Friday, February 6, 2015

Is It Time To Bring Back Multipurpose Stadiums?

Olympic Stadium in Montreal, what the future looked like in 1976

While baseball fans tend to debate new innovations to the game, there is one recent change that has received almost universal acclaim: the growth of baseball-specific stadiums.  When I first started following baseball as a child the game was played in so-called "ashtray" stadiums like Busch, Veterans, Three Rivers, Jack Murphy, and Riverfront, and in domes like the Kingdome, Metrodome, Astrodome,   The Chicago White Sox started the trend towards baseball specific stadiums with their new park in the early 90s, but things really took off after the Orioles built Camden Yards, a beauty that made retro touches all the rage.

Having been there, it is easy to see why.  It feels like a much older park than it is, and the brick warehouse behind the stadium gives it an old-timey backdrop.  Of all the parks I've been to, Wrigley is the only one with a better character.  Several other teams followed suit, some with more success than others.  However, it is taken as an article of faith that fan experience has been improved by most teams with new parks, and I have little reason to doubt it based on the ones I've been to.

At times, however, I wonder if this has come at too high a price.  Owners have used the new stadium arms race to demand that cities build them new parks, or else.  How many cities and states have financed stadiums while cutting back on essential services?  How many of those parks will be considered "obsolete" in twenty years, bringing a new round of debt and threats?  Just look at Atlanta, where the Braves will be moving into a new stadium in Cobb County before Turner Field is even twenty years old.  I am willing to bet that before too long many of the teams who had new parks built for them will want either major renovations or new stadiums.

For some perspective, think about the politics and values that multipurpose stadiums represent, versus the new ones.  Those multipurpose structures were built during the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when belief in publicly-owned institutions had yet to waver.  They also reflected a midcentury belief in emphasizing efficiency through maximum usefulness.  This philosophy did have its drawbacks, just look at Penn Station, an afterthought sitting beneath Madison Square Garden and an office building.  However, think about the cost savings of not having to build multiple stadiums.  Yes the sight lines aren't as nice, but perhaps money for a better baseball fan experience is better spent on roads and schools.

The new stadiums coincide with the ascendance of our current neoliberal model.  While the public still finances the new stadiums, they don't really see the profits from them.  As always, the debts are public and the profits are private.  Just as companies threaten to move to the Sun Belt or overseas if they aren't paid ransom, baseball teams threaten to find a more gullible city if they don't get a free stadium.

Do I prefer watching games at, say Minute Maid Park rather than the Astrodome?  You bet.  It's just that if teams want that cute new ballpark with a flagpole in the outfield and train that toots after home runs, they should pay for it.  If not, they should accept playing in a bland, multipurpose venue that will save the city money.  If the last few years of economic turmoil have shown us anything, it's that our sense of priorities is completely out of whack.

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