities for team owners. Ideally, Santee says, it also means more interaction between the community and the ballpark. Stadiums, he says, will "become a point of reference — maybe even the identity — of the community."
Such a community focus could have helped the Yankees as they built their new home on the site of the Macombs Dam Park, one of the South Bronx's only public ball fields. In exchange, the old stadium plot was to become the new park. Part A is obviously done, but the Yankees haven't come through with part B. Community leaders do expect it to happen, but no sooner than 2011.
The move (or lack thereof) cost the Yankees local goodwill and seems out of step with the future that HOK Sport's Santee describes. Maybe we can think of it as akin to their new stadium: bold, costly, and disappointingly retro.
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A version of this article appeared in the April 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.