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?