Are multi-purpose stadiums really gone for good?

January 14, 2022

(Quick note to start: If you’re a baseball fan, I highly recommend Craig Calcaterra’s
Cup of Coffee newsletter. It’s a great way to keep up with the broad baseball conversation, but he also brings up a wide variety of other topics for spice. Overall, I look forward to reading it every morning and think it’s well worth the purchase price. Also, one of the subscriber perks is that if you buy a certain piece of merch from him, you can submit a guest essay, which I did, and he published it Friday morning. My thesis: The institutions that grapple with COVID-19 most publicly are probably professional sports leagues, which in turn distorts our experience with the virus.

Now, on with today’s post…)

Pro sports teams don’t like multi-use stadiums. Part of it may be a reaction to the concrete ring stadiums built in the 1960s and 1970s that were designed to host multiple sports, and which tended to feel cavernous and hostile to any event, especially baseball. But I suspect a bigger element is that building a sport-specific ballpark is a statement of purpose and stature, that this is a place for that sport, specifically, and therefore the team that plays here matters — even though owners will absolutely use the facility for as many other uses as they can.

That said, I wonder if we’re due for a rebirth of multi-purpose stadiums.

At the most basic level, the primary argument for multi-purpose facilities is that they represent the most efficient use of land. If a baseball team averages a little more than 80 games per year on a particular patch of ground, why shouldn’t it also be used for football 20-plus times, soccer 20-plus times, and then other events throughout the year?

High schools with limited land and a desire to accommodate multiple sports have used multi-purpose fields forever (PDF), but colleges tend to have both more land and to resist using the same land for multiple sports. Many will have their soccer or lacrosse teams play on a football field, and a few indoor venues act as host to both field sports and basketball. However, especially in urban environments, having two facilities when one could work is a lost opportunity. Why does the University of North Carolina-Charlotte have a separate soccer stadium when they’ve recently built a nice football stadium? More to the point, why does Columbia University have separate dedicated fields for football, soccer, field hockey, baseball, and softball, all located on some of the most valuable real estate in the nation?

The obvious answer is “because they can”, but is the incremental improvement of playing on a dedicated soccer pitch instead of a pitch that happens to also host football at a different time of year worth the massive expenditures required to build and maintain those separate facilities?

From a university’s point of view, they might simply decide it’s well worth the land use cost to provide separate facilities, and pro sports teams will almost always want stadiums for their exclusive use and profit, but from a municipality’s point of view, consolidating those teams’ games into one location is almost always going to be better for the city, even if the tradeoff is a certain amount of romance and aesthetic pleasure.

Consider Charlotte, again (a place I lived for a decade). The southwest corner of the Charlotte’s uptown (what they call the city center) features Bank of America Stadium, where the Charlotte Panthers play, the Panthers’ practice field, and Truist Field, home of the Charlotte Knights Triple-A baseball team. The incoming MLS club will play at Bank of America Stadium, but only after the city provided millions in funding for renovations.

Again, from a purely city-oriented point of view, it would be best if all those facilities were outside of uptown so that the land could be repurposed into space that’s productive every day of the year — like housing, or commercial development — or, alternatively, if several of those teams shared the same stadium somehow. Shoehorn in the UNCC teams, and we might be cooking.

Consider that when the Knights moved to uptown, they asked for millions of dollars’ worth of subsidies in order to build the ballpark, at the time estimated to cost about $55 million: The county pledged $8 million in assistance, plus gifted the team land valued at about $24 million, while the team got more than $7 million from the city. As part of their pitch, the team presented ludicrous projections of doubling their annual attendance and tripling their annual revenue, to about $12 million per year.

Here’s where things get interesting: If the city and county had simply not granted the Knights any of that funding, had not gifted the land, and the team had been on the hook for the entirety of the $80 million project, assuming a 5% interest rate, that amounts to a little more than $5 million per year to pay off that debt over 30 years. Aim to pay it off faster, over 20 years, and that’s about $6.3 million per year. Either way, I’m no math major, but if you project to go from $4 million to $12 million revenue, that means you have enough to pay $6.3 million per year.

And they actually hit those ludicrous projections and tripled their revenue! They probably didn’t need the subsidies, but got the sweetheart deal anyway. So it goes.

However, as much as the team and certain city boosters would want to cast this as an all-around win for everyone, I’d suggest the land is still underutilized. Sure, it’s an exceptionally nice ballpark and there’s decent foot traffic on game days, but that entire quadrant of uptown remains relatively sleepy the vast majority of the time.

Let’s bring it all together.

Perhaps there’s no way to properly host a Major League Baseball and National Football League team in the same facility. What if the Panthers, instead of constantly renovating their uptown stadium, simply moved to the outskirts of Charlotte? There’s been talk of building a new stadium on the border of North and South Carolina (imagine if the 50-yard line really was the border), but I’ve long advocated that the state figure out a way to get the Panthers to build to the north, near Charlotte Motor Speedway, where open land is plentiful, it would be off a major interstate, and it could share parking lots.

As for the Knights, their old facility in Fort Mill wasn’t quite a dump, but it was deeply uninspiring. What if they built a multi-purpose stadium in uptown Charlotte? One used for baseball, football, soccer, and other events? Advances in grass and turf technology mean overuse is much less of a problem than ever before, so the main impediments are physical space and how organizations simply don’t want to share.

The space is there. Truist Field is on a block where there’s plenty of room for a football or soccer field that runs southwest-to-northeast, or, as the baseball field is currently laid out, first base line to left field. Actually laying out a baseball or soccer field in the facility’s footprint wouldn’t be difficult; the trick is convincing people that the experience of going to a football or soccer game there wouldn’t feel odd or otherwise like a second-class experience. But! Since the baseball park as currently configured holds a little more than 10,000 people and the football stadium at UNCC holds a little more than 15,000 people, we’re talking about something more feasible than trying to flex a stadium between an MLB team that wants a crowd of 40,000 and an NFL team that wants a crowd of 70,000.

If we were to rebuild the ballpark from the start with the intention of flexibility to play football or soccer there, we might make a few key changes. Of course it would be a turf field, and we’d look for ways to store about 5,000 seats that would get rolled into right field to create the other side of the box during football or soccer games, similar to how the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark was arranged for Cal football games (perhaps under/behind the batter’s eye?). Most important, that configuration would be designed, rather than improvised after the fact, so while the facility should probably be baseball-first, it wouldn’t be a baseball-specific park. UNCC would free up tons of space on its campus, and uptown would get more events. If the Panthers actually moved away, they’d free up a bunch of prime center city real estate to be near the ballpark that actually hosts events close to one-third of the year.

This is unlikely because pro teams have figured out that cities (that aren’t San Francisco or Oakland, apparently) will pay exorbitant amounts to subsidize privately-owned and used athletic facilities, and though I’m no engineer or architect, I like to think there’s an elegant solution for situations like Charlotte’s, where entities with similar needs could give up just a little bit in order to share a facility and in the process give their city valuable opportunities to develop land that would otherwise be woefully underused.

(Photo: "Candlestick park" by moppet65535. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)