Thoughts on MLB in Vegas and retractable roofs

Howard Terminal with a twist

I want you to take a long look at the rendering above. You’ll probably say you’ve seen it before, that it’s Howard Terminal. It’s not, for reasons I’ll get into later. For now, study it because it reveals certain things about baseball in the 21st century that you probably weren’t aware of previously.

Before I do the point-by-point tear down, I’ll discuss the report that Bally’s and GLPI are offering 9 acres on the southeast portion of the Tropicana Hotel and Casino plot to the A’s for their ballpark. GLPI, which owns the site land while Bally’s has the development rights, is offering $175 million towards “certain shared improvements within the future development in exchange for a commensurate rent increase.” When I saw that, I immediately thought that is GLPI is providing an enticement for the A’s to build a retractable roof.

I’ve gone to games and taken tours at all of the retractable roof ballparks built in the last 30+ years. I’ve taken notes and seen many of the mistakes made in the first generations of retractable roof ballparks that caused them to evolve. Whether those changes were done to increase fan enjoyment or business opportunities, they’ve come a long way for good and ill. Here are some observations about the sector.

  1. Teams care more about reducing operating expenses than anything else. Two of the early designs in Phoenix (Chase Field, 1998) and Milwaukee (American Financial Field, 2001) used roofs that opened from a home plate-to-center field line, the same method you often see at American football stadia (Arlington, TX and Glendale, AZ). While this allows for a more compact footprint, historically it’s more costly to maintain due to its mechanical complexity. Milwaukee’s roof was mired in lawsuits when the roof broke down soon after construction, incurring costly repair bills. Chase Field’s roof had a less dramatic break down, attributable to age and causing the Dbacks to refrain from operating it unless they know the weather days in advance. Chase in particular is still subject to roof leaks whenever it rains, which is bad news even when it’s closed and a monsoon comes through in the late summer.
  2. Rogers Centre (1989) can’t be made prettier or with a better backdrop. The Blue Jays chose to add improvements along the concourses and in the outfield instead, so it will look even more like an airport concourse than it did when I visited a few years ago. Despite the less-than-picturesque baseball setting, folks in the Great White North definitely appreciate it when there’s blue sky up above instead of white, so the team tries to keep the roof open as much as possible as summers are fleeting. It also helps that the Jays don’t need a massive air conditioning system.
  3. T-Mobile Park (1999) and Minute Maid Park (2000) are similar in that they have roof systems that open towards right field. This makes for expansive sky views when the roofs are open, though RF is merely another grandstand with a scoreboard. Seattle’s design is mostly a roof canopy that allows breezes to come through, whereas Houston’s is a more sealed dome meant to mitigate heat and humidity.
  4. LoanDepot Park (2012) and Globe Life Field (2020) are evolved versions of Seattle and Houston. Miami’s roof opens behind the first base line, while Texas’s opens behind third base. This allows the roof eyesore to be placed out of view of most fans during games when the roof is open, though there’s still the same assemblage of grandstand and scoreboard in RF. Miami started with grass and moved to artificial turf when the team had trouble growing grass there, which is only possible in Florida when you keep closing the roof. In Texas, they didn’t even bother with grass and went straight to a different version of the turf used in Miami. Both also have “partial retractable roofs” which have a large fixed roof component somewhere to keep construction and operating costs down. It’s disappointing for two Sun Belt teams to go this route. However, it’s not just about the roof. Using turf helps both venues get better LEED certification due to less water usage. 

Knowing all of that, it’s a safe bet that any Vegas ballpark will also have turf and possibly a retractable roof if it can be afforded. Again, GLPI’s $175 million pledge is an enticement for the A’s. When I started this blog, the going rate for a value-add retractable dome was $100 million. That makes $175 million in 2023 dollars seem a bit cheap. I suspect that’s all a matter of negotiation. I also suspect that a big part of the negotiation will be the magic trick of where the roof goes when it opens. GLPI and Bally’s can also govern air rights for the stowed roof, making it more appealing for the A’s to deploy something that might be used only two months every baseball season. A retractable roof might be more attractive for non-baseball uses such as concerts. Imagine a packed crowd going nuts when the roof opens for a 9 PM EDM headliner in there. These roofs measure 5-6 acres these days, though I imagine they would aim for something smaller if they could get away with it.

You might also wonder if the A’s could fit a retractable field, much like the grass tray used at State Farm Stadium and Allegiant Stadium. While that was discussed by Dave Kaval previously, I can’t think it’s terribly practical because of the area required. If you search for baseball field sizes online, you’ll often see an estimate of 4.5 acres. That’s a bit much by my estimation. An acre is 43,560 square feet, or a 208.41-foot square. 4 squares of that size would easily accommodate a baseball field and foul territory, but a 4-acre tray is twice the size of the football field-sized trays currently in use. It’s also an amenity that, due to its near constant usage, would claim an even larger footprint than the 9 acres under discussion. There may be an extremely creative way to make that work. I simply don’t think it’s practical.

