Don Gillmor’s latest book, To The River: Losing My Brother, won the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.
Philip Roth’s modestly titled 1973 book The Great American Novel featured a fictional baseball league – the Patriot League – that was a poor cousin to the American and National leagues. The novel follows the travails of the hapless Ruppert Mundys, baseball’s first homeless team; every game is a road game for them.
Now that the federal government has quashed the idea of cross-border baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays have become the Ruppert Mundys. They will play out of an American stadium, without home fans. Though no one has home fans these days.
There was talk of whether the Jays would be playing out of a major-league or minor-league venue, but all they really need is a field. The stadium could be virtual. Meanwhile, Toronto’s Rogers Centre, where the Blue Jays usually play, will be even emptier than usual.
In the past few years, there has been speculation that Rogers Centre (née SkyDome) would either be renovated or razed. It is the seventh-oldest stadium in major-league baseball, once the future of stadia, now a relic after 31 years. Last year the Blue Jays’ average attendance was 21,607, less than half its capacity, and attendance in major-league baseball dropped by roughly a million last year, the seventh consecutive year of declines.
There are several reasons listed for this decline, among them that the game is too long, too dull and too many teams suck. Older fans are dying off and millennials aren’t flocking to the games. And now a pandemic and an economic crisis that has crippled disposable income.
When the SkyDome opened in 1989, it looked like the future: big, technologically advanced (that retractable roof! the Jumbotron, the world’s biggest screen!), a monument. For the first six years of operation, it was buoyed by novelty and winning teams, and averaged more than 48,000 fans a game.
But a new future arrived in the form of Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which was open-air, less hermetic, more intimate and integrated into the urban landscape. This became the model for baseball, and the SkyDome quietly evolved into a charmless hulk sitting on the downtown landscape like an alien spaceship.
It isn’t the golden age of stadiums. Olympic stadiums sit languishing, football crowds are diminishing, few rock bands can fill stadiums. And this was before the pandemic. Our sense of the collective has now altered dramatically, perhaps permanently. We have reached peak stadium.
The idea of the stadium began in Greece in the eighth century BC, and was refined by the Romans, back when it was Lions vs. Christians, as opposed to Lions vs. Packers. But between 394 AD, the year the Olympics were rejected as a pagan pastime by Emperor Theodosius, and the mid-19th century when baseball stadiums began to pop up in the U.S., few stadiums were built anywhere in the world.
For 15 centuries, we were too busy fighting the plague(s), and we had other interests (religious wars, survival, feudal bondage). Many coliseums that had been built were turned into markets or torn down for their building materials. The idea of stadiums lay dormant, waiting for baseball to be invented (1846) and the Olympics to be revived (1896).
The peak year for baseball attendance was 2007. And while attendance has been going steadily down, baseball revenues continue to go up (more than 70 per cent in the past decade), almost all of it from media rights. Baseball is thriving on TV and on people’s phones, less so as a live event. It is time to reimagine the idea of the stadium.
The Olympics generate new stadiums every four years, but cities are less keen on playing host to the Games now (11 cities bid for the 2004 Games, five for 2020 and two for 2022). The Olympics are expensive and often leave facilities that are underused or abandoned entirely. Montreal’s Olympic Stadium remains the gold standard for stranded Olympic assets; budgeted at $134-million in 1976, it finally cost more than $1-billion, a debt that took 30 years to pay off. For much of its life it has been a crumbling mausoleum.
It isn’t the only stadium that was unable to find a viable life. Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium sits empty, as does Beijing’s famed Bird’s Nest Stadium (now known as the Empty Nest), and all of the Sochi facilities. The problem isn’t just how best to repurpose the stadiums after the Olympics. Increasingly, the problem is filling them even during the Olympics.
There were thousands of empty seats at Rio, Beijing and Sochi. Few Olympic events, other than the opening and closing ceremonies, can fill a stadium. Few rock bands can sell out a stadium, and many of them are aging bands nearing their final (and this time, I mean actual, seriously, final) tour.
Football doesn’t offer any salvation. The CFL draws an average of 23,718 and has been declining for eight years. Toronto’s Argonauts left the Rogers Centre in 2016 for the more modest BMO Field. It can be uplifting to be among 20,000 fellow fans in a 20,000-seat venue. It can be depressing to watch with those same fans in a 50,000-seat venue.
A former CFL player said playing in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium in the 1980s felt like playing in front of the maintenance staff. The Montreal Alouettes have since moved to Percival Molson Memorial Stadium (capacity 23,420). In the United States, meanwhile, last year’s NFL football attendance was the lowest since 2004.
Which leaves the other football. North American soccer teams can’t fill large stadiums, but have found success in smaller venues. Major League Soccer averages about 21,000 fans a game, with the average stadium holding 22,863. In England, the Premier League averages more than 38,000 fans a game, with the average stadium capacity at 38,519. The facilities match the market.
