Building A Winner

Stadium building these days is a multi-million dollar job

Kurt Landes can't wait to see the IronPigs hit a home run.

The general manager of the International League's newest franchise, which makes its home debut on April 11 in Lehigh Valley, was not so anxious about the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate putting runs on the board, but rather how the scoreboard will respond to the team scoring runs. One of the many over-the-top amenities at Coca-Cola Park is a nine-story tall scoreboard in left-center field with a giant neon Coke bottle hanging from its top.

Every time the IronPigs knock one out of the park, the bottle will begin to shake, then appear to bubble and fizz before popping its top with fireworks shooting out.

Landes still hadn't seen the caffeinated scoreboard in action with about three weeks until Opening Day, and the anticipation of showing off the new $49.4 million ballpark to an ever-growing Allentown, Pa., fan base had his stomach tied in knots.

"How's the expression go? I'm feeling kind of like a duck these days: calm on the outside but paddling like the devil below," Landes said.

Of course, a different kind of animal analogy has become Landes' forte in the 18 months since the ballpark's construction began. The IronPigs' business strategy of focusing on group sales will be bolstered by a ballpark with a plethora of hospitality venues, including a six-tiered picnic area, two party decks and nearly a dozen suites (including four dugout suites situated closer to home plate than the pitcher's mound).

"I think most minor league teams will tell you that group sales is the bread and butter of their operation. Well, for us it is the feed and slop of the operation," Landes said, before continuing in an almost apologetic tone. "If there is a pig pun I haven't heard I'd be surprised. I could boar you to death."

Minor league baseball's unprecedented popularity has led to annual attendance records and increasing franchise values. The sport's Golden Era has also resulted in an explosion of ballpark construction, with three clubs unveiling new stadiums in 2008 (Billings, Lehigh Valley, Northwest Arkansas) and another five scheduled to open in 2009 (Bowling Green, Columbus, Fort Wayne, Gwinnett County, Reno). During the eight seasons this decade, 40 new ballparks have opened their gates. The pace only slightly lags behind the 60 ballparks built in the 1990s. Counting the eight stadiums scheduled to open before 2010, 108 of minor league baseball's 159 teams will have built new stadiums over the past 20 years (not including the Rookie-level complex leagues).

The Triple-A Pacific Coast League had five new stadiums open between 2000-03, the eight-team Double-A Texas League will have just two ballparks built before 2002 once Northwest Arkansas opens this season, and seven of the 16 low Class A South Atlantic League teams have moved into new homes this decade.

The growth has spanned all levels of the sport. But none of it has come cheap.

"This is a fun time in minor league baseball," said HOK principal Dave Bower, whose firm designed the new parks in Lehigh Valley and Northwest Arkansas. "It's been fun to see the transitions in baseball. For the longest time you had suburban ballparks with the goal of building as big a ballpark as you could. Then teams began focusing on fan amenities and ways to generate revenue and began moving back to building urban ballparks with revenue generating amenities."

What drives the cost of a ballpark, and how teams approach filling out their budgets, is a complex mix of size, location and amenities that need to meet Minor League Baseball's very detailed facility standards.

Tom Tingle, HNTB's national director for sports architecture, has overseen ballpark designs the past 20 years for teams, including such landmarks as Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the Memphis Redbirds AutoZone Park. He estimates ballpark-construction costs by classification:  Class A teams, $15-20 million; Double-A, $25-35 million; Triple-A, $40-50 million.

Lehigh Valley completed construction of its 10,000-seat stadium for just under $50 million. Double-A Northwest Arkansas built the 7,500-seat Arvest Ballpark for $33 million, while Rookie-level Billings finished its still unnamed 4,000-seat stadium for $12.5 million.

Minor League Baseball's facility standards play a role in nearly facet of a ballpark's design, including the minimum amount of seating based on classification, the size of team clubhouses, and the minimum number and size of concession areas and restrooms based on the total fixed seats in a stadium. Recommended minimum seating capacities for Triple-A clubs is 10,000, for Double-A teams is 6,000, Class A is 4,000 and Rookie-level is 2,500. (These numbers do not include group seating areas such as picnic benches and grassy berm areas.)

Coca-Cola Park and Arvest Ballpark are strikingly different stadiums—Lehigh Valley is a multi-level flashy venue while Northwest Arkansas is a more spread out, subtle stadium. But both provide ample group seating, a popular way for teams to service fans while minimizing multiplied expenses, the fan amenities based on fixed-seat ratios (restrooms, concessions).

"Every time you put a fixed seat in, there is a multiplied expense to the ballpark," Tingle said. "Many operators want to keep the seating capacity down because you want the ballpark to look full, but at the same time you want to have flexibility to max out seating potential. So you add seating berms, picnic areas and plazas for standing room only . . . How can I maximize the impact on those big nights and get as much money in the door as I can and not bear the ultimate capital cost for the facility itself?"

Figuring out ways to keep costs down is a constant challenge. There's no such thing as an inexpensive ballpark project these days.

Billings' publicly financed ballpark will be a significant upgrade on antiquated Cobb Field. Yet the $12.5 million budget left Billings with few options beyond meeting baseball's facility standards. The HNTB-designed ballpark will have a very modern look—it includes a 360-degree concourse, three off-street entrances, multiple point-of-sales concession areas and spacious seating close to the playing field. However the park will have few of the luxuries included in most modern stadiums, notably suites and skyboxes.

"It is so driven by Minor League Baseball facility standards, we didn't get suites and skyboxes but just the necessities to open and make it comfortable for our fans," said Billings general manager Gary Roller, noting that they do have the foundation in place to add a second level of seating and suites in the future. "From what we can see, it is going to be very fan friendly. It will be a much more comfortable atmosphere and environment compared to the old park."

Balancing Costs And Amenities

The size of a ballpark is considered the biggest factor in its price, but the amenities a team fills it with certainly plays a major role in rounding out a budget.

Like any home buyer, minor league teams typically enter a ballpark construction process with a wish list of features they'd like included in the design. Items intended to improve fan experience and boost revenue usually make their way to the top: luxury suites, group seating areas, bigger concession stands.

Lehigh Valley's ownership group of Craig Stein and Joe Finley had been discussing moving a minor league team to the Allentown area for 16 years, and when their dream was finally realized the duo was determined to build a top-of-the-line ballpark.

"Lehigh Valley is almost a minor major league ballpark," Bower said.

Coca-Cola Park provides fans a variety of viewpoints to watch a game while also giving the team seemingly unlimited group-seating options. There is a 500-person picnic patio down the left-field line, two party porches on either side of the suite level and a catered area for group outings that includes an all-you-can-eat buffet. There are five suites on the club level that can be rented on a per-diem basis and an extra-large team suite adjacent to the press box that can be rented on a nightly basis.

The most unique feature of the park may be four dugout suites situated roughly three feet below the playing surface directly behind home plate. Each suite can hold 30 people and will be available for nightly group rentals at $1,200. The units interconnect to host larger parties.

Obviously not every item on the IronPigs' wish list could be granted, but the team focused on cutting from areas other profitable amenities.

"For the most part when you value-engineer a project, you try to do things that affect the back of the park so the amenities will not be affected," Landes said. "Take out a storage area instead of a party deck—we would do things like that. Instead of this wall being brick, maybe it could be another building material. So this way we wouldn't sacrifice any fan amenity. We feel good about all our wishes from a fan-amenity perspective."