An Experienced Fan Explores the Fan Experience

The newest MLB stadium, SunTrust Park in Atlanta, aims to be an all-inclusive entertainment experience. (via Thomson200)

But first, are you experienced?
Have you ever been experienced?
Well, I have.

So sang Jimi Hendrix, in Are You Experienced? , the title track for the 1967 debut album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. That landmark release was iconic and psychedelic, in-your-face and far out, though perhaps not as far out as picking the Red Sox to win the pennant that year.

Now you might wonder what a rock album, more than half a century old, no matter how influential, could have to do with baseball c. 2018.

Well, I keep coming across the term “Fan Experience.” Like other corporate buzz phrases, it quickly wears itself out but refuses to go away. The phrase has nothing to do with the game or the men who play it, but it is a hot topic among the suits in the front office. So it makes sense to ask every baseball fan:

So, are you experienced?
Have you ever been experienced?
Well, I have.

Indeed, I count myself among the experienced. I have been to all 30 current major league parks and 24 that are now used for other purposes or exist only in old videos, films, photos, museum artifacts, and memories.

My first Fan Experience occurred during the 1950s when most teams played in “classic” ballparks with all the nostalgia and lack of amenities that adjective implies. No retractable roofs, no fixed roofs–no roofs, period.  Outdoor baseball was a redundancy. It might be a beautiful day for a ballgame, or it might be…windy and chilly…hot and muggy…damp and drizzly. You want climate control? Go to the movies.

Ergonomics? That word was coined in 1949; unfortunately, most major league ballparks were designed decades before that. More than likely, your seat was composed of wooden slats. If you were lucky, they had some curvature to match your spine and buttocks. If you weren’t, the slats were straight and equally uncomfortable on the backbone and the sitz bones. In fact, a friend of mine theorized that Phillies fans booed so much because the seats at Connie Mack Stadium were so uncomfortable. They should have renamed the joint Soreassic Park.

The classic ballpark footprint was usually within one city block. Parking lots were not only scarce but cramped. In Philadelphia and Baltimore (probably other cities also), the cars were packed bumper to bumper. Don’t even think about leaving early. Of course, you could park on the street…if you could find a place…and you didn’t mind paying one of the enterprising local youths who volunteered to “watch” your car.

Purchasing tickets, of course, was not computerized. The tickets were pre-printed, so the process was much faster. You went to the ticket window and asked the sales rep for two box seats behind third base or wherever. The rep was not secured behind bulletproof glass and speaking on a microphone that occasionally cuts out or is subject to feedback. The rep talked to you directly without any intervening technology. When you made your request, the rep would reach into the appropriate pigeonhole and pull out two tickets. You paid in cash, got your change back, and you were out of there in a jiffy.

At the ticket window today, however, computers sometimes freeze up, keyboards get stuck, and printers occasionally malfunction or run out of blank ticket stock, and the most knowledgeable IT person is nowhere to be found. So the average transaction time grows longer, as does the queue.

Granted, you can always buy tickets from your home computer (in which case you are the most knowledgeable IT person in the room). Of course, this option was not available in the old days. On the other hand, you didn’t have to set up accounts or create usernames or passwords or worry about unauthorized charges on your credit card. Identity theft? Only in Hitchcock movies.

Computers have made possible an amazingly complicated range of ticket prices. The contemporary color-coded ballpark schematic looks like a painter’s palette.  Needless to say, there was no premium pricing in effect in the days of old and hence no sticker shock. Today, if you want to know how much your ticket costs, you have to go to the team web site and click on the individual game. Depending on the day of the week and the opponent, the price might be the same as the previous game or the next game, or it could be different. Before computers, every category of seats (box, reserved, grandstand, or bleacher) had a fixed price all season.

Ticket in hand, one entered the classic ballpark via a turnstile. Getting inside was quick and easy. Gate attendants didn’t read the bar codes on your tickets, they tore them, kept the stub (for the attendance count), and gave you the remainder back. Never a problem with malfunctioning or persnickety barcode readers. Wanding? Metal detectors? Are you kidding?

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Once inside the classic ballpark, on to the classic concession stand. You want a beer? Great, you can have Ballantine Ale or Ballantine Beer (or whatever the local equivalent is)–in a paper cup! No beer snobbishness in those days.