Angel Stadium in Anaheim size shown for the sake of simplicity

There have been numerous questions about where the renderings are for this now-$1.5 Billion curiosity. In my experience, renderings tend to stay under wraps until it comes time to sell something to the public. Right now everyone’s talking behind closed doors. Frankly, I think we’ve been looking at a perfectly good rendering the whole time. That image at the top of this post is a flipped version of the Howard Terminal ballpark, in which the roof deck slopes down to left field instead of right field. Why? Because if you plan it that way on the Tropicana lot, you open the entire ballpark to the rest of the casino property and the Strip. Add some big glass walls a la Miami and an ETFE fabric roof and you have a panoramic view of Las Vegas with the roof open or closed, or even if it’s fixed. People forget that the original trailblazer, the Houston Astrodome, was built with thousands of skylights filling its roof. Eventually they caused problems for outfielders and couldn’t sustain a grass field (sound familiar?), so Astroturf was invented to fill the need. The technology for both roofs and turf has been evolving ever since. The main takeaway from the history of retractable roof ballparks is that even if you can have the best intentions, you can’t beat physics.

Back to the rendering. Imagine that the roof deck is removed as it’s not needed in Vegas. That roof deck essentially covered all of the back-of-the-house facilities for the ballpark. If you’ve ever been the MGM Grand across the street from the Trop, you know that it’s home to a casino, multiple hotel towers, and several venues all connected by a large main concourse. There’s the theater for David Copperfield, a long-running Cirque du Soleil show, and the MGM Grand Garden Arena, which last night hosted the big Devin Haney-Vasiliy Lomachenko lightweight championship boxing match. The Grand Garden Arena was Vegas’s first real major sports venue, hosting numerous prize fights and concerts over the past 30 years. GGA was a premier venue in the early 90’s that’s been easily eclipsed by T-Mobile Arena down the street, home of the Golden Knights. As MGM has ownership stakes in both venues, it can move events between them without worrying too much about conflicts with the hockey team or UFC events which are hosted at T-Mobile Arena. Now if you’ve been to GGA, you know that it’s fairly barebones and mostly exists as a big exhibit hall with seats. There are concessions there, but if you want something good the rest of the casino is just steps away. As MLB recently signed a deal with FanDuel to be its official betting partner, baseball quickly got into bed with the gaming industry. I would expect MLB to instruct any baseball team moving to Vegas to maintain some amount of separation from actual casino gambling, no slot machines or gaming tables. Sportsbooks are clearly a go. Not having gone to an event at TMA, the pics of it resemble a younger Staples Center or Chase Center. As concourse space in venues is expensive, it may be mostly an issue of efficient fan traffic flow. Anyway, I’m sure Pete Rose is rolling over… somewhere.

Plenty of room to cut from 13 acres to 9, stowing the retractable roof will be a challenge

Finally, I went back into the archives to find some drafts of the HT ballpark. The parcel it was placed on was slightly more than 13 acres. Cut down the roof deck, remove “Athletics Way” outside the ballpark and the extra street areas, and you can get down to 9 acres pretty easily. It will still be a challenge to integrate the ballpark into a larger development while maintaining separation. You can bet, though, that several architecture firms are champing at the bit to do just that.

Approximate placement of HT-sized ballpark on Tropicana LV site (not entirely to scale)

11 thoughts on “Thoughts on MLB in Vegas and retractable roofs

  1. Bottom line: Can they actually squeeze 8 to 9 acres there at the Tropicana Hotel??? I don’t think you’ll talk Bobby Fisher out of it!

  2. Welcome to Howard Terminal-Las Vegas!!!

  3. What is the point of this post? Why not post the financials of the two deals. Oakland ballpark will cost $1B plus .4B for infrastructure. Vegas ballpark $1.5B. Oakland’s market is way bigger fan base than Vegas. Oakland’s project offers 4M sf of development which has to be worth more than a half a billion. Vegas offers no real estate.

    So in summary an Oakland ballpark would cost $1.9B with 5M square of development potential. Vegas would cost $1.5 B unless they get $4B funding from Nevada. Hence the Oakland real estate must be worth less than $800M or $160/square foot. The cause is the Oakland real este market has collapsed.

    I’d the A’s eliminated all their joint development the city’s exaction would be entirely eliminated making an Oakland ballpark the same or less than one in Vegas.

  4. “Add some big glass walls a la Miami and an ETFE fabric roof and you have a panoramic view of Las Vegas with the roof open or closed, or even if it’s fixed”-ML

    Amen! To me, this makes all the sense in the world. Forget the retractable roof as it’s an unnecessary expense in usually hot during baseball season Las Vegas. You can see the strip with a glass wall and be done with it, not to mention that I still don’t see how you get a retractable roof, even with the more simplified versions of retractable roofs that you went over in the post, within 9 acres

    • They could park the roof over a garage, a mall area, or street. It’s mostly an air rights and cost issue. It isn’t a serious acreage problem.

      • Oh ok. I did see the air rights thing that you wrote but like you said, if it’s a cost issue, they need to think this through. How badly do they need a roof that will be open a lot less than it will be closed and how much cost are we looking at?

  5. So R.M., when are you moving from AZ to Vegas?

    • I have something better: a cousin who lives on the Strip where I can crash when I visit and a direct JSX flight which drops me off 1 mile from the ballpark site. Easy-peasy.

      • Nice! We’re looking at NW Vegas in the future, but probably won’t make a move until daughter’s out of college in 4-5 years. If you can’t get them, join them!

  6. Howard Terminal Ballpark in reverse looks like a doppel ganger!!!

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