By contrast, the average attendance for major-league baseball games in 2019 was 28,317 while the average baseball stadium holds 43,103. There is excess capacity in the system. Capacity is rooted in optimism; we will start winning and they will come. But right now, Rogers Centre, for example, is out of step with both the market and 21st century urbanism.
What is the future for stadiums? There is a hope technology is the answer, a familiar and unreliable saviour. San Francisco’s Levi’s Stadium, which opened in 2014, is wired so that you can order food to your seat, gauge the length of the bathroom lineup on your phone, download a movie in seconds. Bill Johnson of HOK, an architecture firm that specializes in stadiums, says it is now easy to engage with sport in our own way, in our own time, with impressive home technology, and stadiums have to compete with that: “There’s continuing pressure on the design side to create venues that are more flexible, more amazing, and can one-up what you get at home.”
What we can’t get at home is the feeling you have when you are in a crowd, all (or most) yearning for the same outcome, that collectivity. This is one of the things we have lost since COVID-19 struck – the crowd, with all its frustrations and joys and humanity. They take the last available patio table and block the sidewalk, they can be thoughtless and messy and cheer for the wrong team – and we miss them.
In her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich says that for 10,000 years, humans have gathered to celebrate. “The capacity for collective joy is encoded in us. … We can live without it, as most of us do, but only at the risk of succumbing to the solitary nightmare of depression.”
Ms. Ehrenreich notes that after Christian and Muslim authorities banned collective festivals centuries ago, depression rates quadrupled. We are seeing the same thing now, with many countries reporting increased rates of anxiety and depression. We need the collective joy that sports, music and festivals can give us. We may not always like one another, but we need each other.
Trying to make the stadium experience more technologically advanced may not be the answer. Technology tends to be isolating, and we can get technology at home, or really anywhere, these days. The future of stadiums may be to integrate them into the urban landscape in a way that engages not just those who are inside, but the immediate environment. To build them on a scale that brings us together rather than separates us, 10,341 fans (the fewest ever at a Jays game) sprinkled among 50,000 seats.
The pandemic is an opportunity to re-examine what our future collectivity will look like. It may be 37 million people in their basements fast-forwarding to the seventh inning with the sound off while eating Doritos in their underwear and listening to the Barenaked Ladies. Or perhaps we’ll venture out to a gracious 32,000-seat stadium that embraces the city. The post-COVID-19 stadium could be smaller, less hermetic, more adaptable and transparent. And who knows: with the right facility, maybe we’ll develop that warm sense of collective failure that has bound Toronto Maple Leafs fans for two generations.
Renovating Rogers Centre will give us some happy new gimmicks, but it avoids the central issues. Though tearing it down and building a new facility will be expensive, and Rogers is unlikely to find the same government support the original SkyDome had. “The notion that you’re going to get a lot of big cheques or any cheques necessarily written by government to build a new stadium is not likely to happen,” Toronto Mayor John Tory has said. “Therefore they have to come up with a way to pay for it.”
This is a sentiment that is being echoed across North America. The economics presented by team owners – that financing a stadium is a profitable venture for governments – has been largely debunked.
Stanford University economist Roger Noll, a former senior economist for The President’s Council of Advisors, said stadiums don’t generate significant local economic growth and the tax revenues they generate don’t cover the city’s financial contribution.
Stadium revenue is a zero-sum game; money spent on Jays tickets and at concession stands is money that would have been spent elsewhere in the city. And other developments on the site – housing, retail, commercial – could bring in more revenue and wouldn’t involve government subsidy.
Las Vegas recently contributed US$750-million toward a stadium to attract the NFL’s Raiders. It should take note that Oakland, the Raiders’ previous home, is still paying off up to US$85-million in debt for their now obsolete stadium. The cachet of having a pro sports team remains a draw, but it is getting more difficult for owners to convince insecure second-tier cities that their lives will be transformed by a handful of itinerant mercenaries – though the alchemy that turns them into a team and us into their staunchest supporters is part of what makes sport unique.
The Rogers Centre’s dismal history certainly isn’t a selling point for governments. Initially budgeted at $150-million, it cost at least $570-million to build, much of it taxpayers’ money. Rogers bought it in 2005 for about $25-million, roughly 4 per cent of its original construction cost. In a city of rising real estate prices, it managed to plummet. A 1990 government report said the SkyDome would need to be booked 600 days a year to be profitable.
One of the reasons for the size of stadiums is they are built on a false economy. If the taxpayer is paying for much of it, and the owner reaps most of the rewards, why not go big? If owners had to run it as a private enterprise, they might approach stadiums from a different perspective. But if public money is used in any way (tax breaks, subsidies, donated land), then the stadium should benefit the entire public.
The return of Major League Baseball in Toronto – even if that’s not until 2021 – will be a welcome event. It is the most democratic sport and the most affordable. No other sport allows us to see ourselves the same way, outdoors, in those numbers. That first postpandemic game (win or lose) when fans are allowed in will bring joy to the city.
But Rogers Centre no longer brings joy. The world is littered with stadiums that were designed for a specific moment. But that moment has passed; it’s time to embrace the future, again.
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