New Stadia: Baltimore
Less than a year after the White Sox dedicated their hideous new
Comiskey Park with a 16-0 loss to Detroit, Baltimore's Oriole
Park at Camden Yards rewrote the book on stadium design. For once
in baseball history, even the purists embraced the change.
The Orioles had occupied Memorial Stadium since moving from St.
Louis in 1954. Originally constructed for football, Memorial was
located in a residential neighborhood on the north side of
Baltimore. With only 5,000 parking spaces in the neighborhood and
the nearest freeway several miles away, big crowds meant even
bigger traffic jams at the end of the game.
Although the Orioles periodically talked about the need for a new
stadium, their pleas fell on deaf ears until March 29, 1984 --
the day when a caravan of moving trucks hauled Baltimore's
beloved Colts out of town in the middle of the night. With forty
years of football history en route to Indianapolis, Baltimore
Mayor William Donald Schaefer wouldn't risk the Orioles
Not that Indianapolis had any chance of attracting the Orioles,
whose likeliest destination was just forty miles away.
Washington, D.C. had a stadium, a growing suburban population,
and a strong constituency: Congress, which occasionally
threatened to investigate why its members had no local team to
Indeed, Baltimore feared that Washington might even have an owner
in place. After decades of local ownership, the Orioles had been
sold in 1979 to Washington superlawyer Edward Bennett Williams.
Although Williams disavowed any interest in moving the team,
Schaefer had to be worried. After all, Robert Irsay moved the
Colts without warning -- how far could Baltimore trust a slick
Schaefer sought advice from Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum (HOK), the
nation's leading sports architecture firm. In August 1986,
HOK recommended construction of a huge new multipurpose stadium,
surrounded by parking lots, at Camden Yards.
That November Mayor Schaefer was elected Governor of Maryland.
Soon after he took office, the state legislature established a
new instant lottery and dedicated its proceeds to construction of
new sports stadia. The Maryland Sports Authority would first
build a new, baseball-only park at Camden Yards, then seek to
lure a replacement NFL franchise with promises of a new football
Many legislators who had opposed the stadium were even angrier
about the financing. The lottery drew most of its money from the
poor, making it a spectacularly inappropriate vehicle for
subsidizing a new stadium. Moreover, before earmarking lottery
money for the stadium, Maryland had rejected other attempts to
dedicate proceeds from the lottery for education or other public
At least the legislature had chosen the right location. Camden
Yards was a short walk south of downtown Baltimore, close to both
highways and mass transit. The site had been the center of the B
& O Railroad's local operations for more than a century.
It was even intimately tied to Baltimore's baseball
tradition: Babe Ruth was born a few blocks away, and his father
ran a saloon in what would become center field. Now all the
Orioles needed was a ballpark worthy site.
Since 1960, two basic stadium designs had evolved: isolated
islands in an ocean of parking (Anaheim, Kansas City,
Philadelphia, San Francisco), and downtown domes which
overwhelmed the game (Minnesota, Seattle, Toronto, Houston). The
Orioles demanded something different -- a design as harmonious
with its urban setting as the modern need for skyboxes and
premium seats would allow. To be sure its wishes would be
respected, the club shrewdly added a clause to its lease for the
new park which gave the Orioles the right to approve all aspects
of its design.
The Orioles wasted no time putting this power to use. Backed by
new owner Eli Jacobs, who bought the Orioles after Edward Bennett
Williams' death in 1988, club president Larry Lucchino and
consultant Janet Marie Smith, with help from ballpark design
consultant John Pastier, began redrafting HOK's stadium
Some of Camden Yards' distinctive features are immediately
apparent. The former B & O Railroad warehouse behind the
right-field wall -- the longest building on the East Coast -- was
preserved and converted into office space, a gift shop and
restaurants. Every aisle seat is adorned with a replica of the
logo used by the 1890s Orioles. The playing field lies 16 feet
below street level, allowing the Orioles to reduce the apparent
height of the park so it doesn't dominate the neighborhood.
The skyline of downtown Baltimore is framed behind the
center-field fence. When the Orioles are playing, a pedestrian
walkway between the right-field stands and the warehouse serves
as a combination food court and souvenir stand.
But Camden Yards' distinctiveness runs much deeper -- all the
way to its frame. Overruling their architects, the Orioles
demanded a structural steel frame, not the precast concrete which
had become standard. The bricks -- thirty different kinds -- were
laid in place, not prefabricated for on-site assembly. Such
attention to detail, and the stark contrast with the likes of New
Comiskey, helped Camden Yards become the only ballpark ever to
win a major design award from the American Institute of
Camden Yards is an esthetic success -- but is it also a financial
success? That depends on your perspective.
