Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why I don't like the renovations planned at Progressive Field

Recently the Cleveland Indians announced plans for renovations at Progressive Field which will significantly alter the look of the outfield sections of the park. Being a lifelong Tribe fan and a regular visitor to the ballpark, I obviously have an opinion on them, and, at least at this point, they're largely negative. And before you go on about "bigger problems in the world" and other related rants, just stop. I KNOW this isn't the world's single-most important problem. Heck, it isn't even my largest issue, but it's something I wanted to comment on as a fan of both the team and the ballpark.

Now, you should know that I absolutely love sports architecture. If I hadn't have gotten interested in music and education while I was in high school, I would've gone into architecture. I love seeing different stadiums and arenas and will try and visit the various ones when I go to different cities. I am particularly interested in the architecture of baseball parks because they can vary so much simply because unlike the rectangular playing surfaces of sports like basketball, football, hockey, and soccer, baseball fields can vary considerably from one park to another. Major League Baseball has minimum field dimensions, but that's it. A ball that is a deep flyout in one park is a home run in another. In my ultimate dream world, I'd attend a game at every Major League ballpark. So far, I've attended six (including Progressive Field), of which three are no longer used (two of those have been torn down). I've been to games at old Cleveland Stadium (torn down 1996), RFK Stadium in Washington, DC (no longer used for baseball), US Cellular Field and Wrigley Field in Chicago, and Cinergy Field in Cincinnati (torn down 2003). I have been outside of several other parks in addition to those, but haven't been inside for games.

In short, I am not very thrilled with the changes I am seeing, mostly from the aesthetic side. I really feel like they take away from the park's architectural aesthetic rather than enhance it like the other changes that have been made over the years. Progressive Field was a carefully designed park so it would fit in with downtown and give Cleveland a truly unique ballpark. The exposed steel is because of Cleveland's history in the steel industry; the vertical light towers mimic the smokestacks of the nearby factories. While Camden Yards in Baltimore ushered in a new era of ballpark design, Jacobs Field was the first ballpark in the retro-modern design (Camden Yards is what is known as retro-classical). Besides that I'm fairly neutral on the renovations. From a fan's standpoint, it seems I'm in some kind of minority now as someone who goes to a game and actually sits in my seat for most of the game. While socializing is always fun, I do so as I'm watching the game in my seat, not sitting at a table, especially a table out in the right field upper deck.

Current (2014) view of right field, taken September 23, 2014
Rendering from roughly the same angle. Note the absence of structures behind the right field seats, especially the bridge to the parking deck. The bridge is part of the aesthetic, even though I can't say I've ever used it. I also don't like how the mezzanine level (middle deck) is trimmed back considerably. In the design of the park, the mezzanine level matches the club seats in the shape of the section. Now you lose that, along with a whole lot of seats. The Indians said the seats lost in the upper deck could be uncovered if needed (unlikely that would happen even if needed), but if you remove parts of the deck, kind of hard to "add extra seats" back.
Renovation rendering of the right field mezzanine and upper deck. The layers look awful to me. Bulky and in complete contrast with the rest of the park (especially since all the seats are hunter green). The move of the bullpens creates an awkward seating section in the right field lower deck over where the visitors' bullpen currently is since the lower deck behind tight field is a few feet lower than the lower deck around the foul pole (see top picture for reference). The setup is quite visible here. It's probably the main reason the original architects decided to put the bullpen where they did to account for that change in height. You can see the full view of the drastically reduced mezzanine level too.

Closeup of the new bullpen setup, which will move both bullpens to right center and face them perpendicular to their current layout. The rationale was to bring fans "closer" to the players since the bullpens will be right at seat level. But really, players are conditioned to ignore fans and it's not like the bullpens now are significantly far away. About the only thing I actually like about this is the addition of a large Ohio flag with the American flag (the other flag on the right is the flag for the city of Cleveland). 

My biggest disappointment is what appears to be the imminent destruction of the Bob Feller Plaza beyond right center field along E. 9th St. When Progressive Field was being built, fans could buy a personalized brick (it seems to be more of a paving tile than a brick), and my family bought one for my late great-grandpa Wetzel, who was a huge Tribe fan his entire life and had passed away at age 88 just two years before the park opened. I do occasionally make a point to walk by it when I'm in that area. I was 10 when my great-grandpa passed away, so I remember him and seeing his name there always makes me smile. I would think that fans who paid the money for those expected them to be there for a long time and 20 years isn't a long time. I know I certainly expected them to always be there. From what I've read, they will now be moved to Gate A, which is located across from Quicken Loans Arena. I'm glad they'll be saved, but it appears that decision was made after the Indians got negative feedback from fans. Why didn't anyone foresee that?

