With the growing popularity of basketball and football among America’s youth, it appears as though the golden years of the nation’s pastime have come and gone.
Over the past three decades, baseball fans have experienced their fair share of disappointments, particularly in the wake of the 1994 players’ strike. This coincided with the start of the steroid era, when a number of high-profile stars were found guilty of taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Others have pointed to the game’s sluggish pace: just within the past 10 years, the length of games has increased from an average of 2.85 hours per game in 2004 to to an average of 3.13 hours in 2014 (though MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has begun to address these concerns).
Some numbers reflect waning interest. In 2012, only 12.7 million people watched the World Series on television – the smallest audience since Nielson Media Research began tracking viewers in 1973. The national media’s relatively light coverage of the sport (most games are shown on regional networks) suggests that this downward trend in national viewership will continue.
But other data tell a different story: baseball still boasts the highest total attendance of any sport in the world.
Yes, baseball has a 162-game season. But unlike attending other live sporting events – where the game is the main attraction – ballparks offer family-friendly entertainment in addition to the on-field product.
And here’s where stadiums – and their design – have taken on an increasingly important role in the popularity and sustainability of the sport. Starting with the design of the Baltimore Orioles’ ballpark, the architectural firm Populous has led the charge to transform the experience of going to a game.
The cookie-cutter era
When wooden ballparks were first built to house baseball teams, they were often inserted into the existing urban fabric of the downtown areas, where fans could easily gain access by foot or public transportation.
Because stadiums needed to fit within the city’s existing street layout, fields were asymmetrical and filled with quirks. For example, at Boston’s Fenway Park, the proximity of the outfield to the neighboring street resulted in broken windows. To mitigate further damages (and prevent nonpaying fans from watching the game), the Red Sox built the legendary Green Monster – a 37-foot wall in left field.
However as the century progressed, the growth of the suburbs, declining urban populations and the advent of the car made downtown stadiums less attractive to teams.
In the 1960s, teams began moving their parks to the suburbs, where there was plenty of land available for parking lots. Much like the uniform houses that populated the suburbs, these new ballparks shared many characteristics, resulting in the nicknames “cookie-cutter stadiums” and “concrete donuts.”
These lifeless, dull structures were designed to host multiple events and, sometimes, multiple sports. They included Houston’s Astrodome, San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium and Minnesota’s Hubert H Humphrey Metrodome.
The multipurpose stadiums were particularly ill-suited for baseball because they failed to provide a satisfying fan experience. The vast size of the stadiums meant that a number of seats remained empty during games, and the shape prevented seats from being close to the playing field. In the domes, artificial turf and a climate-controlled interior devoid of sunlight only worked to detract from the experiences of fans (and players).
A contextualized approach
However, beginning with the Baltimore Orioles in the late 1980s, baseball teams began to demand stadiums of their own – parks built specifically for baseball and only baseball.
Populous, a Kansas City-based architecture firm, has been at the forefront of this movement. The firm is responsible for 17 of the 30 ballparks currently in use by major league teams. Some of their more successful projects have brought new life to watching baseball games in person, thanks in part to their contextualized approach to design – the idea that the architecture and design of ballparks should be influenced by their locations.
Populous (then known as HOK Sport) ended the “concrete donut” trend in 1992 with the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Per the Orioles’ request, Populous designed a baseball-only venue that reflected the culture and history of Baltimore.
One major aspect of this contextualized approach was the preservation of the B&O Warehouse in right field. The warehouse, which was built in 1899 by the B&O Railroad, housed freight during the height of the rail industry in Baltimore. Thus, its inclusion into the ballpark established a connection between the ballpark and the city. In addition, odd nooks and crannies in the outfield made each game more unpredictable, and seats closer to the field made fans feel closer to the action.
As teams swooped in to hire Populous to design their ballparks, the firm explored many aspects of a contextual approach. In San Diego, they wanted Petco Park to have a laid-back feel that reflected the city’s warm, coastal, beach climate. Some unique features included are a “park within the park” where children can play and a sandy viewing area behind the outfield.
The Miami Marlins required an entirely different ballpark to cater to their Cuban-American fan base. Marlins Park rejected the retro trend (used for new parks in Baltimore and San Diego) in favor of a modern structure, replete with neon accents and bright colors – a nod to Caribbean culture.
Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, an art collector, insisted on putting large replicas of modern artworks on the walls. In addition to having museum-like concourses, the ballpark contains a “museum” of bobblehead figures to entertain children and collectors. The outfield, on the other hand, caters to an older audience with its popular nightclub.
By embracing the cities surrounding their projects, Populous has created ballparks that typically draw fans throughout the season. And even as young superstars like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton energize baseball fans across the nation, a well-designed ballpark will outlast them all.
It seems that, despite sagging TV ratings, teams realize that catering to the tradition of heading to the ballpark on a warm summer night could be the game’s saving grace.