It’s no secret that minor league ballparks have transformed over the past decade or so. More emphasis has been placed on amenities and the overall fan experience rather than simply squeezing more seats into a new stadium. One of the leaders in ballpark design has been HOK, which has designed many ballparks throughout the professional, collegiate and amateur ranks. Some of their highlights include Huntington Park (Columbus Clippers), FNB Field (Harrisburg Senators) and Abe Martin Field (Southern Illinois University). The group also did the renovation work on Rancho Cucamonga’s LoanMart Field.
Chris Lamberth, the Vice President of Sport Development at HOK, has also worked on projects at Comerica Park (Tigers), U.S. Cellular Field (White Sox) and Dr. Pepper Ballpark (Frisco RoughRiders).
Baseball America sat down with Lamberth recently to discuss some of the trends he’s seen in his career in the business.
BA: What is your role with HOK?
CL: HOK is an international architectural design practice that has been around 60 years. Sports design is a core part of our firm. My role is to help continue that legacy. Recently, HOK acquired my firm, Kansas City-based 360 Architecture, to form our new Sports, Recreation and Entertainment practice.
I'm an architect with a background in design and construction working on ballparks, stadiums and arenas for the past 17 years. These days my primary focus is to identify new opportunities and build relationships to help secure the next sports project. I work with our clients in the initial planning stages and strategize with our staff to get projects off the ground.
BA: Which ballparks have you helped design with 360 and HOK?
CL: I’ve been working on, most recently, renovation work for the Cal League over at Rancho Cucamonga, renovations for the Quakes leading up to the recent all-star game last year. Worked on the Huntington Park over in Columbus, Ohio, also on the Winston-Salem ballpark.
BA: How has park design changed since you’ve been in the business?
CL: I think what you’re finding out right now is you’re seeing a little bit of an adjustment in the seating inventory. Usually you have a general admission seat and some reserve seats and it was kind of predicated by how close you sit behind home plate or closer to the field. For the minor leagues, especially with being family-oriented, you’re going to have a diversity of products. More and more, what we’ve been doing over the last 15 years is focusing on the diversity of group areas for small groups from a dozen to 50 to 100-plus. After working on Dr. Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, they built it and then they were like ‘Oh man, we have such a big demand for group areas,’ and we had do a little bit of retro-fits along the way there over the first couple of years.
Also since it is an inclusive family environment, it’s about the game but it’s also about the entertainment value and also the fact that it is entertainment. Bringing the whole family and the kids is a concerned focus is creating spaces for them. It used to be an afterthought, and now it’s trying to be more integrated in. You see some things in the major leagues go full-scale, and now there’s more attention to certain areas like that into integrating neighborhoods and different seating environments along with catering to the families, which has always been that way.
The idea with neighborhoods is giving you a different price point and a different vantage point. What we’re selling you is: People don’t necessarily want a seat to see the game. Now, fast-forward to even today, and more and more research is showing us millenials want to be in the scene but not necessarily spend the whole time sitting in one seat, so (they need) a variety of places to watch the game. They need a ticket for a seat, but a bar area or a concession stand or something as simple as a stand-up drink rail that’s down the line. We used to wrap seats from pole to pole, well now we’re kind of breaking up the seating bowl in certain ways.
The idea of creating a different type of product where you can experience a game with a group of people with a little higher price point, with more amenities that’s casual, but gives you kind of that suite experience outside of the suite. You try to bring hospitality at multiple levels and it’s not just about a fixed seat. In the case of the four tops (a table with four fixed, bar-style seats), the original concept that spawned from was just a bunch of loose chairs. It’s a great place to talk. The semi-circular configuration is a better conversational setting. But the game itself is less about capacity, it’s more about the diversity of seating types.
BA: So what you’re saying, essentially is, it’s not really about the baseball for the fans, it’s about the experience? For example, all of the wacky food you can’t get anywhere else?
CL: The food options have gotten better. The idea of just a hot dog at the ballgame is gone, and more and more ballparks celebrate (the region) wherever you go, whether it’s the South or the Northwest or the Midwest, there’s always going to be a unique food item. I think you’re finding more and more that teams are doing a better job of celebrating it, so that impacts the way we design some of the food service locations. The minor leagues have always been very adaptable at offerings.
We’ve gotten better in the last few years about spreading out the food service and being creative with some portable locations. It doesn’t have to be brick and mortar and stuck in the wall with three sides and a roll-up door. That’s led to portable cart design and the possibilities that they bring. Even though they’re “portable,” typically they kind of camp in one location in various corners of the ballparks.
BA: What other trends have you seen over the past decade or so?
CL: There are fewer new ballparks popping up nowadays, but the uptick of that is definitely in the last five years we’ve seen these older ballparks go in and do to keep current and fresh. Little renovations here, seating conversion or removal of seats to create group areas and creating spaces like play zones or fun zones or family zones. I think the minor leagues, not only from the offerings of entertainment, have pushed the boundaries over the last 20 years and looked to bring the fans closer to the action.
The distance between home plate and down the lines and between the bases is supposed to be 60 feet. Well, that’s slowly been creeping in. In some ballparks you’ve been knocking off almost 10 feet to get closer to the batter. That was the big marketing buzz for a long time, you’re closer to the batter than the pitcher. The evolution of making the minor leagues an intimate game has evolved as the shifting trends in seating capacity and demand for different types of seats have kind of allowed to tinker with some things. It’s not, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to have 7,500 seats’ anymore. Now it’s maybe you need 6,000 seats and another 1,500 you can make up in some standing areas or a lawn berm. And the berm doesn’t have to be the whole outfield, maybe it’s just a section now.
I like the creativity of the (Frisco) RoughRiders. They had this very small pool in the outfield before and now it’s turned into this lazy river thing.