Not old enough to buy beer? One cola is available: probably Coke, maybe Pepsi, possibly RC. If you’re lucky, maybe you can get 7-Up or Hires Root Beer. Dr Pepper was a strong possibility at minor league parks below the Mason-Dixon Line. All of these beverages come in paper cups! No artisanal soft drinks in those days. Come to think of it, in the days before high fructose corn syrup, maybe all of the above were artisanal soft drinks…at least until the vendors diluted them with too much ice.

The paper cup has always been the Rodney Dangerfield of beverage containers. Author Raymond Chandler once denigrated Los Angeles (albeit, before the Dodgers arrived) as “a city with all the personality of a paper cup.” If he were around in 1967, he likely would have swapped out “plastic” for “paper.” 1967 was the year of The Graduate and its famous quote (“One Word: Plastics”) as well as the Simon & Garfunkel tune “Mrs. Robinson,” well known to seamheads for its reference to Joe DiMaggio.

A half a century ago, plastic was viewed with derision. It was considered cheap, shoddy, and inferior; plastic people were considered phony, shallow, and spineless. “Plastic People” by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention was another 1967 pop cultural touchstone, albeit semi-underground.

For better or worse, however, plastics won. I couldn’t begin to name all the durable goods that used to be made of metal and are now made of plastic. On the other hand, almost every ballpark, major and minor league, now sells ice cream in miniature plastic helmets, and the Fan Experience would be much poorer without those nifty little souvenirs.

Indulge me here as I again invoke 1967, as that was the year high school finished me…or rather, I finished high school. I didn’t realize it then, but the changeover from paper to plastic was a mega-trend. Before long, plastic was the bag of choice at the supermarket and the beverage container of choice at ballpark concession stands. And so they remain today. Like Joltin’ Joe, paper cups have left and gone away. Hey, hey, hey…hey, hey, hey. (Elderly Cubs fans may suspect Jack Brickhouse wrote those lyrics.)

Those paper cups, however, were not without benefits, and not just because they were biodegradable. The main benefit was that once you finished your beverage, you could turn the paper cup upside down and, taking careful aim with your dominant foot and bringing it down like a pile driver, crush the cup so the escaping air would create a mini-explosion. Crushing paper cups at the ballpark was one of those simple joys of childhood that has been denied today’s youth. (I think a box of Dixie® cups and a brief tutorial might be just the thing to pry the small fry away from their electronic gadgets.)

So much for beverages. Hungry? Choose from hot dogs, peanuts, popcorn, and Cracker Jack. Maybe hamburgers. That’s it. Nachos were not available till 1976 when the Rangers introduced them. As for the cornucopia of foodstuffs available at contemporary major league parks…one wonders if it wouldn’t be easier (it would certainly be cheaper) to go to a buffet restaurant with a big-screen TV tuned to the ballgame. The increasing popularity of all-you-can-eat seats is a practical compromise.

Given today’s zero-tolerance attitude toward smoking, it may be hard to believe that in days of old you could smoke in your seats. In fact, I would go so far as to say that unless you were sitting in the Uecker seats, getting a whiff of cigar smoke (more often than not, courtesy of the usher) was part and parcel of the Fan Experience. Today, of course, if smoking is permitted at all, the practitioner will be banished to some isolated corner in the most remote area of the ballpark–with no video monitors.

Then, as now, scorecard programs were available for purchase. The contemporary fan may be interested in the roster sheets but not in keeping score. So some teams now hand out “Game Day” pamphlets with rosters but no scorecard. Yet that is not the only difference.

In the classic ballpark, the scorecard/program was frequently employed to manufacture paper airplanes. That behavior has disappeared. I don’t think today’s youth have become aerodynamically illiterate. I blame the multi-purpose stadiums that supplanted the classic parks.

The post-classic “cookie cutter” ballpark designers boasted that their structures had no pillars to block the view. True enough, but to achieve that, the upper deck had to be recessed. The classic cantilevered ballpark meant the front row of the upper deck was right above the field level. A paper airplane launched from there had a good chance of landing on the playing field. If it reached fair territory, extra credit. And if you could reach the pitcher’s mound–bull’s eye! Today, however, a paper airplane launched from the upper deck has little chance of reaching the field. And if security catches you with a paper airplane, you could be ejected from the ballpark, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and maybe even put on the no-fly list.

