The $131 million bargain

An announced crowd of 22,197 braved near-freezing temperatures to catch the inaugural game at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, new home of the College World Series. The 24,505-seat stadium, which also serves as the home for the Creighton University Blue Jays, fared well despite the dreary skies.

TD Ameritrade Park’s first game between U. of Nebraska and Creighton U. on April 19, 2011. Image courtesy of White and Blue Review

Designed to be easily (not sure exactly how) expanded to 35,000 seats, TD Ameritrade Park was built for a mere $131 million. Compare that to a $400-450 million MLB park in either San Jose (36,000 seats) or Oakland (39,000), and there’s a $300 million discrepancy. TD Ameritrade Park looks like it could be a major league park at least on the surface. What, then, is the difference between this so-called “hybrid” park and a true major league stadium? Let’s take a look.

First, let’s start with what it has in common with most modern MLB parks.

  • Large upper deck – The upper deck wraps nearly from foul pole to foul pole
  • Wraparound concourse with views – The lower concourse provides unobstructed views around the entirety of the lower deck
  • Expansive outfield seating – Very similar to what’s offered at Kauffman Stadium and US Cellular Field
  • Wide seats (21″) with lots of leg room (36″)
  • Club seats – Most of the upper deck seats are of the club variety
  • Bullpens beyond the outfield seats
  • Large concourses, at least 30 feet wide
  • Large, modern press box – Important for covering multiple teams during the College World Series
  • Highly modern grass surface and drainage system

Sounds like everything a team would want aside from the total capacity, right? Not quite. Scratch the surface and you’ll soon see where much of that extra money goes. To illustrate this, I’ll compare TDAP with last year’s ballpark gem, 39,504-seat Target Field.

Event/Field level comparison between Target Field (left) and TD Ameritrade Park (right).

Event/Field level comparison between Target Field (left) and TD Ameritrade Park (right).

Last year’s review of Target Field did not include a tour, so I didn’t get to see the bowels of the place. However, schematics of every level were made available two years ago, so I made sure to download them for future comparisons like this one. On the left you can see the different kinds of color coding and walls built throughout the sunken event level. The red-orange area behind the plate is the Diamond Club. The adjacent gold areas are the team clubhouses. With only eight acres to accommodate the Twins, virtually every possible space was used and optimized. On the right is the buildout for TDAP. While it’s not as detailed as the other drawing, it’s a clear indicator that not nearly as much space has been built out down below. Perhaps as little as 50% of the available space underwent a buildout. As a result the clubhouses are much smaller. There is no club lounge behind the plate. The commissary is smaller. And it all makes sense. There’s no need for all of the luxury amenities at a place that’s meant to serve college baseball first and foremost. Or at least you’d like to think so.

Plenty of other differences pop up once you start looking around.

  • Fewer levels – TDAP has three levels plus the press box on top. Target has six levels and is much taller, which translates to more than double the amount of concrete and construction work.
  • The missing 8-15,000 seats – To properly add permanent seating, a third deck or significant expansion of the existing decks would be required. That means more concrete and structural steel, more $$$.
  • Scoreboard/Video board – The video board is just slightly larger than the new auxiliary board installed at Target Field over the winter, and one-third the size of the main board. The scoreboard is a refreshingly retro line score job, no frills.
  • Electronic signage – There is no ribbon board or other signage along the upper deck facing, which gives TDAP a very clean appearance.
  • Fewer amenities – No multiple clubs or restaurants, team stores, or team offices. The one club lounge is small compared to most at MLB parks.
  • Fewer suites – The 30 suites is fewer than what you’d see at a MLB facility. They’re also not quite as decked out as comparable suites.
  • Simplified circulation – No escalators and few elevators. That knocks off a few million in capital and maintenance costs right there. There isn’t even a complex network of ramps and stairs.
  • Little flex space – There’s no need to build additional space that could be used to rent out as Omaha has its arena (Qwest Center) and the adjacent convention center across the parking lot from the ballpark.

All the stuff listed above adds cost, and in a manner closer to exponential than proportional. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the price to play in the majors. It’s possible to design a ballpark so that it’s less complex, which is what 360 has been doing. Value engineering also comes into play, though at varying degrees and at different times depending on the budget situation. Could the A’s build a ballpark on the cheap? Sure. That said, once you start ratcheting down you get into dangerous territory. Wolff has already received criticism for downsizing the Earthquakes stadium vision. The last thing he’d want to do is recreate the experience of ARCO Arena, which was built on the cheap. The cheapness would become evident quickly, and it may have done the Kings in as a result. As the definition of a “major league” venue has only grown in cost and complexity over time, so has the gap between good enough and great.

For a level-by-level overview of TD Ameritrade Park, check out this interactive Flash graphic from the Omaha World-Herald.

6 thoughts on “The $131 million bargain

  1. isn’t also easier to build a park in omaha than it is in the bay area?

    also cisco field or whatever the park will be built most likely will only be a two deck park instead of the three deck parks built. the only two deck parks build recently were pnc in det and comerica in det and those parks if i remember right not only were faster to build but were cheaper.

  2. There would be a 20-30% premium for building here.

  3. Man, another example of a beautiful two-deck park. Baseball just seems like a sport that was meant to be seen with a skyline backdrop. We really get robbed of that in Oakland.

  4. I can now add the very first (and likely only) item to my “Reasons to visit Omaha” list.

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