A reader alerted me to Andy Dolich’s piece last week in the Biz Ball section of the CSN Bay Area/California website. Dolich goes back through the postwar history of stadia in America, going from the multipurpose bowls of yesteryear to the new single purpose venues of the last twenty years. He then summarizes the current difficulty experienced by California teams when it comes to getting stadia built. After that, he proposes an idea so strange it might have come out of the 60’s: the 49ers, Raiders, and A’s should all share one stadium where the Coliseum currently sits. In supporting this “multi-use” concept, Dolich cites major technological advances, such as the movable seating decks at ANZ Stadium and customizable LED displays used everywhere nowadays.
While Dolich’s sense of history is sound, he left out a major factor that has sent both the NFL and MLB on different tracks. The Neo-Classical ballparks are much smaller in terms of capacity than their predecessors, while the new football stadia are much larger. 40,000 has emerged as a sweet spot for MLB, while 65,000 is preferable for the NFL. No amount of new technology is going to be able to mask or easily move 25,000 seats, not even tarps.
The requirements for baseball and football have diverged so much that it’s hard to envision even attempting to make a multipurpose stadium work these days. Let’s take a look at how the two sports’ requirements differ:
- Proximity to the field. In baseball, it’s customary to have the first row at the same level as the field, or perhaps a foot above the field. In football, the first row may be 6-10 feet above the field.
- Quantity of premium seating. Football stadia tend to have 7,500 club seats and 100-200 suites. Ballparks have 3-4,000 club seats and around 40 suites.
- Confinement. Colder seasons force football stadia to enclose their suites behind glass, whereas ballparks like to take advantage of the summer by putting the seats outside the glassed-in parts of the suites.
- Surfaces. While Field Turf and other advanced artificial surfaces have gotten better at mimicking grass, they’re still far away from being truly comparable for baseball applications. The fake stuff is welcome in football, where there’s no need to worry about having a true ball bounce or roll. If a stadium were to utilize grass, the dirt infield problem emerges.
- Environment aesthetics. In football, the stadium is the scene. In baseball, ballparks are frequently designed take advantage of a pastoral or urban backdrop.
The technology that Dolich espouses does little to address the differences in fan experience that the single purpose venues achieve. For instance, ANZ Stadium‘s movable seating sections could be an inspiration. Prime lower deck seats are mounted on tracks that expand and contract based on each sport’s specifications. It sounds good until you realize that the difference in capacity between ANZ’s rectangular (rugby, soccer) and oval (cricket, Aussie Rules) is only 2,000 seats. As a cricket venue it is severely compromised in terms of dimensions, with far more cricket tests played at Sydney’s older Cricket Ground. Movable seating decks have been employed to mixed success in the United States, the most prominent examples being the Louisiana Superdome and Candlestick Park. Aloha Stadium and Mile High Stadium both had novel methods to move entire seating stands. At Aloha, four double-deck stands either pinched in for football or widened out for baseball. Eventually the stadium was locked into its football configuration, much the same way The Stick’s east stands have been kept in their football mode.
LED displays are great replacements for signage. They make an excellent platform for disseminating game information. But they don’t address the capacity disparity. From a fan experience standpoint, it could be said that the displays are sometimes counterproductive since they are so distracting. Either way, they’re just window dressing.
Dolich uses the current economic state as justification for building a multipurpose stadium. Why bother, if the fan experience will only be marginally better than the current stadium, and will always be compared to superior experiences at single purpose venues? Dolich worked for the 49ers as a consultant to help improve the experience at The Stick, and was not particularly prominent in the selling of the new stadium to Santa Clara residents. He was unceremoniously let go at the beginning of this calendar year, and now he’s practically endorsing an alternative to the plan. If this were the 60’s, when both baseball and football were played in 50,000-seat ashtrays, it might be feasible. Times have changed. Until someone figures out how to make 25,000 seats disappear, the idea is not really worthy of discussion.