Paper cups and paper airplanes were an integral part of the classic ballpark Fan Experience, but they were cheap thrills. There are precious few cheap thrills or cheap anything in the contemporary Fan Experience. Your Fan Experience, much like your Life Experience, is largely dependent on your income level. That has always been true, but the inequalities were fewer in the heyday of the paper cup, or at least, seemed to be.

At the same time paper cups were being phased out, the Harris County Domed Stadium, popularly known as the Astrodome (opened in 1965), was attracting international attention, befitting any structure billing itself as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Thanks to NASA and Mission Control, Houston was sometimes known as Space City, so if the Astrodome looked like a flying saucer come to earth, it was probably no accident. One almost expected to see Klaatu and Gort emerge from the dome to deliver greetings and a warning to fans on the parking lot. Cue the theremin.

Unquestionably state-of-the-art, the Astrodome was also provincial, a typical glitz-and-grits example of Texas excess. More importantly, it took a populist approach to the Fan Experience. It was hailed and appreciated by the great unwashed because the air conditioning offered relief from the hot, humid Gulf Coast climate.

Air-conditioned baseball was something new under the sun, figuratively if not literally, but air conditioning and Houston were almost synonymous. Going from your air-conditioned office to your air-conditioned home to your air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned baseball game was a logical progression. The soothing kiss of conditioned air on the way in and the fogging of one’s spectacles on the way out was a regular part of the Fan Experience in Houston starting in 1965.

Curiously, the Eighth Wonder of the World didn’t last as long as its seven predecessors.

Like the Astrodome, the Metrodome (opened in 1982) in Minneapolis featured a stationary roof.  Sure, indoor baseball was great in the chilly, if not frigid, early weeks of the season and the postseason, but what about those pleasantly warm summer days and delightlfully cool summer evenings in the Twin Cities?

In 1993, along came the St. Paul Saints, an independent Northern League team that played at Midway Stadium, just a few miles east of the Metrodome. Their schedule was shorter than the Twins’, so cold weather was much less likely. Old-timers likely hearkened back to the good old days of minor league ball at Nicollet Park in Minneapolis and Lexington Park in St. Paul. Indeed, when the Twins were not contending, they were outdrawn by the Saints on one some dates when the schedules overlapped. So the fixed roof of the Metrodome came to be seen as more of a minus than a plus.

Nevertheless, ground was broken for the Florida Suncoast Dome (now know as Tropicana Field) in St. Petersburg in 1986. The Tampa Bay area had no major league team; the real purpose was to entice an existing team to relocate. The locals finally got their team via expansion in 1998, but by then the fixed dome was obsolete. Today Tropicana Field is the only all-indoor major league venue still in use, though it is on borrowed time.

On June 3, 1989, less than a year before the Suncoast Dome was completed, the Fan Experience took a quantum leap forward with the opening of SkyDome (now known as Rogers Centre) in Toronto. It was the first ballpark with a functional retractable roof (the first attempt, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, home of the Expos after the 1976 Olympics, was a fiasco).

After Toronto, all subsequent ballparks designed with roofs (Safeco Field, Minute Maid Park, Marlins Park, Miller Park, Bank One Ballpark and the Texas Rangers park now under construction) have been designed with retractable roofs. The Astrodome, landmark that it was, lasted a mere 35 years before it was replaced by a structure with a retractable roof. In effect, indoor baseball was obsolete and indoor/outdoor baseball–the best of both worlds–was the ideal (though not always the reality) for the Fan Experience.

Given the climate of Houston in the summertime, tailgating was not terribly big at the Astrodome, even though it was surrounded by a parking lot prairie, and no bars or restaurants were within walking distance. In some venues, however, tailgating was an integral part of the Fan Experience.

Tailgating was hard to do in a classic (or even a retro) inner-city ballpark but possible in any facility with ample parking. Here a big shout-out is due the City of Milwaukee. When County Stadium was built in 1953, it was the first big league ballpark surrounded on all sides by a parking lot. Tailgating had long been popular for football games in Wisconsin, and when the Braves took up residence at County Stadium, the tradition carried over.  Today at Miller Park, the Brewers offer 12,500 parking spaces–all available for tailgating.

But there is a downside to the do-it-yourself pre-game beer buzz. For those of you keeping score at home, 12 of the top 20 “drunkest cities” are in Wisconsin, with Green Bay (the NFL must be so proud), Eau Claire, Appleton and Madison at the top of the heap. Milwaukee comes in at No. 20, but it is the only big league city in the list.

