Turner Field, Atlanta
FROM THE DESK OF THE MANAGING EDITOR — It’s a phrase usually saved for the grocery store, but since Monday I’ve been hearing it from every direction: shelf life.
In the past 48 hours I’ve had half-a-dozen people corner me, conjure up their best David Frost inquisitor voice (I picked him because he’s my favorite journalist) and asked me the loaded missive: “What is the average shelf life of a venue?”
Why do they care? Because everyone has the Atlanta Braves on their brain after team officials announced plans to vacate and demolish Turner Field after only 19 years in use (the team's current lease expires in 2016) for a new stadium in Cobb County, part of a $672-million deal that no one has been able to explain to me in any reasonable detail. At least not yet.
I guess we’ll figure out how we’re going to pay for it later — local media in Atlanta have been calling me, begging me really, to give them some hard and fast number that proves their contention that stadiums and sports facilities just don’t last as long as they used to.
Here’s how the conversation usually goes:
“So, Dave — um, thinking of all the venues in the world, how does their average lifespan compare to, say, 20 years go?”
“Well, to really know that, we’d have to develop a list of all the venues that have closed down in the last few decades for comparison. And I don’t maintain a list like that.”
“Well, Dave….what does your gut tell you?”
My gut tells me to hang up the phone! I guess I prefer nuance over simplicity, but I do understand the wider point they’re trying to make. Namely, what are municipal governments doing spending millions on publicly financed sports facilities if they’re only going to last a couple of decades?
Now in all fairness, it needs to be acknowledged that Turner Field was never built specifically for baseball. It was originally used for the 1996 Summer Olympics and converted into a baseball stadium a season later. Team officials said an overhaul of the building to bring it up to current standards would cost at least $360 million and still not address major access problems.
I understand the team’s position and I think they did their best to properly message the situation, both with a website explaining the move and prior approval by baseball commissioner Bud Selig. But what I’m more concerned about is the ammunition this news gives venue and sports facility opponents.
“You want $50 million to renovate the lower bowl? Why? Turner Field only lasted 16 years!”
“$500 million for a new stadium? Are you crazy? It’s going to turn out like Turner Field and shut down in less than two decades.”
To be clear, I don’t actually think the complexities surrounding Turner Field will have any tangible effect on major projects going forward. What I do believe is that it could become the rallying cry for a segment of people living in every community who simply oppose municipal sports facilities and taxpayer-funded arenas.
So what should you, the venue manager do? I’m a believer in proactive behavior and my suggestion is twofold. If you’re a venue manager in an existing building, I encourage you to express your commitment to the community you serve and encourage an open and frank discussion about the long-term health of the facility, both from a business perspective and an operational viewpoint. More on this in a minute.
If you’re an architect or a developer and you’re currently designing a new sports facility, consider one of two options — go lighter or go longer.
What I mean by go longer is to consider designing a facility built for upgrade, planning for new technologies that haven’t yet been fully developed. It means taking operational procedures and thinking how they might change over the next decade. Arenas and stadiums are increasingly designing larger concourses that can handle heavier foot traffic at half-time, but what about when the majority of consumers decide that they now want to order concessions on their mobile devices? What does that mean for how modern kitchens are dispersed throughout a venue, or how to transition from swaths of fans walking onto a concourse, to a new army of wait staff making mass deliveries to fans in seats.
And by lighter, I mean building venues that have a softer impact on their surroundings. Venues that can be easily uprooted, or dismantled when they are no longer useful. We started seeing this shift in design in 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., and carried on to the 2012 Summer Games in London, where temporary overlay facilities were used for water polo, beach volleyball and basketball. Staff Writer Jessica Boudevin has a great story in the November issue of Venues Today magazine about temporary facilities and how they're being utilized in Rio de Janerio for the 2016 Olympic Games.
If you were to visit the site of the London Olympic 2012 Triathlon today, you would simply see gorgeous Hyde Park, minus the stacks of bleachers or race markers. The equestrian facility? Well, it’s just back to being plain ‘ole Buckingham Palace.
“You don’t design a church for Easter Sunday because that’s your biggest attendance,” 360 Architecture’s Chris Lamberth told Boudevin at the time. “If you build something for the Olympics, then after the event goes away there’s a huge burden just to maintain the building, let alone filling it,” he said, later adding, “It’s a different type of economy now where there’s more practicality and legacy planning.”
It’s also more cost effective — depending on the size, temporary venues can cost as little as one-fifth as much as their permanent counterparts.
Ok, so I realize this has little plausible impact on venue managers sitting in decades-old buildings with deep ties to their community. So let’s harken back to my earlier point — are venue managers doing enough to explain their long-term commitment to the communities they serve?
I encourage you and your staff to go out of your way to not only explain your strategy for longevity in the community, but also start a dialogue about what a healthy entertainment market looks like. If you’re honest about the needs of your building and, more importantly, the extraordinary steps it takes to regularly bring world-class artists and content to your market, hopefully you can start to educate consumers.
John Bolton at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., told me that part of building a community into a vibrant entertainment market means explaining to residents that the more tickets they buy for acts that are currently on sale, the more likely they are to get even higher caliber acts down the road. Agents don’t want to risk their superstar artists on unknown venues — they want to go into markets that have a track record for selling tickets.
So with that, I encourage all our readers to begin that dialogue with their local communities, and tune back in next week for more details on the Braves proposed move to the suburbs of Atlanta. In the meantime, I’ll come up with a less lengthy way to answer the shelf life question. Maybe I’ll find inspiration at the local grocery store.