What's somewhat comical to me are the comments from the Indians about giving "more dramatic" views of the skyline by removing the concession areas in right center field and apparently, the bridge connecting the parking garage to the right field stands. Uh, the taller buildings are obviously QUITE visible from there and the only additional views fans will get are of the the very small buildings across E. 9th from the field and the base of the large parking deck at Prospect and E. 9th. The more "dramatic" views are beyond left field, where the city's three tallest buildings are located. I have never looked out in right center field and thought "man, I wish I could see the bottoms of those buildings more!"

I was also disappointed with comments about ticket pricing: "The Indians are not planning any changes to their ticket price structure, but instead sought to, in Shapiro's words, "add value" to the current cost of a ticket." Huh? More value? What exactly does that mean? Because there will be some new tables to "socialize" at in right field or a two-story bar that I'll feel like I'm getting better value for my ticket? The new wifi, the entertainment (the game itself and other stuff), the up-to-date scoreboards, and the clean look of the park is enough value. None of these upgrades makes me feel like I'm getting more for my ticket since I don't hang out in the park's social areas or bars. No, the reason I don't come to more games is EXCLUSIVELY because of cost. There is no other reason, even the team's performance (though I will say them playing better is obviously a great motivator). I always check for tickets and will get anything below $20 that isn't stuck in the nosebleeds or out in the bleachers. I enjoy going to games, but I simply can't afford to go to a whole bunch of them.

What do I think the Indians need to do to improve attendance? It's simple: cut the cost for people to attend. I get that will eat into the profits, but if attendance is below 19,000 and you cut prices but attendance increases, is it really that much of a loss? One of the reasons minor league baseball is doing so well is because of cost. The Akron Rubber Ducks, the Indians AA affiliate, cut ticket costs this season and attendance is way up. Instead of a convoluted tier of ticket prices, for every game all reserved seats are $9, general admission are $5, and there is some kind of promotion every night. Yes, they did add "social areas" but those require different tickets ($17) and have less comfortable seats. There's even tons of free parking available adjacent to the park. Granted, Canal Park only seats about 8,000 people, but still, attendance is up. The Ducks did OK in the standings, but people come because they have an enjoyable time and it's affordable. A family of four can go to a game for under $50, including some concessions. Try bringing a family of four to a Major League game without spending $100 when you include tickets, concessions, and parking. Outside of the rare $10 bleacher seat specials, most tickets are at least $20. Removing close to 7,000 seats from what isn't exactly a huge ballpark means ticket prices will remain as is and could potentially even go up since all the seats being removed are the less expensive seats. I get why they want seats removed, but still, I don't like seeing massive reductions in seating like this because it further limits options and opportunities to attend. I felt the same way about the reductions at FirstEnergy Stadium earlier this year.

For some of these poorly attended weekday games, have a $10 Upper Deck seat special. See how many people come. The problem now is that the lowest-priced seats are the last ones sold, so unless there's a large crowd, the cheapest seats aren't even made available, so that likely discourages a lot of your budget-conscious and family fans from coming, unless they use things like StubHub to find better deals.

Of all the concessions, lower the cost of soft drinks too. Charging $6 or $7, even for a souvenir cup, is obscene. The fact that refills at Progressive Field require $2 more is even worse. Pop is SO cheap to make. Charging half that will still result in a large profit. Heck, even with the souvenir cup being $5 with unlimited refills, the reality is most people won't get a refill or will only get one, so the large profit is still there. The Indians said they lowered the cost of concessions for this season and they did, but it wasn't anything significant. Maybe a dollar less here or there. It's not like they suddenly became affordable. Oh, and stop punishing fans who make a last-minute decision to come to a game. It shouldn't cost MORE if I decide to but a ticket at the gate. All the ridiculous "convenience fees" attached to online sales negate any alleged "savings" with buying early anyway. Seriously, if it wasn't for StubHub, I probably wouldn't ever go to games I wasn't singing at. With StubHub, I'm able to find tickets around $10 each for the first row of the upper deck behind home plate. I even found a lower deck seat several rows behind the Indians dugout earlier this season for less than $18. Normally those tickets are $44 with the row in front of where I was sitting priced at $72.

