28 April 2009

Thinking out of the (sky) box

They are a necessary evil. They make new stadiums possible even as they detract from many fans' experiences. They even go by different aliases. In the U.K. they are often called executive boxes. Here in America they usually go by the term luxury suites. Jon Miller has seen fit to call them condominiums. They used to be called skyboxes, before current stadium and arena architecture started to put them as close to event level as possible. Whatever you want to call them, they aren't going away. The question is, what can we do to make them work better for all fans, not just the suite folks?

Before I get into a solution, a little history is required. During the post-Camden Yards building boom, ballparks were designed to enhance premium revenue generating possibilities. This meant building lots of suites and club seats. In the 90's, architecture firms like HOK (now Populous) experimented with different configurations to accommodate team requirements. For the ChiSox, 2 suite levels sandwiched a club level. In Cleveland, 3 suite levels ran along the third base line while a club seating area was placed on the first base side. However, HOK wasn't alone with its crimes against upper deck fans. NBBJ designed Safeco Field and Miller Park, both of which had conservative seating layouts. Same goes for Ellerbe Becket, whose Chase Field feels like a huge airplane hangar. HKS did the football stadium-like Rangers Ballpark.

By the turn of the millenium, a standard recipe had been found. Teams wanted 40-42,000 seats, 50+ suites, and several thousand club seats. Various other niceties were added in to achieve some sense of uniqueness, but the fundamental recipe was the same. Like a pop song's structure, it wasn't something to be trifled with. The recipe looked like this:
  • 40 rows at field level
  • 8-12 row club mezzanine
  • Suite level either above or below club mezzanine
  • Split upper deck containing 24-26 rows above suites, with or without an open concourse
  • 35-40 foot concourses
However the mezzanine is sliced up, the club/suite facilities add around 36 feet to the height of the stadium, and more importantly, the upper deck. This also causes the upper deck to be more steep, even though it usually isn't cantilevered much over the lower deck. In these new ballparks, these choices create a more open, sunny environment. Unfortunately, in striking that bargain, intimacy is lost in the process.

Obviously, it isn't possible to lose the suites and club seats. They need to be there, and they need to be attractive to the premium market. That means suites can't be placed above and behind a third deck. They should be reasonably close to the field. Again, how to do this without hurting the upper deck fans?

Bring back the skybox
The great thing about building a 32-35,000 seat stadium is that the layout can be really compact. Each additional row adds about 500 fans. To get from 32k to 40k, 16 extra rows have to be built. That equates to an extra deck from foul pole to foul pole. For now, thankfully, we don't have to worry about that pesky third deck.

In the third deck's place, why not put the luxury suites there? To make them attractive, cantilever them over the second deck. Here's a cross section:

It's a very simple, compact, fan-friendly, intimate layout. An extended club seating area is at field level. Suites are elevated a bit, but they're only 24 rows from the field (Second level is the press box). This placement accomplishes two goals that are seemingly at odds: bring suite holders close to the action while not adversely affecting the upper deck. As you'll see from the next table, both would be closer than their counterparts at any modern ballpark.

The skybox location's distance to home plate is on par with other ballparks whose suites are tucked under a second deck. It's around 30 feet closer than in ballparks whose suites are under a third deck. The best part is that the upper deck in this model is nice and close. Its last row of the upper deck is 173' from home plate. Most recent ballparks have a large, tall, swept back upper deck. The first row is 150' from home plate, last row 250' away.

Having trouble envisioning it? Take a look at these comparisons. First, this model vs. Target Field (AT&T Park is similar):

Next, the model vs. Citi Field (with Shea Stadium as well):

Finally, the model vs. New Yankee Stadium:

The model has one major drawback. Major expansion (8-10,000 seats) would be prohibitively expensive due to the suite level(s) in place. It could be constructed with the flexible seating system I described over the weekend to add up to 2,000 seats as needed. Also, the model shown has both the upper deck and the suites cantilevered. A column could be used, probably to cut costs.

Do you think this is a model the A's should consider? How do you think it stacks up with 360's Cisco Field model?


Anonymous said...

I like the model. It makes sense to have skyboxes be highest yet still a sence of closeness to the action. Although the nosebleads like at yankee stadium etc. are good for people who aren't looking to spend as much money for seats.

hamachi said...

who have the A's retained as architects? or have do they have one yet? And if so, did they indicate how they were thinking about building the suites already?

I love the comparison cross sections btw

Marine Layer said...

The A's have hired 360 Architecture, a KC-based firm. Throughout the sports world, they are best known for designing several indoor arenas. The link towards the bottom of the post contains a comparo between Cisco Field and AT&T Park.

hamachi said...

awesome. I'd like to imagine that you have architecture books scattered all over your home and desk. you really seem to love this stuff!

Brian said...

The problem that I'm seeing is that the previous feature on renovating the Coliseum called for removing the last 4 rows of the lower deck because they are too far under the overhang. Now, instead of 10 rows under the overhang like at the Coliseum (29-38), there are 18 or so rows (the whole upper half of the lower deck). Now my favorite stadium of all time is Tiger Stadium, where all but the first 6 rows were under the overhang, but this design would not be a hit with people that object to having the overhang cut off their view of fly balls and/or being in the shade (particularly in California where there are few rainouts and people generally like being in the sun). A similar situation may exist in the second deck with the seats under the luxury boxes as currently exists with rows 14-18 of the second deck of the Coliseum.