For the State of Maryland, which built and paid for the facility,
Camden Yards was a relative bargain. $99 million of its $205
million cost went to acquire the land and prepare the site. The
stadium itself, originally budgeted for $78.4 million, cost
$106.5 million after cost overruns and the Orioles' design
changes. Camden Yards cost barely 1/3 as much as SkyDome, and
just $38 million more than New Comiskey, which had been built at
a much cheaper location with no apparent concern for
For the Orioles, of course, the new park was a license to print
money. Camden Yards immediately became one of Baltimore's
biggest tourist attractions. Since moving to Camden Yards, the
Orioles have never finished lower than second in AL attendance,
leading the league for five years in a row from 1994 through
1998. Their 72 luxury boxes command premium prices.
A 1997study found that the move from Memorial Stadium to Camden
Yards brought the Orioles $25.5 million/year in added revenues,
while rent and related expenses rose only $2.4 million. (The
Maryland Stadium Authority deliberately charged the Orioles a
sub-market rent to give the club more money to spend on players,
and allowed the club to keep nearly all the revenue generated by
premium seats, luxury boxes and in-stadium advertising.) Without
investing a dime of their own to build Camden Yards, the Orioles
received an annual windfall of more than $23 million.
Teams in other cities took notice. In 1995, Bud Selig declared
that Camden Yards "changed stadium financing. Those clubs
have revenue sources that people didn't have before. There
are a million of them. Luxury boxes, concessions, a whole series
of things, club seating. There are stores within the park,
restaurants within it. It started with Camden Yards and went to
Cleveland, Texas, Colorado. If you want your club to be
competitive, you have to have it.''
Unsurprisingly, Selig made this comment at a time when he was
lobbying the government of Wisconsin to build him a new stadium.
"We'll build another Camden Yards" became the
rallying cry of stadium advocates across the country as they
promised that their new park would "revitalize our downtown
and pay for itself by attracting out-of-towners."
But even Camden Yards hasn't generated such economic
benefits. In 1997, Johns Hopkins economists Bruce W. Hamilton and
Peter Kahn assessed the economic impact of Camden Yards in
Chapter 8 of Sports, Jobs & Taxes (see sidebar). Their
"Taking account of all of the measurable benefits of the
Camden Yards investment (that is, job creation and tax imports),
we estimate that baseball at Camden Yards generates approximately
$3 million in annual economic benefits to the Maryland economy,
at an annual cost to the taxpayers of Maryland of approximately
Even Camden Yards doesn't come close to "paying for
Hamilton and Kahn spend 20 pages elaborating on this conclusion.
On the expense side, they calculate that depreciation and
interest cost the Maryland Stadium Authority about $14 million
per year. The other major expense, maintaining Camden Yards, is
covered by the Orioles' rent.
On the revenue side, the economists accept Oriole estimates that
more than 70% of the increased attendance has come from out of
state. However, they note that hotel occupancy rates did not rise
after Camden Yards opened, which suggests that most of these
out-of-towners went straight home without spending much more in
Hamilton and Kahn conclude that more than half of the $3 million
in extra revenue comes from admission and concession taxes at
Camden Yards itself. Most of the remainder is attributable to
additional spending in the surrounding area, with less than
$500,000 derived from the creation of new jobs. All told, each
dollar of extra revenue from the ballpark costs Maryland
taxpayers almost $5 -- making Camden Yards one of the few
investments worse than the lottery which financed it.
Baltimore's experience shows that regardless of what owners
and city officials say, investing $200 million of public funds in
even the best-designed ballpark is virtually impossible to
justify on economic grounds.
Of course, that doesn't end the debate. Camden Yards' $11
million annual subsidy costs each household in Greater Baltimore
less than $15. For hard-core Oriole fans, that's a small
price to pay for turning the Orioles from a medium-revenue to a
high-revenue team. (Most would probably pay even more to keep the
Angelos family from wasting their money on aging mediocrities.)
But there aren't enough hard-core fans to persuade a
legislature to appropriate the funds or to win a referendum, so
stadium proponents need the support of casual fans and civic
These people don't live and die with the local team, but they
recognize that on one level, the presence of the Orioles confers
"major league" status on Baltimore. From this
perspective a baseball club is a community asset, like a zoo or
library, which even those who don't go to ballgames can
To win their support, ballpark backers need to convince them that
the team will move unless a new stadium is built.
That's why in city after city, the new-stadium dance has
begun with the owner of the local club solemnly announcing that
the team simply cannot survive without a new park. It's also
why MLB keeps the number of franchises slightly below the number
of interested cities: no one will listen to the owner's
laments unless he can credibly threaten that if his hometown
won't meet his demands, Washington or Charlotte will.
The Orioles could make such a threat. Can the Red Sox?
SIDEBAR: The Economists' Take on Stadium Finance
Team owners and others promoting new stadia often commission
studies which purport to show how much the entire community will
benefit from a new ballpark. Independent economists are rarely
If you want to learn how to analyze the claims of stadium
proponents, these books are invaluable:
Mark S. Rosentraub,
Major League Losers: The Real Cost of Sports and Who's Paying
for It (Basic Books, revised paperback ed. 1999, ISBN
Roger G. Noll and Andrew Zimbalist, eds.,
Sports, Jobs, and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and
Stadiums (Brookings Institution Press, 1997, ISBN
Copyright © 2000 Doug Pappas. All rights
Originally published in the May 2000 issue of Boston
Go on to the next installment of this
Back to Doug's Boston Baseball
to Doug's Business of Baseball menu
roadsidephotos.sabr.org main menu