Tailgating does not enhance revenue. In fact, it may even discourage it, as fans who have tanked up before the game may be less likely to spend money on concessions once inside the ballpark. But the modern ballpark has other methods of revenue enhancement. Consider the private suite or luxury box, a Fan Experience for the elite, or those they are entertaining. Another is the year-round restaurant (e.g., Friday’s Front Row Grill in Phoenix and Milwaukee). This is part and parcel of the trend to expand the bread half of bread and circuses.

Since beer is often referred to as liquid bread, we cannot ignore its increased presence at the ballpark. Today the range of craft beer offerings–even at minor league parks–rivals many outside pubs. Also, wine and even mixed drinks (craft cocktails seems to be the term of choice these days) are more and more common at ballparks.

So much for bread; as for circuses, consider fireworks, once a special event on Independence Day, but now a regular feature (usually Friday or Saturday nights) of the schedule–even in the minor leagues. The credit (or blame) for this must go to Bill Veeck.

If there were a Fan Experience Hall of Fame, Veeck surely would be among the inaugural inductees, but even he would have been surprised to learn what he unleashed when he started shooting off post-home run fireworks from the Comiskey Park scoreboard in 1960. Just five years later, the Astrodome scoreboard introduced a far more elaborate home run spectacular. Subsequent scoreboards also offered animated images, laughably primitive today, but they paved the way for ribbon boards, hi-def video screens and CGI.

As scoreboard antics became an integral part of the Fan Experience, the same was true of free stuff: giveaways involving bats (started by Veeck in St. Louis in 1952), T-shirts, caps and assorted souvenirs, such as bobbleheads and mini-bats, as well as more peculiar trinkets.

In more recent years, postgame concerts have also become popular. Consequently, a team’s promotional schedule is almost as important as the home schedule itself. It may sound like you’re getting more bang for your ticket buck, but I suspect the giveaways and concerts are not breaking the bank. In order to be sure you get the treasured giveaway item, you have to get there when the gates open. If you arrive early, you’ve got that much more time to spend money in the ballpark.

At the other end are the postgame fireworks and concerts. If it’s a lopsided game, you might be tempted to leave early, but if you want to see the concert or the fireworks, you’re stuck there for nine (maybe more) innings. And the longer you stay at the ballpark, the more likely you are to spend money.

So now let’s flash forward to the cutting edge of the Fan Experience. The newest extravaganza is Atlanta’s SunTrust Park, which opened in 2017. It has all the goodies you expect in a modern ballpark and then some, such as a midway-like kids zone complete with zipline and climbing wall. For the youngest of the kiddos, there is a lounge for nursing mothers. And if you’re riding in an elevator between levels, there are flat-screen TVs tuned to the game.

But the Braves realized the Fan Experience isn’t limited to the ballpark itself. Hence they conceived of the Battery, the entertainment area adjacent to the ballpark. The Battery has a concert hall, an outdoor stage (a movie theater is planned for 2019), bars and restaurants, a fountain for the wee folk to run through, and other attractions even a pre-game drumline, perhaps to drum up some college football style enthusiasm. The Braves’ web site describes it as “the South’s preeminent lifestyle destination.”

The goal seems to be to create a Las Vegas- or Disneyland-style environment. In other words, the entertainment is not compartmentalized; it surrounds you. The Fan Experience runs from pregame to the game itself to postgame, from outside to inside to outside. You can get your beer buzz before the gates open, maintain it during the game, and keep it going after the game! It’s not quite seamless, but it is pretty well stitched together.

The Battery certainly qualifies as “mixed use,” the term so widely used by commercial real estate agents. The development’s web site pretty well spells it out: “Shop! Dine! Experience! Work! Services!” Oh, and when you’re bored with all that, you might want to take in a Braves game. And if you’re a season ticket holder, you might consider leasing an apartment (now more often called an apartment home or flat) in the Battery!

The Battery is not the first attempt to expand the friendly confines of the Fan Experience beyond the ballpark itself. Ballpark Village in St. Louis got there first, but it is relatively modest. The Battery is much more ambitious. The Braves have boldly attempted to create a turnkey Wrigley Field-style experience. Wrigleyville, of course, evolved over more than a century, but you can’t guarantee that sort of development will spring up on its own–quickly or slowly–every time you open a new ballpark…unless you do it yourself. (That the ballpark is located so far from downtown Atlanta may have increased the urgency a bit.)

