Rethinking stadiums

Trends point to smaller, multi-use venues that enhance community life, surrounding landscape

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Jesse Zunke


Jesse Zunke


Perspective 2022 vol 2
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Almost 50 major league stadiums will turn 30 by 2030, leaving team owners, municipalities, and investors to decide whether to renovate or replace, as has been the case for six of them already.  

But whether it’s new from the ground up, as proposed for the Oakland Athletics, or refurbishing an existing stadium, like the New England Patriots’ 20-year-old Gillette Stadium, the community outside the stadium walls is just as important a consideration as the stadium itself.

The proposed new stadium for the Oakland A’s is an example of what stadium construction should look like in the future: it is a coordinated $12 billion, mixed-use project with a sports stadium at its center, built entirely with private funds. Key to the success of this project was the reclassification of the port facility, Howard Terminal, as mixed use so the stadium project could be built on it, thus removing a major obstacle to the project which has long been on the table. 

Construction costs for the project, which includes a 35,000-seat arena, 3,000 housing units, office space and a hotel, will be borne by developers who would in turn reap the profits.  The only cost to the taxpayer would be infrastructure improvements around the development, money worth spending given the long-term benefits to the public. 

Like the A’s stadium, a new or improved arena should be an exercise in urban planning, with goals for both the municipality, and the facility owners. Some goals may include improving access with local roads and bridges, adequate parking, and being well served by public transportation and airports. Other considerations need to include hotel rooms and hospital beds nearby, in addition to more entertainment choices for visiting fans to drive spending in the area. Green spaces should also be a consideration for any plan. 

Building new stadium-centric communities like that in Oakland are quite a departure from how stadium projects have historically been constructed.  In what has long been the standard with sports venues, public funds build the massive structures, but all subsequent profits go to private stakeholders. There is little trickle down and no collateral projects to improve the surrounding landscape. Team owners and investors pocket all revenues from ticket sales, broadcast revenues, concessions, and merchandise as they have done historically.

At 35,000 seats, the proposed A’s stadium is also part of a growing trend toward smaller venues that is beginning to take hold. That number is roughly half of the 72,000-seat capacity of the Las Vegas stadium where the Raiders, formerly of Oakland, now play.  Both the SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and AT&T Stadium in Dallas can be reconfigured to accommodate 100,000 spectators, the Buffalo News reports

True to the spirit of Nimbyism, few people want an 80,000-seat sports stadium as a neighbor so public opposition can be strong. Smaller venues are friendlier to urban neighbors and easier to build. The best part about them is that they are flexible and multi-use, rotating sporting events with concerts,  farmers markets and holiday events. They are great neighborhood tenants because they can be made to reflect the local culture with the events schedule or with lucrative sponsorships by local businesses. They also lend themselves to space sharing, either by alternating teams and leagues by season or figuring out a way for teams to use them concurrently. Outside consultants are useful here, too as they can be brought in to create a schedule that seamlessly accommodates all users. 

These small stadiums also cost far less to develop. Often, multiple teams can forge partnerships to share in the cost of a stadium, for example, a community college, a local high school, or youth sports leagues who could come together to host tournaments and other events to subsidize the venue cost. Thoughtfully executed with the help of the right, multi-disciplinary consultants to oversee everything, these projects enliven wide swaths of urban neighborhoods with the rotation of events that bring restaurants and other kinds of entertainment to the surrounding blocks. And they are active year-round. 

Major League Soccer is leading the charge with smaller stadiums, falling between the 22,500-seat, multi-use privately funded Centeme Stadium in St. Louis and the planned 25,000-seat privately funded Miami Freedom Park.  At Centeme, where the MLS will officially begin play next year, officials had urban planning as a prime motivator when they chose to locate the club in an area of the city in need of an uplift.

Centeme is also a local healthcare company invested in the community and therefore the stadium’s success. In that vein, the stadium’s surroundings are being transformed into a year-round, mixed-use entertainment hub for concerts and community events.  Many stadiums have enough available land around them to add healthy green space or, like the plan for the new Oakland A’s stadium, affordable housing for which there is acute need in cities across the country. 

As they rethink stadiums, NFL and MLB teams might do well to look at the smaller stadiums, like the one in Oakland. The new community-focused, smaller stadiums are proving to enliven urban areas by investing in transit, for example, which is fueling economic growth. It’s no accident that the top six markets for venture capital investment are also the top six regions for transit user growth, according to the Urban Institute.  These stadiums also have pedestrian-friendly downtowns that are walkable and busy year-round, and an active street life is better than a hot, vast desert of blacktop and cars crowned by a glass and steel stadium that only sees activity on game day.