Building a Ballpark in an Age of Social Distancing is a Challenge for Baseball Going Forward

John Hickey

What do the following Major League Baseball ballparks have in common – Globe Life Field, Sun Trust Park, Marlins Park and Target Field?

They’ve all been opened in the last decade, and they weren’t built with social distancing in mind. And they may become relics because stadiums to follow will have to be built to new standards unimagined before 2020.

The Oakland A’s and the Tampa Bay Rays are probably next up in the ballpark building business, and while neither is going to put a shovel in the ground any time soon, in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, they are finding the science of stadium building has been shaken.

It’s too soon to say that it’s been revolutionized, because no one has begun building a new stadium in the last three months. Still, the indicators are there that the revolution is nigh.

Explaining the upcoming revolution is difficult.

Janet Marie Smith, who helped shepherd the Orioles from Memorial Stadium to Camden Yards in Baltimore a quarter of a century ago and who now works for the Dodgers, doesn’t downplay the level of the unknown.

“Just so you know, I have no answers,” Smith said, speaking for many in her profession as they adapt to building in what Smith calls “a whole new world out there. We’re all learning as we go.

“We’re all looking through the lens of trying to say `How do we react to this moment? We’re going to follow the CDC’s recommended guidelines. At the same time, we’re all hoping for a future where we feel comfortable with the kind of socializing and energy that we’ve had in our stadiums. We go there for the games, yes, but also for the camaraderie of being with other fans in that sort of jubilation that comes from our sports.”

Matt Rosetti, who has spent his professional career building sports facilities, says he and many of his colleagues and clients have Zoom calls every two weeks since March. Everybody wants to know how change will manifest itself.

“We have these bi-weekly forums for the last two months,” Rosetti said. “There probably include 40 to 50 different teams from different sports.

“The general consensus is that permanent changes are the ones that are believed to be operational or technological. And the architectural or physical changes are the ones they believe are going to be temporary, things like locks on seats, new wider aisles and partitions that enhance circulation.”

Locks on seats?

One idea being kicked around is that to enhance social distancing, new ballparks could be built with locks on seats. They would make the seats unusable as long as distancing is needed, then once/if coronavirus is no longer an issue, the seats could be unlocked and used as if they’d never been locked.

And the expected wider aisles for a new stadium could be filled in with more seats when and if social distancing is no longer needed.

Jon Niemuth, whose AECOM designed the Barclays Center in Brooklyn shared by the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Islanders and who is putting together a new solar-powered home for the Los Angeles Clippers to be opened in 2024, says the expectations from spectators – once spectators are allowed to return – will drive the discussion.

“If you are a team owner or stadium operator, what are the things you are going to do to either protect yourself or to protect your fans?” Niemuth asked. “You are going to need to let them know that you have taken some reasonable measures. They are going to have to feel safe.”

He has some suggestions, but isn’t ready to give any a thumbs-up until some standards are set. Those would come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the messages that team owners and facilities managers get are pinballing all over the place.

“We’ll get issued guidance at the beginning of the week about (how to treat) surfaces,” he said. “And then later in the week we get an update that says `we didn’t really mean it.’ So, you go from being told we don’t have to worry about surfaces to hearing that we do.

“The big challenge is around how do we get our sports clients to know what’s forever. In the past premium areas in stadiums usually have a lot of oversells, to get lots of people into suites. If it’s built for 18, you might sell 26 tickets knowing people will be moving around, doing a lot of standing. We’ve been talking about minimizing that. So, maybe you don’t have the same number of people in the suites as normal.

“And with food there, maybe instead of a buffet you have more of a pre-packaged box meal that could be ordered in advance.”

Just getting into the ballpark is likely to change says Dennis Mannion, who has worked in Major League Baseball (Phillies and Dodgers), the NHL (Colorado Avalanche), NFL (Baltimore Ravens) and NBA (Denver Nuggets) and who now runs his own sports consulting company.

“You have to make your social distancing start in the parking lot,” Mannion says. “Bad behavior has it such that everybody rushes into the ballpark from the parking lot 20 minutes before the game. That’s about how 80 percent of the crowd comes drifting in. How are you going to socially distance them for a 1:05 p.m. game, even with just 20 percent capacity coming to the stadium?”

Rosetti says the parking lot experience could, in fact, be revolutionized. Referring to a study put out several months back by the Miami Dolphins, he said the cars could be “checkerboarded in the parking lots.”

“It would make for a great opportunity for tailgating with every other space open,” he said. “Some people might see that as a positive, having a massive patio right outside where you’ve parked. And then it might make sense to time the entry into the stadium. You’d be assigned a certain arrival time and maybe a specific path to the gate so that you don’t cross through other fans’ areas.”

The Dodgers just completed a $100 million renovation of the Dodger Stadium outfield pavilion, and it was done without the thought of a coming pandemic. Even so, the some of the things the Dodgers did will aid social distancing, so maybe that’s a sign that some of the changes would have come even without the pandemic.

“We’ve gently massaged it so that we could preserve its 1960s charm and still add social areas, standing room availability and the ability to walk 360 degrees around the ballpark,” Smith said. “We’ve added five elevators and four escalators and built a new front door and three kids play areas.

“While we were doing this, there was no way of knowing that this social distancing would become an issue. Some of them will be helpful toward social distancing, some of them are sort of neutral as that goes.”

One thing that is almost certain to change is the way food is obtained. If you get a hot dog, you do you get the mustard? It could be provided in the small packets that are a staple of fast food restaurants, or it could be accessed through a container equipped with a foot pump that would limit hand contact.

Just getting the hot dog is likely to change. Long queues for beer, soda, water, pizza, popcorn, sausages, burgers and the rest would have to become a thing of the past. And yet, fans are still going to want to eat and drink.

“Just as there’s going to be a move toward mobile ticketing, there will be apps for your cell phone so that you can order you food,” Niemuth said. “You punch in your order and then you get notification that you’re No. 25. And when the No. 25 is ready, you’re notified, you go up and pick it up and you’re never having to stand in those long lines.

“The idea is to minimize queues, and to do it, ballparks are going to have to upgrade their WiFi systems in some cases to handle all of this. You will still get your food, but the experience will be completely different.”

The first baseball park scheduled to be built in the near future is the A’s proposed Howard Terminal site just north of Jack London Square on Oakland’s waterfront. The designs were already in when coronavirus pandemic struck. So, it’s likely the designs will need to be reworked to take in the new CDC-based protocols.

There have been suggestions that the A’s may need to build in the north parking lot at the Coliseum rather than at the Howard Terminal site because the Coliseum acreage is more than twice that of the Howard Terminal site, and that space may be needed for a socially distanced stadium. For now, however, the A’s are going ahead with the Howard Terminal site.

“Whether it’s Johns Hopkins or the CDC pointing it out, we’re at a stage where just shoving everybody together is a really bad idea,” Rosetti said. “So, we’re working for more space and enhanced circulation available to patrons, who will want it made safer.

“But the minute that goes away, the minute that there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, some of those open areas will be turned into portable bars and social areas where you are going to shove everybody back together again. It’s what we do as a tribe. We get together.”

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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