Goodbye, cookie-cutter stadiums

St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland: these three cities recently lost, or are about to lose, their professional football teams. A common thread existed in the exits, and it wasn’t about markets—all three cities have long supported NFL and MLB teams and enjoy metropolitan populations of over two million. The core issue lied in their stadiums. For St. Louis, it was an inability to keep up, as the home of the then-St. Louis Rams, The Dome at America’s Center (formerly Edward Jones Dome), aged poorly. For San Diego and Oakland, however, it was a detrimental historic trend that is still causing damage today: multi-purpose stadiums.

These “cookie-cutter stadiums” were all the rave in the 1960s and ‘70s as they attempted to accommodate both football and baseball teams. The idea of using stadiums for both sports was nothing new—it was a common practice in the early 1900s when baseball and football were in their infancy—but by the middle of the century, professional sports had become a staple of American life with standardized fields and massive crowds. By then, the idea of easily accommodating two wildly popular spectator sports into one stadium was ambitious but made a lot of financial sense.

The idea didn’t work, nor did it stand the test of time. The NFL and MLB seasons experience little overlap (the end of baseball’s season coincides with the start of football, as does any playoff games that follow), meaning that stadiums could be converted between configurations when it comes time to transition. For the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, this means actually moving around the lower stands in early fall to better accommodate a rectangular football field.

Unfortunately, even for stadiums built like LEGO structures, the conversion is never perfect. The dirt areas of a baseball diamond appear on football fields early in the seasons as the MLB season winds down, making for awkward play. Often, stadiums were built in a circular shape to fit the diamond and rectangle-shaped fields of baseball and football, respectively, but a circle fits both shapes poorly. Fans felt removed from the experience, especially in baseball, which is why even the adjustable Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum was once called one of the worst stadiums in baseball. The trend also caught on, turning fine baseball stadiums like San Fransisco’s Candlestick Park, with a symmetrical outfield, into an asymmetrical monstrosity with pleasing views for no one.

And that was the primary issue: though the immense cost-saving act of building one stadium instead of two was noble, the result was a stadium inadequate for any sports. But once this was realized, the damage was done. Of the eleven multi-purpose stadiums built in the ‘60s and ‘70s, not a single one hosts an NFL team today, and only the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum still houses a baseball team, the Oakland Athletics.

The same could not have been said a decade ago. The San Fransisco 49ers played in their mutilated Candlestick Park until 2013, when nearby Santa Clara voters approved the construction of a new, football-only stadium. The Washington Nationals played in Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the first and arguably best-designed cookie-cutter stadium, after their move from Montreal in 2005. The Nationals quickly moved into a singe-purpose built baseball stadium in 2008, approved by voters and promised since they arrived.

But the narrative of cities making up for their past mistakes is not a consistent one. This was the mistake that occurred this past year in Oakland and San Diego with the Raiders and Chargers, respectively. Oakland proposed a $1.3 billion football-only stadium that included mixed-use development nearby. Voters, which included a fiercely loyal Raiders fan base, approved the plan, but it was too late. Team owner Mark Davis, long eying Las Vegas, filed paperwork to move the Raiders to the city and is currently awaiting a likely approval. For San Diego, the loss of the Chargers was a long, slow, painful process. After the Padres baseball team left in 2003, the Chargers spent years trying to leave Qualcomm Stadium, itself an aging cookie-cutter venue. Team owner Dean Spanos labored over trying get a deal made with the city for a new stadium. Things changed when San Diego put forth a plan for a new stadium in 2016 that was easily rejected by voters. Threatening a Los Angeles move for years, Spanos finally made it official just over two months later.

This is not to say that cookie-cutter stadiums are entirely at fault for recent team-shuffling and fan heartache. When teams like the San Fransisco 49ers or Washington Redskins wanted to move out of stadiums that never felt suited to their sport, voters granted their wish. And as mentioned above, the Oakland As still play in a multi-purpose stadium now serving only one purpose. But professional teams have moved away from multi-purpose stadiums, with not a single major cookie-cutter stadium being built since Seattle’s Kingdome in 1976.. It’s become clear now that Charles Deaton’s 1972 design of Truman Sports complex in Kansas City, featuring two purpose-built football and baseball stadiums side-by- side, was revolutionary and far ahead of its time. Despite being largely ignored, Deaton’s genius made his architecture firm Kivett and Myers (now named Populous) famous, and to this day they continue to design stadiums to replace the multi-purpose designs they dared to defy. So, goodbye, cookie-cutter stadiums. Nobody will really miss you.

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