Of course it's a trade-off, and it's a trade-off that I would favor, and I applaud this old-school design, but not everyone is going to be happy.

I'm also concerned that the upper deck may not be raked steeply enough. This is a non-scientific measurement, but drawing a straight line from the top row of the upper deck to the bottom row and then continuing it on to the field doesn't reach the field until 40-50 feet past the front row of the lower deck. This means that this much of the field will not be visible to anyone in the upper deck other than the front row (think the 2nd and 3rd decks of Mt. Davis for baseball). For people sitting behind the plate, for instance, that means that they can't see the first 40-50 feet of foul territory, which brings you pretty close to home plate. Perhaps this could be raised and the luxury boxes could be set back a few rows to compensate.

Marine Layer said...

I'm hoping that fans are willing to take such a tradeoff. It wouldn't be a bad thing to bring the focus back to the game, a sin that teams and architecture firms have been committing for decades. In doing this model, I've made an assumption that there will be a reduction in day games, especially midweek games. A select number of Saturday tilts could also turn into night games, as the A's have already been doing to a limited extent. Overall, it could change the day game share from a third of the schedule to a quarter.

The upper deck sight line is lined up exactly with the plate, with 13-inch risers (less steep than the Coliseum Plaza level). A move to 14 or 15-inch risers would affect the overall height 1.5 or 3 feet respectively while improving the sight line. Not a big deal. I've played around with moving the suite levels back and I don't like the results. I think that from a marketing standpoint, the premium features need to be seen as clearly superior to the competition, with a gap the Giants would be hard pressed to overcome at AT&T Park. I want the A's to have a real standard bearer of a ballpark, one that really breaks the mold. Aggressive cantilevering is a good way to make that happen.

ezra said...

How about the option of putting luxury suites in the outfield and at dugout level behind home plate? Then perhaps you could get by with just one level of skyboxes?

bbison said...

The proposed arrangement is similar to that of the New Soldier Field in Chicago. On the east sideline, three cantilevered decks (the top two are club decks) are topped by a four-tier skybox level:

The only "boxes" between the seating levels on either sideline are a few broadcast booths tucked at the back of the west side third level, which take the place of a couple rows of seats and do nothing to raise the overall stadium height.

The stadium may be an abomination on the outside, but inside it's incredibly intimate, and even the worst seats seem close to the action.

The Vet in Philly had a similar setup. In 1987, the Eagles added a ring of skyboxes above the 700 level. With the ridiculous altitude and completely soundproof windows, it was being in a living room with a game going on outside.

Marine Layer said...

There isn't as much space at field level as you might think. The backstop is maybe 100 feet from dugout to dugout. The dugouts and photog boxes take up another 90 feet each, leaving 100 feet or so down the lines. In total, there's probably enough for 20 suites. Only party suites are kosher for the outfield.

One reason why you don't see more suites down at field level is that they take up a lot of space. With ever expanding clubhouses and team facilities, space below the stands is at a premium.

Anonymous said...

What about all the luxury suites on one side, like the 49ers have proposed with their new stadium?

Transic said...

Interesting ideas being bandied about. I trust that you can do at least as good a job at formulating a seating plan for the demands you have than what we've been showed by the professionals so far.

In any case, if you need any more material to compare your ideas with major league ballparks, here's a .pdf of the new Marlins ballpark in much greater detail from the Miami government website: that I think it would compare much to what you'd like for the Bay Area but it might provide some useful lessons (or mistakes you'd want to avoid, depending) to take with.

Anonymous said...

Tony D. In Da Islands Brah's a sunny SJ idea: party suites in the outfield with (drum role please)...cantilevered infinity pools! Now that's what I call luxury Silicon Valley. Aloha!

LLCoolMo said...

I totally support this concept. I don't know if MLB has room for this type of utilitarianism, but I certainly hope it is explored. I did a ballpark tour of Chase, Petco and Anaheim this weekend and we talked about how modern stadiums are pushing seats further and further away from home plate. At what cost did we eliminate pillars? It doesn't seem like progress.

In PHX, we climbed to the top row of the upper deck. We had to take a breather on the way up, got vertigo at the top and I felt it in my quads the next day. It's an absurd height and such seats simply should not exist for baseball.

It seems like the finances would support this, too. I would guess that the price of a seat would be more dependent on its distance from the field than is the price of a luxury box. I also wonder if our home field advantage would also be improved with more fans closer to the action.

Lambeau Field is another stadium featuring the boxes at the top. Likewise for Madison Square Garden. What's not to like about that company?

Matt said...

Your model has a column too? Below the cantilevered skybox.

Marine Layer said...

The column is optional. It would probably be used as a cost-cutting measure.

Brian said...

Could the column be moved back a few rows, or does it have to be there to maintain structural integrity?

Anonymous said...

Hey ML,

You'll probably want to start a new thread...

Oakland A's Owner Wolff's Anti-Oakland Words Called "Sob Story" By Oakland City Attorney:

Marine Layer said...

There isn't much point in having the column if it gets moved back. It makes more sense to beef up the cantilever. Again, the column would only be there to reduce cost.

Marine Layer said...

I'm not going to get into Russo's letter right now. There'll be a proper response at some point.

Anonymous said...

Who and the hell cares what Oaklands city attorney has to say about Wolff. It's not Russo's team anyway. Besides, what does his stupid letter have to do with sky boxes, columns, or anything for that matter?