The Future of Baseball Looks Like Declining Attendance and Smaller Stadiums to Match

For more than a decade, from coast to coast, they rose from urban cores and suburban sprawl alike, feats of architectural perfection that defined the fan experience in Major League Baseball – in perpetuity, it seemed.

The great ballpark building boom that spanned the 1990s and into the millennium’s first decade was a welcome correction from the multi-purpose mausoleums that dotted the landscape in the 1970s. And the billions and billions of dollars expended – much of it coming from taxpayers – to create a more intimate setting felt like a permanent fix.

Yet as the industry discovers the appetite for live baseball may be shrinking, a third wave of stadiums are gradually coming online, revealing franchises’ desire to further shrink the ballpark – be it new or already existing.

“The Camden Yards-era ballparks were fitting the bill,” Oakland Athletics president Dave Kaval says of Baltimore’s innovatively retro stadium that opened in 1992. “But that was 20 years ago.”

Kaval is charged with finding a new ballpark for the A’s and the club has progressed significantly on a waterfront project at Howard Terminal, near Jack London Square. Major hurdles remain, most notably Oakland City Council approval of a complicated deal centered on a 34,000-seat stadium.

Since 1989, every major league club save for the A’s and Tampa Bay Rays have inhabited a new or significantly renovated stadium. The Rays’ failed attempt at building in Tampa’s Ybor City aimed for a ballpark with 28,000 seats; they have already reduced capacity at Tropicana Field to 25,000.

The Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers, leaning significantly on public funding that came without taxpayer referendums, ditched parks built in the 1990s for smaller digs framed by the game’s new revenue engine – mixed-use developments at least partially controlled by the team. The Braves are in their third season at SunTrust Park (capacity, 41,000, replacing Turner Field’s 53,000) while the Rangers in 2020 will open Globe Life Field, a retractable-roof facility that will seat 40,000 compared to its predecessor’s 49,000-seat capacity.

Others are on the way.

The Los Angeles Angels are negotiating with the city of Anaheim to fix up 45,000-seat Angel Stadium (last major renovation: 1997) and develop the parking lot; the club has floated the possibility of moving the team to Long Beach, where the ballpark footprint would be significantly smaller.

And the Arizona Diamondbacks can escape their Chase Field lease in 2022 if they build a new stadium within Maricopa County; the team gained that right by agreeing to drop a lawsuit claiming the county owed $187 million in repair and renovations to Chase Field, which opened in 1998.

Failing that, the Diamondbacks could follow the lead of the Rays, Cleveland Indians and others, and simply transform their 48,000-seat stadium into a smaller venue that reflects an environment where attendance across MLB is projected to decline for a fourth consecutive year, mirroring trends in several sports.

“We are definitely keeping our options open as it pertains to remaining at Chase Field,” Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall said in an email to USA TODAY Sports. “We have said for years that our ballpark capacity is far too large.

“In a market like ours, it is not realistic to believe we can fill Chase Field on a regular basis.”

For the Diamondbacks, A’s and perhaps a significant number of clubs that may replace – or revamp – their Camden Yards-era parks, finding the sweet spot of atmosphere, accessibility and inclusion will be paramount in a sport with an aging and occasionally alienated fan base.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Gabe Lacques