Lessons for the Lerners: What to Steal From Other Ballparks
A big fireworks show after the game. Prominent displays of team history with must-see artifacts of the sort you'd find at the Hall of Fame or the Smithsonian. Local foods, from well-known local eateries. A public address announcer with verve and a sense of fun. Architectural touches that put a big smile on your face.
A journey through the Midwest to visit four major league ballparks provides an instant catalogue of the kind of touches, large and small, that the owners of the Washington Nationals should--and probably will--consider as they race toward the finish line on their new ballpark in Southeast.
With the team finishing up a surprisingly decent performance in defiance of widespread predictions of a historically awful season, the Nationals still have lots of work to do this winter: Prove to fans that the owners really do plan to spend what it takes to assemble a contending team. Demonstrate that getting to the new park will not be an exercise in frustration. Get the stadium done in time for Opening Day. And prepare a stadium experience that will rival the entertainment extravaganzas that new ballparks are providing across the country.
Here are some highlights of what franchises in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Cincinnati are offering fans:
At Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, which sports a way-too-cute design with a faux riverboat looming over centerfield and a Disneyish look to the place, there are some terrific touches. Cooling water mist stations allow fans to duck out of the heat and return to their seats quite reasonably refreshed. Concession workers, amazingly, volunteer to help you carry a big load of food all the way to your seats. A giant neon sign wraps around the exterior of the stadium saying "Rounding Third and Heading For Home," and the best part is that the words haven't been sponsored by any corporation peddling any product except the sport itself.
The Reds somehow manage to make money without having a cordoned-off, swells-only zone of seats for the ultra-rich at the front of the lower deck. That allows kids to wander all the way up to the field fence in search of autographs. And the Reds have, for an extra $5, a fabulous team Hall of Fame museum that currently sports a deeply detailed exhibit on Pete Rose (though it is white-washed, with hardly a word about his having been banned from baseball), as well as great standing shows on the team's glory years and activities such as a chance to broadcast your own play-by-play account of a game, a kid-friendly pitching bullpen and a uniform dress-up area.
Both here and at the (relatively) new version of Comiskey Park in Chicago, which has one of those awful corporate names that no one can quite grasp, there are lots of local foods--Skyline Chili in Cincy and an unusual but interesting shaved corn dish in Chicago.
The Chicago park offers a remarkably good video screen, but the one in Cleveland really wins that prize--the Nats are touting theirs as the Eighth Wonder of the World, so here's hoping it will be as big, bright and crisp as the one at the Jake. Chicago's is probably the least successful of the new parks architecturally--the upper deck is simply way too high off the field and the whole thing looks like it was done on the cheap, though it is somewhat improved since a renovation designed to make it feel less sterile and forbidding. The White Sox park offers one of the better collections of baseball skills activities that kids of all ages can try out before and during the game.
Music is a big piece of the mix at several of the ballparks: All of these stadiums feature vastly better PA systems than the tinny, asthmatic speakers at RFK, and all of the parks have a far better handle on what music works in each city. So Detroit offers a careful blend of funk and rock, Cincinnati drifts between rock and country, and Chicago has a harder edge reflecting the White Sox's blue collar traditions. The deejays handling the music mix at RFK seem clueless by comparison, continuing to force-feed country tunes to a metropolis where country is absolutely nowhere in the radio ratings and largely absent from the region's pop culture.
At Comerica Park in Detroit, we were treated to an impressive fireworks show staged in centerfield after the game--those fans who chose to stay for the show moved up to closer seats, the lights were killed, and a 20-minute show entranced several thousand folks, partially making up for the home team's loss that night. Strolling out afterwards, we joined the crowd of fans posing for pix of the whimsical concrete Tigers who prowl the facade and front of the ballpark. Postgame entertainment is part of the mix at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, too: A large beer garden over the rightfield fence was the site for a concert by a local rock band that went deep into the night.
The ubiquitous Vote for Your Favorite Song gimmick used at nearly every major league park gets a modern spin in Cincy and Detroit, where fans can choose the song to be played not by cheering for it, but by texting their choice to a number displayed on the scoreboard. And there are far more giveaways at these other parks--not just t-shirts shot into the crowd, but signed baseballs, food and tickets.
What does all this gimmickry achieve? Larger crowds? Perhaps, though that is very much a factor of how well the club is playing--virtually every game is sold out or nearly so in Detroit these days, and even the Reds, who are worse than the Nats, draw decently. The key, as Nats President Stan Kasten has explained ever since he arrived in town, is to create an experience that even the most casual of fans will want to return to. After all, baseball, unlike football or even the indoor sports, is a daily game, and it relies on people coming back again and again. That's why the recent spike in ticket prices is so disheartening--baseball more than any other sport needs to keep a close eye on affordability because it needs people of modest means to come back several times a season.
Entertainment, food and ease of getting there are thus bigger factors for baseball than for other sports. If you have to endure the hell of getting to the Redskins' stadium once a year, that's a sacrifice many people are willing to make; to do that to go to six or seven baseball games in a season is more than many care to bear.
In the end, the challenge facing the Nats is to create a baseball culture of the kind that comes naturally to cities such as Cincy, Chicago and Cleveland. The crowds there were far more reminiscent of the spirit you see at Redskins games than that at RFK. That's understandable given how new the Nats are and how dependent sports affinities are on generations-old traditions and habits. That's why the Nats would be smart to grab onto the history of the Senators and use that in the decorative touches at the new stadium--I was amazed to see how many people flock to every little display of team and sport history in the new Memorial Park in the outfield in Cleveland, in the Reds Hall of Fame, and in the great statuary display of oldtime Tigers in Detroit's outfield concourse.
Finally, there's one thing that every other park has that has never quite made it to RFK: Helmet sundaes. Nuff said.
What would you like to see the Nats put in the new stadium?
By Marc Fisher |
August 24, 2007; 7:48 AM ET
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