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Losing sight

New stadiums have more suites, more amenities, more seats - but put the fans farther from the games they come to watch

By Webb Nichols

When economics rules sports, the game is never enough. As the costs of professional sports continue to soar, the experience of the game itself, the stated promise of athletic competition, recedes into the background.

Professional sports has always been about making money. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in its stadiums and ballparks. That architecture, like all architecture, is a pitiless mirror of our values. We build our beliefs. In the case of professional sports, the architecture reflects what the owners believe, especially what they believe about spectators.

Now, the old Boston Garden is being torn down, and the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots are planning new facilities. We need only look in our own back yard and use Fenway Park, the Garden, and Foxboro Stadium -- along with an ancient amphitheater in Italy -- to focus in each case on conditions that reflect cultural beliefs that are making our games more distant.

Because the similarities are so surprising, it is useful to begin with a comparison between two technological achievements, the Coliseum, completed in Rome in AD 82, and the Georgia Dome, completed in Atlanta in 1992. The Coliseum seated 55,000 spectators for gladiatorial combat, naval exhibitions, and the martyrdom of Christians; the Georgia Dome seats 71,500 spectators for the combat of professional football, the exhibiting of cultural preoccupations, and the martyrdom of good taste. Yet after nearly 2,000 years, the bulk, height, and roof construction of the stadiums are basically the same, each roof being a system of fabric and cable. In the case of the Coliseum, the roof was made of canvas and rope and was retractable.

So what has changed other than their materials? Really, only the presence of additional seating and the installation of luxury suites. These have forced much of the seating back and away from the arena surface, and, therefore, away from the ``game'' and spectator peak experience.

After 2,000 years of progress, the seating and the experience of the event, believe it or not, are worse in the Georgia Dome.

Dr. James Loehr, sports psychologist, says of spectator peak experience that ``It is similar to the athlete. The fan must be moved emotionally, be excited but not out of control, get an endorphin release and sense it in the players. Fans can be too far'' from the action, ``can lose contact. The closer you are, the more you can sense emotion, see facial expressions.''

That is why, all things being equal, the critical factor to experiencing the game is location, location, location. And that, just as in ancient Rome, is reflected in the escalating price of closer seats.

The expansions of seating and luxury suites were two of the major responses by owners in recent years to their need for more money, as salary and other costs rose. Once, owners needed only to add seats, expanding the facilities to enlarge already existing public interest. They made more profit as long as they could keep the cost of doing business relatively low.

``The whole nature of sports has changed fairly dramatically since, let's say, the '60s,'' said Brian O'Donovan, general manager of the New England Revolution soccer team, which plays at Foxborough. ``The distance between the field and the stands to begin with is the inevitable result of the industry moving much more in the direction of creature comforts than it would have previously. What I mean by creature comforts is accessibility to seats, shorter rows, wider seats, backs on seats, arm rests, immediate access to concessions . . . All those things have changed the atmosphere of stadiums and have changed the nature of fandom and their expectations.''

But as costs rose and expansion made success in bigger divisions more difficult, capturing a larger audience became tougher. Owners began to focus on improving creature comforts, particularly in respect to an ideal, but largely untapped, source of revenue that lay in corporate, institutional, and personal wealth.

Owners exploited the desire of most people to be seen yet be separate and special, a desire that those benefiting from wealth and privilege can have fulfilled. First came the luxury box, then the luxury suite.

Today, professional sports is in many ways a plaything of the corporate world, and the luxury suite is its den. No other single element has so radically affected the layout of the seating and the size and shape of new facilities, and no other element has had such negative influence on the proximity of the game and the crucial distance between spectator and athlete. The remarkable increase in size and decrease in intimacy are largely the result of this critical dependency on capturing corporations as fans.

Luxury suites, with their private elevators and corridors, are an incredibly ineffective and functionally inefficient use of space, but an incredibly effective and efficient way to make money. A luxury suite in a stadium or ballpark takes the space of 50 to 80 seats, and 30 to 40 seats in an arena.

However, the luxury suite, renting today from around $100,000 to more than $250,000 per year regardless of how much it is used, guarantees the team owner a fixed source of revenue that is not subject to the vagaries of weather and the shifting interest of the individual fan to whom one can only sell a ticket. The paradox of the luxury suite is that it subsidizes the cost of the game for the individual spectator at the same time it dampens the experience.

As costs of attending a game continued to rise, the spectator began to, and in some cases had to, make a choice for the first time between professional sports and viable alternatives. To increase their audience, the owners moved to broaden the appeal of pro sports.

