Form Follows Bottom Line

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The 41,000-seat ballpark that the city will build for the Washington Nationals along the Anacostia Waterfront in Southeast Washington is designed to exploit every cash-generating source in the modern sports stadium playbook, allowing those with the deepest pockets to purchase the best views of the game, according to stadium documents released yesterday.

Approximately 1,800 padded seats curling around home plate within a few feet of the players will be sold to the stadium's highest-paying customers, including 500 that will have access to an air-conditioned lounge with views of a batting practice area. Thirty luxury suites, including eight ground-level "Founder's Suites," will be stacked behind home plate for maximum views at a maximum price, probably renting for $100,000 a year and up.

On top of them behind home plate is the exclusive club level, where 2,660 fans in the sought-after infield area have access to an air-conditioned indoor lounge with specially prepared food. On the next floor will be 48 luxury suites, bringing the total number of suites to 78.

In all, about 8,000 seats will be in the premium category, commanding a significantly higher price than the rest of the seats in the $611 million, taxpayer-funded stadium. The remaining seats, approximately 33,000, will be less expensive season ticket, partial ticket plan and day-of-game seats -- and the vast majority of those lie farther down the baselines, in the outfield or in the upper deck.

"This stadium is being built to reflect the condition of this market, which is a huge corporate presence, a huge lobbying presence and high residential incomes," said Mark Rivers of Brix and Company, a Bethesda-based real estate development company that specializes in sports and entertainment venues.

The Nationals won't lead the league in luxury suites. Jacobs Field in Cleveland has 128; Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia has 75. But for a stadium of the Nationals' size, the proportion of the seats devoted to suites and premium seats will be significant. Throw in a center field restaurant, a conference center and retail stores, along with enough room to cram in an estimated 1,500 standing-room-only fans for playoffs or an all-star game, and Washington will have a new ballpark designed to generate enough cash to justify the $450 million price Major League Baseball has set for the Nationals.

"The new owner of this team should be very satisfied with the revenue they can earn from this ballpark," said Joe Spear, a principal at Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Sport of Kansas City, Mo., and one of the co-designers of the Nationals' stadium. "They should not have to make any drastic changes."

Eight groups of investors have committed to pay baseball's $450 million asking price, but an announcement is not expected until later this month, according to baseball sources. Those sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ownership selection process, said Commissioner Bud Selig was unlikely to name an owner in the midst of the World Baseball Classic, which ends March 20.

Although all eight groups are still in the running, sources have said that the front-runners are the family of Theodore "Ted" Lerner, the patriarch of a local real estate empire; Indianapolis media mogul Jeffrey Smulyan, who has assembled several Washington area businessmen to invest in the team; and another syndicate of local investors led by businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients.

Between now and March 2008, when the new ballpark is scheduled to open, the Nationals will continue to call RFK Stadium home. Nationals President Tony Tavares said the team and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which is RFK's landlord, are fixing the drainage on the stadium's infield and putting in new grass to improve the field. But no structural changes are expected at RFK, Tavares said.

Baseball reported yesterday that it had settled a lawsuit with a startup sports memorabilia firm over the merchandising rights to the Nationals' name, clearing the path for the team to continue marketing its merchandise and baseball paraphernalia under its current name.

Construction on the new stadium should begin in the next few weeks, and the classic interior design calls for the batter at home plate to be facing north with the sun out of his eyes at all times. The vast majority of upper-deck fans around the infield and up the first base line will have a view toward Capitol Hill, but the sun may be in their faces as it sets in the west during an afternoon game.

The new ballpark has incorporated flourishes from other stadiums to make the fan experience more enjoyable as well as more lucrative for the owner. Like Coors Field in Denver, the ground-level main concourse will have unobstructed views of the field, allowing fans to queue for food or head to a restroom without missing a pitch. Like Oriole Park at Camden Yards 40 miles to the north, Washington's new park will include plaza and picnic areas overlooking the outfield, where families can gather. Like Comerica Park in Detroit, First Street leading to the stadium will be lined with retail stores designed to entice fans to buy merchandise before they set foot in the ballpark.

And like Atlanta's Turner Field, the majority of the Nationals' crowd likely will enter the stadium through a concourse beyond center field, which leads to the Navy Yard Metro station.

There will be escalators to the premium seating, but the fans in the upper concourses will climb cantilevered ramps leading to "viewing platforms" that overlook the city street on one side or the ballfield on the other. The playing field is 24 feet below street level, while the top row of the upper deck towers 115 feet over the grass.

Money not only buys the best views, but it also buys comfort. The lower-bowl and premium seats should average around 21 inches wide, while the upper deck seats will be a tighter fit at a standard 19 inches. The legroom between rows will also be dictated by dollars, with premium seats featuring a roomy 36 inches between the seatbacks of each row, while lower bowl and upper bowl general admission seats will run about 33 inches.

Spear and his team borrowed from the old Griffith Stadium in their outfield design. For those fans who fondly recall the floor-pounding rumble from the Redskins' days at RFK, Spear is planning a section of seats in the outfield area "that will bounce in a manner that resembles the current RFK third base line seating." The least expensive seats in the house will presumably be the 1,300 bleacher seats planned for the outfield, which will have the comfort of contoured individual backs and cup holders.

"This is par for the course," said Andrew Zimbalist, an author of sports books and an economist who teaches at Smith College. "Virtually every stadium built since 1992 is trying to exploit all the revenue potential and this is no different. The trick is going to be to come in on budget and get it done on time."

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