As teams begin to recognize that declining attendance “has more to do with the fan experience than it does people no longer wanting to attend sporting events”, they’re beginning to explore alternative means of transporting those fans to the ballpark. The Los Angeles Metro signed a LOI to begin formal negotiations with Aerial Rapid Transit Technologies to build a suspended cable system that would carry passengers from Union Station to Dodger Stadium; and the Oakland Athletics introduced plans to build a similar system, to haul fans from downtown Oakland to the site of their proposed park at Howard Terminal. The Miami Dolphins are the latest organization to get in on the trend, announcing plans to install a gondola outside of Hard Rock Stadium. However, unlike the Dodgers and A’s, the Dolphins aren’t looking to address transportation to or from the venue – the team is installing it as “more of a novelty to be up above the crowd.”
Howie Long-Short: Dan Meis, the Founder of Meis Architects, told me that despite talk of “making it more convenient to reach the stadium”, the creative transportation solutions introduced thus far “are more about adding another premium experience than they are about moving a lot of people in a short time-frame. Gondola systems have limited throughput making it a real challenge to take loads of people to [or from] a stadium. Sure, every little bit helps, but you’re not going to transport 50,000 people as they exit a venue simultaneously with one.”
There is certainly hope that alternative transportation methodology will help to mitigate the load on busy existing infrastructure – “the experience of dealing with rush-hour traffic on a Friday night in LA is miserable” – but make no mistake, these projects are designed “to provide teams with the opportunity to create another VIP experience. [Most] modern venues are paid for by the VIP customer (think: suites, club seats) and those fans are willing to pay a lot to easily get to and from the building – because it is such an important part of the gameday experience.
Both the A’s ($123 million) and Dodgers’ ($125 million) gondola projects are privately funded, so there’s little for fans to lose, but Dan remains “skeptical about the efficacy of these creative solutions. Sure, teams could convince people to park further away if they had a gondola to ride, but true urban transportation is the best solution.” Dan’s right, but the regulatory hurdles needed to make improvements on highway infrastructure make that easier said, than done. “When you’re in a situation like the Dodgers and want to change the infrastructure, you need to get creative.”
If you’re on board with the idea that these projects are meant to be experiential and not a means of primary transportation, then you understand why it’s critical for the financiers have “a way of earning a return besides just taking some load off parking. Maybe it’s sponsored, maybe it becomes an experience that people will pay to use when there’s not a game; the O2 arena in London has had incredible success with their roof walk – they sell over 100k tickets per year, at $50. The attraction generates far more revenue than it cost to build it.”
While the A’s and Dodgers are spending 9 figures on their suspended cable systems, the Dolphins gondola project is estimated to cost just $3 million. It’s likely the Dolphins are underestimating the costs of installation, but it’s “distance that drives much of the differential in pricing. Geology plays into it too. The A’s and Dodgers are also building to withstand earthquakes in California – that can drive up the costs of a structure.”
Fan Marino: It would be reasonable to assume that alternative transportation systems are being introduced to combat congestion and the lack of parking in the city – we’re also seeing a trend of teams moving back from suburbia to downtown – but that’s not the case. Dan explained, “when I first started working on Staples Center in ’95 or ‘96, there were concerns about the amount of traffic that a downtown stadium would generate. I heard the same trepidations expressed when the Jets were talking about building a stadium on the west side of Manhattan. People forget that millions figure out how get into the city every day – either by mass transit or they park and disburse – so, it was always a misnomer that you couldn’t put stadiums in cities because there is nowhere for 80,000 fans to park.”
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