When I went to Wrigley Field in July, I found that the Cubs have a contract with a nearby parking lot to allow fans to park there for free. FOR FREE! IN CHICAGO! They then have a FREE shuttle to and from Wrigley. That alone saved me $10 I would normally spend in Cleveland on parking, and the close to $20 I likely would've spent in Chicago on parking. Across town at US Cellular Field, many restaurants offer free parking and free shuttles to White Sox games. The place we ate at even had free valet parking and it wasn't contingent on you eating there either (though we did). Stuff like that (particularly the Cubs free lot) tells me as a fan that they value ALL of us, not just the season ticket holders, not just the suite holders. They are doing what they can to encourage fans to come and to promote local businesses.

Perhaps the Tribe could have an arrangement with Cleveland State or some of the lots by FirstEnergy Stadium. That in itself would be a huge gesture. As a fan, it seems like anything the Indians do as a convenience involves some kind of extra charge. As of now, the Indians have a "Tribe Park and Ride" that goes to four nearby suburbs and costs $5. I think that's a good thing (cheaper than driving and parking), but is greatly limited in both capacity and availability (only for certain games...not an everyday thing). It also limits mobility of fans since you can't leave early if you want/need to. For fans like me, the four suburbs they go to would require just as long a drive as going downtown, so there's very little incentive to save $5 by parking there. The Cubs shuttle is just done with school buses (which are air conditioned) and during the game they still ran them as needed, so you weren't stuck at Wrigley if you wanted or needed to leave early.

During the All-Star Voting, the Indians' Corey Kluber was one of the last ones we could vote for, so the Indians teamed up with the Colorado Rockies to cross-promote their players (Justin Morneau for the Rockies). I voted online for both of them and a few days later I got an email from the Rockies thanking me for the vote and offering me a 33% discount to buy tickets. Did I get any email from the Indians? Nope. If I had, I would've most definitely used it. If I lived closer to Denver, I probably would've used the discount. I wonder how many more people would've been motivated to come to an Indians game if they had gotten an email like that?

For a few years in the early part of the 2010s, I was part of the Tribe Fan Club. Each year I paid a $20 fee and I got a membership card and a bunch of benefits. One year I got two free tickets to watch batting practice from the field, and the next year I got two free tickets to tour the ballpark. Additionally, both seasons I could pick a game and I got two free tickets in the lower deck. That alone made the club worth it and was the reason I did it, but added with the other perks it was a huge value. I think in 2012, though, they stopped doing the free game tickets, so I stopped doing the club since it once again offered a free tour of the ballpark (I didn't need to do it again one year later) but very little besides a 10% discount at the team shop. Looking at the website now, it looks like it's not even offered anymore.

I get that I'm not a big-money person who's going to bring tons of money into the park when I visit, but for once, I just wish that professional sports wouldn't just cater to the "haves" in the world. Yes, they need to make money, so I'm hardly calling for free admission and free concessions, but let's keep it reasonable. The fact that the Indians are consistently doing well in the TV ratings department means there is significant local interest in the team, but that isn't translating into more people coming. I don't think it's because they don't have a designated "social area" at the park or because the concourse is too dark (try walking the ancient concourses at Wrigley!), it's because of cost and the feeling that they can't get too attached to the players because they'll end up traded or otherwise leaving in a few years. Please spare me the Major League averages too. Those are completely irrelevant since that average includes your high-priced areas like New York and Los Angeles. What matters is how the prices work for THIS market. It frustrates me to no end when the people complaining the most about attendance are the journalists who are PAID to be at the games, just like an executive talking about "value" in a ticket. When was the last time an Indians executive paid for a ticket?

I love the Tribe. Of the major sports franchises in Cleveland, they are easily my favorite, not only because I love baseball, but because they are the only one I have real access to (and are so far the only one to have me sing the National Anthem!). I go to several Indians games per year. While I now work for the Browns, I still have never been to a game as a fan (have only been to two college games ever at FirstEnergy Stadium). My last Cavs game was in 2011 and before that, the only Cavs games I had been to were two road games in Salt Lake City when I lived in Idaho for school and a game way back in 1998 that my dad got company tickets for. I also love Progressive Field and feel like many of these "upgrades" are butchering the carefully planned aesthetics of the park for short-term and shortsighted changes that do nothing to enhance my experience at Indians games. In essence, we'll now have the world's largest minor-league baseball park. Right now, it just seems like the Indians aren't too keen on really understanding their market and are far more concerned with making a buck here or there than making fans feel like they're valued, regardless of whether they're in the "cheap seats" or the suites. It frustrates me to watch this happen and I honestly left my last visit to Progressive Field more frustrated than ever, and it had nothing to do with the score of the game. I was just another, unimportant "fan" sitting it the upper deck who was of no consequence. The only thing anyone in that park cared about was what I spent money on.

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