There's only one thing more depressing come October than the end of baseball season: the sight of an empty ballpark. All those vacant seats, the hot-dog concessions closed, the field empty, and the gates padlocked until the following spring.
It's a bitter scene for baseball lovers. But it’s an economic conundrum for cities, too.
“A large percentage of most facilities built in the last 25 years have been financed with public money,” says Patrick Rishe, an associate professor of economics at Webster University. “That creates a problem, because whether you’re talking about football, or baseball in particular, what else are you going to do with those facilities?”
There’s an extensive debate among economists about whether public financing for stadiums is ever as good a deal for cities as sports fans would like to believe. But at least this much is certain: the economics of empty stadiums are grim.
Going back to the 1950s, baseball and football stadiums used to be one and the same. Tiger Stadium hosted baseball by summer and the Lions by winter. The Chicago Cubs played Wrigley Field during the warm months, and the Bears moved in with the cold. Stadiums in Cleveland, Baltimore, and New York did this, too, maximizing the year-round utility of one of the biggest pieces of infrastructure in town.
The newer generation of stadiums, especially those launched with the downtown baseball construction boom starting in the early 1990s, were more cozy, more attractive, and, in a sense, more inefficient, too. Teams realized that stadiums seating 60,000 to 70,000 fans weren’t a good fit for baseball. But in building baseball-only stadiums – which are too small to house NFL fans and too particular in dimensions to field most other sporting events – cities invested in multimillion dollar structures that typically drew tourists, diners, and hotel bookings in the surrounding neighborhoods just 81 days out of the year.
Today, football stadiums are often built with multi-use purposes uses in mind; they’re attached to convention centers, or can literally be converted into them. And indoor arenas are conducive to basketball/hockey mixed use, as well as everything from private parties to high-school proms. But what exactly do you do with a baseball stadium without a roof in the Midwest in mid-winter?
“When you have lemons, you make lemonade,” says Kurt Schloss, the senior director of merchandising and licensing for the Cleveland Indians. “In our particular case, we wanted to embrace the cold, embrace Northeast Ohio, because that’s what it is. You can’t put up palm trees and hope for sand.”
Progressive Field in Cleveland may have come up with the best solution yet to the empty ballpark. Last year for the first time, the team converted the field into a vast winter playground. The Indians laid an ice track around the field for skaters and built a snow-tubing hill from the bleachers onto the outfield. “Snow Days” drew to downtown Cleveland last winter about 50,000 people who otherwise would have been bundled up at home. And because Progressive Field sits nestled in the city’s downtown (when it was constructed in the early 1990s, planners intentionally spurned surface parking lots), the event fed into the surrounding entertainment district and restaurants.
“If you get a traditional ballpark surrounded by a sea of parking, which tends not to be in the downtown core, you may have a nice Snow Days-type of experience there,” said Joe Marinucci, president of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. “But it would be the type of experience where people would just drive down, get out of their cars, do it, get back in their cars and go home. We’ve got an opportunity, given the proximity of the stadium in our downtown core, that we can build on this.”
Cities with more remote, parking-stranded stadiums could get additional use out of them through similar events, and some already do this on a much smaller scale. Dodgers Stadium hosts an off-season monster truck rally, and Miller Park in Milwaukee has hosted a bowling tournament. But distinctly urban ballparks like Camden Yards in Baltimore, Coors Field in Denver, AT&T Park in San Francisco, and Fenway Park in Boston serve a broader function in the neighborhoods that surround them. In theory, they can spur the creation of complimentary businesses. But if a restaurant opens up because a ballpark is nearby, the ballpark isn’t the only thing that slows down during the winter.
Last year, when the Indians shot off fireworks from the winter festival on New Year’s Eve, they also re-established a civic tradition that had been missing from downtown Cleveland since the millennium. This winter – after “Snowpening Day” the Friday after Thanksgiving – the team is adding an ice rink to the field to host a series of youth hockey tournaments and one-off marquee matches (think out-of-town visitors and hotel rooms). The city is expecting a sell-out of the whole stadium on Jan. 15, when Ohio State and the University of Michigan will play each other in hockey outdoors. With that event, Progressive may see as many as 100,000 visitors this “off-season.”
The Downtown Cleveland Alliance hasn’t done an economic impact assessment yet of the whole festival, which runs from late November to mid-January, but compared to the alternative – an empty stadium – the idea seems like a no-brainer.
“Every once in a while, sports teams will do a rock 'n' roll concert, something else to animate the space. This is really kind of a brand new concept, it’s taking it into a wholly new dimension,” Marinucci says. He predicts that other cities will follow suit (and a number of teams did turn up last year to see what the Indians were doing). “I can’t imagine why a franchise would not want to use a facility like this,” he says, “when normally it would be dormant for four or five months.”