Last week, the Arizona Diamondbacks received permission to look for a new stadium site and then relocate as soon as 2022, even though their original deal required them to stay in Chase Field until 2027. Bob Nightengale then reported that the team is expected to abandon its current home in downtown Phoenix and instead move to Scottsdale, which is about half an hour east. If this move does take place, it would mark the second instance in the last several years where a team has moved out of a downtown stadium and into the suburbs, and the third where a team has decided its 90s-era stadium was no longer sufficient. The Braves moved into the Atlanta suburbs at the beginning of the 2017 season, and the Rangers recently agreed to build a new stadium and remain in Arlington, Texas. (I’m unclear on whether Arlington is officially a suburb, but it clearly is not downtown Dallas.)
About two years ago, I wrote about Milwaukee’s public funding obligations and whether the Brewers would demand a new stadium in the coming years. That has not yet happened, but the news about the Rangers and Diamondbacks suggests that the danger has not abated. Much of the information in my past article remains relevant for the general context of a potential new Milwaukee stadium, so this piece will discuss something else I find interesting about the news from Arizona: stadium location.
Miller Park is not in downtown Milwaukee, and one of the reasons I expected stadium news to be coming a couple years ago was that I thought the club would be interested in moving more centrally. In 2000, the Giants provided a model for a profitable downtown stadium that connected with the culture of the city, and the following years saw many teams construct new stadiums in the heart of their respective cities. The Padres built Petco Park in downtown San Diego, the Twins placed Target Field in central Minneapolis, and Marlins Park (for all its many apparent faults) is located in the actual city of Miami.
San Francisco, San Diego, and Minneapolis have gotten various forms of positive reviews for their stadiums, and they tend to score well on stadium rankings. Nonetheless, the most recent trends in stadium building (Atlanta, Texas, and Arizona) are moving towards suburban stadiums. If I presume these teams are making informed decisions, then this calls into question whether the Brewers would be inclined to leave Miller Park for a different location, which I had previously assumed they would wish to do.
(It is, of course, possible that each of these three teams made their decision—or will make it, in the case of the Diamondbacks—based on which local government would provide the most public funding and not because any particular location provided the best space for a profitable and engaged ballpark. And in such a situation, the Brewers could act similarly by demanding public money for a new stadium, even if it is on the same lot as Miller Park.)
But this trend of MLB teams choosing to place themselves in suburbs runs contrary to what is occurring in most other American sports. There have been (or will be, when the Bucks’ new arena is completed) five NBA arenas built in the last ten years, and all five of them are in urban/downtown spaces (Orlando, Brooklyn, Sacramento, Detroit, and Milwaukee). And when the new Warriors arena in San Francisco is completed, the NBA will be six-for-six in placing new arenas in urban areas. Both the Brooklyn and Detroit arenas also house NHL teams, but there have been three additional NHL arenas built in that same period, and all are also downtown (Pittsburgh, Edmonton, and Las Vegas). And while MLS does not have the same public profile as the other leagues, all five of the soccer-only stadiums built in the last six years have been downtown, or close to it (Washington, Los Angeles, Houston, San Jose, and Orlando).
On the other hand, two of the four new NFL stadiums built since 2010 have been in suburban areas. The Giants and Jets’ new stadium is still in New Jersey, and the 49ers’ new stadium is forty-five miles away from San Francisco. The Jets, though, were on the verge of moving to Manhattan, and Levi’s Stadium has been an attendance disaster for the 49ers, so it isn’t as if the NFL has struck gold with its particular suburban choices.
One could argue that MLB stadiums are more like NFL stadiums than NBA arenas because so many of them are open-air, and even the smallest baseball stadium seats many thousands of people more than the largest NBA arena. Therefore, because of the need for extra space and parking, MLB stadiums are more likely to be farther away from densely populated urban areas, and thus it is not particularly noteworthy that MLB teams are not congregating downtown the way NBA, NHL, and MLS teams are.
I think this misses a larger picture, though, which is more complicated than just the needs of each particular team that is building a new stadium. America’s population trends are complex, but a FiveThirtyEight article from last year noted that the fastest-growing urban areas are suburbs. Despite that, though, FiveThirtyEight had previously noted that college-educated millennials are increasingly gravitating towards large cities, and jobs and wage growth are doing the same. There are more people in suburban areas than there used to be, but there is generally more money in the cities. It is therefore at least interesting that smaller arenas (indoor arenas and soccer stadiums) are increasingly downtown, while the larger football stadiums have resisted this movement. I don’t know whether there is a connection between these data points (population migration and stadium locations), but they at least bear considering in relation to each other as we move forward.
What this has do to with the Brewers remains to be seen. We don’t know where the Brewers themselves want to their stadium to be; the location of the new Bucks arena suggests that Milwaukee is as good a downtown target as any other city that has been a part of the NBA/NHL/MLS trend, but there have not been any substantial rumors that I am aware of that the Brewers are interested in leaving Miller Park. This comes up now because teams with ballparks built in the 1990s are starting to move, and Miller Park opened in 2001, so the issue is at least relevant.
I don’t know exactly what to make of the difference between the locations of new smaller stadiums and larger ones. The fact that the NBA, NHL, and MLS seem so confident in their downtown placements suggests that there is actual good information supporting those decisions, but we are not seeing MLB teams following their lead. Whether this is because MLB teams are behind the times, have numbers indicating the opposite, or there is some material difference between the big and small stadiums is unclear at this time.
There isn’t some magic formula that tells teams when they should move, but as an outside observer, it seems as if teams should wait a few years before settling on new locations as they see where the most successful stadiums are. Stadium location trends are diverging sharply, and one of the two approaches is likely to be proven more correct, so it would behoove a smart team to wait for more data to be available. Of course, the calculus each team undergoes is not that simple; political realities in a team’s home state and city may dictate that a push for public funding needs to happen now or it will not be successful, so any individual team may not have the luxury of waiting.
The Brewers do appear to have time, though, because Miller Park seems to be popular and in good health. We will see whether the NBA continues to place its arenas downtown and whether MLB (and NFL) teams continue to resist those moves, and time will tell us how successful each of those plans is. I don’t pretend to know whether the Brewers are interested in moving at all. But if they are, choosing whether they build a new stadium in the Miller Park parking lot or try to move downtown near the Bucks will be a complicated but interesting decision