To see evidence of this new market strategy, one need only compare Fenway Park, built in 1912, with the now-famous Camden Yards, the ballpark for the Baltimore Orioles, completed in 1992. Fenway has 43 luxury suites and a total of 33,871 seats; Camden Yards has 72 luxury suites and 48,000 seats. The negative effect of more seats and luxury suites is evident. As the diagram on the front of this section shows, at Fenway the luxury suites and the seating are closer to the playing field than in Baltimore. As good a design as it is, Camden Yards, though modeled after Fenway, is more open and less intimate. It has to be. It is bigger.

But it is also bigger because of a new strategy not evident in the diagram: the addition of a shopping, food, and entertainment complex. While diversions at games have existed from the beginning, the early parks, like Fenway, had relatively modest requirements for anything but the objective that the seating be maximized on the site, close to the field. There was no need to do much more.

David Halberstam, author of ``Breaks of the Game'' and ``Summer of '49,'' says that, in the beginning, ``Baseball had the entertainment dollar to itself. In the past, the audience was male, grown males. Now it is open. It is better. Now things are different. But you have to give more -- you are competing for people's time.''

And Bruce Hoffman, director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, which built Camden Yards, acknowledges, ``We wanted to make it more than just a baseball park.'' He wants people to ``come in the off-season. Exciting as baseball is, all types of people come to a game.'' Management needs to ``give them more to do, a better experience.'' When a team is mediocre, it's the other stuff that ``helps you get through it.''

In fact, the food courts, restaurants, shopping malls, arcades, as noticeable as they are in the new facilities, are not added distractions for those who want to experience the game. The activity created by those elements is no more distracting than the buying and selling, eating and drinking that has gone on forever around sporting events.

But as the competition for that entertainment or discretionary dollar increases, the emphasis on the ``better experience'' and ``other stuff'' has also increased until it has invaded the game itself. Owners now believe they need those distractions.

A comparison between the old Boston Garden and the new FleetCenter demonstrates vividly the extent to which economics and the owners' corresponding beliefs have transformed a professional sports facility.

The Garden was built in 1928, had 36 skyboxes and, depending on the event, 14,448 to 15,509 seats. The new FleetCenter has 104 executive suites and 17,200 to 19,600 seats. The resulting changes are dramatically shown in the accompanying diagram.

The luxury suites and close to 40 percent of all the seats in the FleetCenter are farther from the playing surface than the most-distant seat in the Garden, and 47 percent of the Fleet seats would fall outside the physical confines of the Garden itself. Even taking into consideration the changes in safety and building code requirements, the degree to which the spectator appears to have accepted, even passively encouraged, creature comforts above the experience of the game is profound, as are its ramifications.

The immediacy and intensity of the old Garden is gone. Larry Bird was quoted recently as saying that the FleetCenter is ``soft.'' The crowd has been taken out of the game, and the FleetCenter, like all new arenas, is an easier place to play in for a visiting team.

From the point of view of both contributing to the intesity of the game and affecting the players, luxury suites are close to ``dead air'' even while occupied. But outfitted with couches, chairs, table lamps, televisions, carpets, a kitchen, a bathroom, and prints on the walls, a luxury suite is just like home. If you're an owner trying to sell an idea, you can't beat home as a paradigm for creature comfort.

Still, Dan Graveline, executive director of the Georgia Dome and World Congress Center, is bemused. ``While the positives outgain the negatives, suites are an interesting paradox.'' They are ``the worst place to watch a game. People are going to party there'' and hardly notice ``there are some folks down there that are playing a game.''

Hoffman says the skyboxes at Camden Yards are pretty good, with ``food, TVs, inside and out; 50 percent of the people are paying attention.''

Although the ``better experience'' now involves myriad distractions, the spectacle of today centers on the scoreboard. Consider the FleetCenter's multimedia scoreboard with its Sony Jumbotron video display unit. Nothing gets a fan's attention faster these days than a multimedia, multimillion-dollar scoreboard. It will tell you when to cheer, it will keep things moving, and it will make sure you do not miss a thing. Sound like sitting at home watching sports on TV? Maybe. Much louder? Much bigger? All-consuming? You bet. It has to be.

``People are looking for the most intense experience they can find'' to ``break out of the monotony of their lives,'' says Loehr, the sports psychologist. ``We have gone from `Lassie' to `Star Wars' to `Jurassic Park.' People are desperate to get excitement. They are looking for a bigger hit. The biggest bang for their buck.'' The game is ``not sufficient.''