So the Braves are forcing the issue. They are thinking outside the ballpark. Note that Mike Plant, president and CEO of the Braves Development Company, is listed right under chairman Terry McGuirk in the front office roster on the Braves web site.

If you saw The Founder, the biopic about McDonald’s honcho (and Padres owner) Ray Kroc, you might remember the moment when he convinces the McDonald brothers they are not in the hamburger business, they’re in the real estate business! Swap out “hamburger” for “baseball,” and you have a pretty good idea of the Braves’ philosophy, and one that’s likely to influence future stadium designs as well as locations.

In Atlanta, the Fan Experience is no longer limited to 81 home games per year.  Like Wrigleyville, it will be livelier on game days, but it will never be deserted, thanks to metro Atlantans enjoying a night on the town, tourists who want to check out the Battery, and the residents of those nearby apartment homes. So the Battery will never run down.

I must confess to an approach-avoidance conflict regarding this kind of bread and circus environment. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t visit a restaurant or a gastropub, but there are limits on caloric intake and spending. You can consume only so much before…well, come to think of it, consumer debt and obesity do seem to be gaining on us, don’t they? Satchel Paige notwithstanding, if something is gaining on you, it’ll eventually catch you whether you’re looking back at it or not.

Over-indulgence was much less likely in days of yore before anyone ever heard of the Fan Experience. There wasn’t as much stuff to spend money on.  Consequently, about 90 percent of the “old school” Fan Experience was synonymous with the ballgame itself. Today the ballgame is roughly 50 percent of the Fan Experience. It could be more or less depending on the ballpark and the individual fan’s resources.

Nevertheless, it is still possible to enjoy a simpler Fan Experience, albeit not at the major league level. Consider small colleges or community colleges. Some have modest concessions, some don’t. Scoreboards are rudimentary at best–certainly no fireworks. In some cases, no light poles–all day games, even today. In fact, I visited one park without foul poles (now there’s a rhubarb just waiting to happen) and another without a flagpole. (Hence no national anthem, just “Play ball!”) But with nothing to distract you from the game itself, you pay attention to what happens on the field. Imagine that.

With entertainment districts around ballparks, the window for spending money is open wider than ever. This brings up the eternal question: Are we having fun yet? Well, if we keep spending money, the fun ought to kick in pretty soon. Might have to file for bankruptcy if it doesn’t!

SunTrust Park may be state of the art, but it will not remain unique for long. Before the end of the 2018 season, Texas Live! will open in Arlington. This will be the Rangers’ version of the Battery. The location is particularly strategic given the proximity of AT&T Stadium, the home of the Cowboys. So when the 2020 season arrives, the Rangers’ new ballpark, Globe Life Field (not Globe Life Park, as the existing structure is known), like AT&T Stadium, will provide climate-controlled comfort plus all the bells and whistles technology can deliver.

So where do we go after 2020? Two decades into the 20th century, what will the Fan Experience include?

Oh, but are you experienced?
Have you ever been experienced?
Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful.

Depending on your point of view, we are either (1) blessed, or (2) cursed with rising expectations. I won’t presume to predict what the Fan Experience will be like in major league baseball in five, 10 or 20 years, but I don’t think austerity will be part of the program.

References and Resources

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Thank you so much for helping me remember what the fan experience used to be like. I also graduated high school in 1967. I saw Mays, Aaron, Drysdale, Koufax . . .

Dennis Bedard
Dennis Bedard

You could write a book about this and label it “Planned Spontaneity.” Or “Institutionalized Spontaneity.” Whatever the label, it is not good. In an era when nostalgia is now bottled and sold like used cars, at least looking back at yesteryear brings back memories that pale in comparison to today’s cheap rendition or re-creation of the so called “fan experience.” You can blame it on the same crowd that has transformed baseball stats from a rudimentary (and, yes, reliable) set of numbers that a 3d grader can understand to something that requires a PHD in astrophysics and algorithms from MIT… Read more »

Las Vegas Wildcards
Las Vegas Wildcards

The quality of fan experience is also strongly related to whether or not they are watching a contender. I do think younger fans are missing out on the fan atmosphere of the past, which had fewer distractions. And you cannot fully understand baseball without actually watching the sport. Some people don’t understand that, and it’s why a pitcher like Catfish Hunter is underrated by fans who didn’t see him in action.

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Thank you for sharing this data. Really increase in value the way you have describe everything in this article. Keep up the decent work.
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