Early in Joe Spear’s career as a sports architect, designing a stadium wasn’t nearly so complex.
“When I started this specialization 34 years ago, it used to be enough to make sure you had enough concession stands, enough restrooms and great sight lines,” said Spear, who led the design of the Braves’ new SunTrust Park for Kansas City-based architecture firm Populous. “But baseball is very good at adapting to what their customers want.”
One thing an increasing number of customers want: social gathering spaces within the stadium where games can be watched — or sometimes not watched — in a group setting very different from traditional seats in the stands.
SunTrust Park has many such spaces, including the three-level Chop House restaurant behind right field, the Xfinity Rooftop high above right field, the Hank Aaron Terrace in left field, the Home Depot Clubhouse beyond left-center field and the State Farm Deck below the main video board.
In those areas and others, fans can mingle, dine and drink with views of the field, standing or sitting. Some of the areas are open to all ticketed fans, and some are sold to groups, although open if not booked.
Spear, whose firm designed 19 of the 30 current MLB stadiums, said the trend toward such gathering or hospitality spaces in stadiums has been gradual. He believes SunTrust Park has more such spaces than any other stadium, although he noted that existing stadiums are renovating to add more each offseason.
“Teams want to break stadiums up into neighborhoods,” Spear said.
For example, the New York Yankees renovated eight-year-old Yankee Stadium this past offseason to add areas such as a bullpen terrace and a batter’s eye deck. In the process, the stadium’s seating capacity was reduced by about 2,000 seats.
While the spaces tend to appeal to millennial fans, Derek Schiller, the Braves’ president of business, said the market is broader than that.
“There are more and more people who want to experience the game in a unique way,” he said.
There also are many fans who eschew such spaces and still want to focus on the game from traditional seats, which remain the overwhelming bulk of SunTrust Park’s seating inventory, without excessive distraction.
Part of the business strategy is to replace seats in less desirable locations, such as the outfield and the upper deck, with creative spaces that drive revenue there.
“Location is probably less of a prerequisite for unique group hospitality spaces than is the social function of that space,” Schiller said. “You could look at a space in left field or right field, whatever, and if you were just to evaluate that seat without a social or hospitality space, you might say that is a less desirable seat. But if you include some unique amenities (and) if the space itself has got some design elements, it certainly creates a more inviting area.”
At the new Braves stadium, the Xfinity Rooftop, which offers views of both The Battery Atlanta and the field, includes an enclosed indoor lounge, an outdoor patio and cabanas.
And the Below the Chop space is located at ground level along the warning track in right field, mere inches from the field, offering views through vinyl-coated chain-link fencing cut into the right-field wall for groups of 50 to 90 people.
“You can have a conversation with the right fielder. He’s going to be right there,” Spear said. “You can hassle him if you want or cheer him if you want.”
In all, such group spaces account for up to several thousand seats in SunTrust Park.
In addition, many of the stadium’s traditional seats also are attached to areas where fans can socialize.
About 4,000 “premium” seats, which range from $92 to $500 per game, have access to posh indoor private clubs with up-scale dining: the 5,719-square-foot SunTrust Club, 15,722-square-foot Delta Sky360 Club and 15,513-square-foot Infiniti Club.
At the other end of the pricing scale, seats in the Coca-Cola Corner in the left-field upper level, which cost $11 to $17, have access to an outdoor concessions area on an artificial-turf terrace.
Spear, a Populous founder whose many MLB stadium projects include Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, AT&T Park in San Francisco and Coors Field in Denver, has found teams increasingly interested through the years in diversifying their inventory of seats.
When designing San Diego’s Petco Park, which opened in 2004, he got this mandate from the Padres regarding seats: “We don’t want 10,000 of anything.”
The trend toward gathering spaces in stadiums applies to all of the major pro sports, but is particularly pronounced in baseball, Schiller believes, because of the nature of the game.
“The game is paced in such a way that it is very social to begin with,” he said. “It is easy to have conversations next to one another while the game is going on, to meet people. The whole experiential part of baseball lends itself to these types of spaces.”
Schiller said the trend supports what long has been a key component of Braves’ attendance: group sales.
“The Braves traditionally have done very well in group tickets, everything from church outings to neighborhood get-togethers to business outings,” he said. “We now believe, based on our experience and what we are seeing in the industry, that to be an even more important element.”
In early design meetings about the new stadium, Braves officials noted the Chop House’s popularity at Turner Field and asked for it to be expanded, recalled Spear, Populous’ design principal in charge of the SunTrust Park project.
The result is the three-level, 10,000-square-foot Coors Light Chop House, which offers two decks and drink rails with “cup chillers” to keep fans’ beers cold.
Whether a traditional seat or a social spot, Spear speculated it will take some time for fans to find their preferred vantage point at the Braves’ new home.
“The Braves want people to explore,” he said. “I told them at one of the early design sessions, it’ll take most of your fans a whole season to get around and see everything.”
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