How Long Should a Baseball Stadium Last?
The City Council of Arlington, Texas, approved a plan last month to contribute half the $1 billion cost of a new, air-conditioned baseball stadium for the Texas Rangers. If all goes to plan, it will be the team's third stadium since it relocated from Washington in the early 1970s. Taken together with other recent deals, it sure looks as though American cities are on the verge of another stadium building boom.
The bad news for critics of publicly financed stadiums—and there are many of them—is that the outgoing cohort of Major League Baseball stadiums didn't last very long. Of the 17 ballparks that opened between 1960 and 1982, only four are still in use. Among those that have already closed, the average lifespan was 31 years.
Broadly speaking, the lifespan of those ballparks coincided with the length of leases the teams signed with their owners, notes Judith Grant Long, a professor of sport management and real estate at the University of Michigan. If anything, she says, newer stadiums may last for shorter periods because sports franchises have negotiated opt-outs into their leases. A similar opt-out clause let the National Football League's Rams franchise ditch St. Louis for a new, publicly financed stadium in Los Angeles.
The good news for stadium critics is that the building boom that began in the 1990s was partly driven by cultural and business-model shifts. The ballparks built in the 1960s and 1970s were dual-sport, "cookie-cutter" structures built to accommodate large audiences for both baseball and football games. The next generation of stadiums was built for a single sport and put a premium on the fan experience—meaning owners decided they could make up for selling fewer tickets by charging higher prices to enter nicer parks. In many cases, local governments helping fund the stadiums viewed the projects as a way to stimulate downtown redevelopment.
Those dynamics seem unlikely to drive a new wave of stadium construction, although there are other ways to wrangle public subsidy. The Rangers' new deal came amid fears that the team might ditch Arlington for neighboring Dallas. The Braves struck a deal to leave Atlanta for a suburban stadium in neighboring Cobb County.
"This is all driven by economics and greed rather than actual needs," said Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross. As long as some government is willing to help pay for a new stadium, American cities will probably keep tearing older ones down.