Even with the volume turned up owners owners are always uncertain that they are doing enough. ``I am going to go bottom line with you,'' says O'Donovan of the Revolution. ``We as owners, managers, whatever, we are less confident in our games than we were at another time in the history of sports, and that is a reaction to competition . . . because everybody else is doing it.''

On the eve of the New England Patriots' proposed construction of a new stadium, it is interesting to look at related issues as one compares Foxboro Stadium built in 1971 with the new stadium for the Baltimore Ravens to be completed in August.

Looking at the diagram comparing Foxboro with the Ravens stadium, one can see some significant differences. Although the lower seating follows closely the slope and configuration of Foxboro, in Baltimore two levels of luxury suites have been enlarged, lowered, and moved forward to the edge of the playing field. The press boxes, though not marked, were also brought down closer to the field. These changes clearly reflect the importance given these two constituencies by the owners: corporations for revenue and related support; the press for good public relations and marketing.

Apart from the influence of excessive drinking in the past, it is easy to understand why Foxboro Stadium has a propensity for emotionally involved and sometimes unruly spectators.

``Facility design can be a direct contributor to fan violence,'' O'Donovan says. ``What I can say is that narrow, confined spaces create an atmosphere which is very close and electric. It can easily have the same effect as boiling water in a pressure cooker.'' A facility ``can create a tension in the fans that doesn't exist in the FleetCenter. Even the tension in the old Garden was much different from the tension of the FleetCenter.''

``I believe that there is some kind of intersecting line where if you make it too vanilla and too relaxed -- that armchair, the service at the seats -- I think it loses the attraction of the crowds to begin with, the tribal action. I believe proximity or closeness to fellow fans is as important to peak experience as distance to the playing field.''

Despite Foxboro Stadium being a good place to see a game, the current situation contributes to a set of complex conditions that the Patriots can seldom overcome, short of winning. Today, an owner senses he must provide an experience for the spectator that is greater than the sum of any aggravation the spectator has had to endure, including rising costs, inconvenience, even losing.

In addition, the owner must cope with the increasing frustration and tension between the spectator's unresolved yearning for community, yearning to attach loyalties to something successful, -- which sports and its teams provide so readily -- and the disillusioning reality of pro sports, now a mercurial business.

Rising costs lead to rising investment as well as expectations. ``Fans feel that they have a more vested interest in the team,'' says O'Donovan. ``The Krafts [owner of the Patriots], have always said that they are caretakers of a public trust, that the ownership of these teams is in the fans' hands, that people who are paying the money to see the product really own the team, they are like shareholders, and the Kraft family have often used that analogy. . . . I think it works perfectly. . . . However, sometimes what you have got here, you have a very irate shareholder who is not happy with the direction of the company.''

Yet, while the fans are told that they own the team, they see and experience that they have no control.

Bernard Reinhart, director of facilities at Foxboro Stadium, describes the irony of the situation: ``In Greek theater, the most significant people were not the actors but the spectators. The highest level of human experience was being a spectator. The actors were people in service to the spectators. We have it all twisted around. Now the athletes are most important.''

Soon, the mutimedia scoreboards, food courts, shopping arcades, virtual sports machines, sports museums, and all the other inventions of marketing are likely to blanket the land. Facilities will have the same amenities, creature comforts, diversions, and distractions.

In the end, more so than ever, winning will be the bottom line. With the experience of the game diminished by the architectural changes of the last 30 years, the requirement will be to win or the discretionary dollars go elsewhere. The owners have made a Faustian deal with corporations. What is uncertain is how long corporations will continue to invest in the food chain of professional sports and its vicious cycle of spiraling costs and revenue demands. The last 10 years, in particular, represent an expensive gamble thatcreature comforts and distractions are going to keep the audience and the money flowing. The architecture of sports demonstrates the extent of the gamble.

So the Garden is gone and Fenway may be abandoned in favor of a new ballpark.

Because they endured so long, those venues have established standards with respect to the relationship of the spectator to the action. If the Red Sox want broad public support, they will need to demonstrate that they are building a better ballpark in every way. Diversions or distractions will not be a easy substitute.

As a place of public assembly, a stadium or ballpark is an expression of the involvement of a community in the life and passion of the time. However, it is the game through which we bear collective witness as a community. It is only the game that creates a common memory binding those who were there together. It is the experience of the game that is under assault.

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