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No Longer Just A Ballgame: The Evolution Of The Stadium Experience

Tim Harris remembers the days when people went to a basketball game just to watch the players play.

Harris, the Los Angeles Lakers chief operating officer and president of business operations, joined the Lakers organization in the 1990s back when they were still playing in the Great Western Forum in Inglewood

“You came to the games, you experienced the games and then you left,” Harris said. "That was the experience — the game."

Times have changed, he said.

Staples Center in LA

Harris will speak at Bisnow's Retail Series: West Coast Summit on Sept. 26 in Los Angeles.

Watching the best basketball players in the world play is no longer the sole reason why people head out to a professional sports stadium or arena, especially at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, where the Lakers moved in 1999.

“Once they built L.A. Live [in 2010], the experience changed,” Harris said, referring to the Anschutz Entertainment Group's mixed-use development that includes a concert venue, a museum, a hotel, condominiums, restaurants and shops. AEG also owns and operates Staples Center.

Now, Harris said, “a Laker game extends beyond the round walls of the Staples Center. A Laker game is an experience. It’s become a destination.”

For example, during the winter season, an ice skating rink is placed on a courtyard at L.A. Live. During the year, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of visitors and tourists visit the front of Staples Center to take pictures of the statues of Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson, Wayne Gretzky and other local sports greats. 

What has happened in downtown Los Angeles illustrates the evolution of professional stadiums nationwide in the past two decades, where teams and commercial developers are continually coming up with ways to provide visitors a unique experience inside and outside of the stadium or arena.

In many cases, several sports stadiums are anchoring large mixed-use developments where fans, visitors and tourists can come together and cheer for the team or just hang out and eat at restaurants or shop at stores.

In nearby Inglewood, the Los Angeles Rams are building the $5B, 298-acre Los Angeles Stadium and Entertainment District at Hollywood Park that features a 70,000-seat stadium, a performing arts venue, office buildings, retail, a hotel, residences, restaurants and a public park.

Banc of California Stadium in Exposition Park Los Angeles

The recently opened Banc of California Stadium, where the Los Angeles Football Club plays in South Los Angeles, attached a food hall called The Fields next to the stadium to attract the foodies and casual fans. 

In San Francisco, the owners of the Golden State Warriors are nearly halfway done on their new 18,000-seat Chase Center arena in Mission Bay that will include surrounding restaurants, offices, public plazas and a park. 

These stadiums have “become a social event and community gathering place,” said San Francisco Giants Executive Vice President of Business Operation Mario Alioto, who will also speak at the Retail West event.

The Giants received approval last year from the local governing body and entered into a JV with Tishman Speyer to develop Mission Rock, a $1.6B mixed-use development with residential, retail and industrial space along a waterfront near AT&T Park. 

In some cases, the team’s performance is tied to the success of the area. If the team doesn’t do well, fewer people will come, Alioto said.

“In the changing world of retail today and the changing world of sports, we’re all looking for the same thing and that is trying to use the experiential nature of our businesses to attract people,” he said.

“If I can sit here and guarantee that we would win the World Series every year then my job would be easy,” Alioto said. “But when you don’t win every year, you have to find other ways to bring people to the ballpark.”

San Francisco Giants Executive Vice President, Business Operations Mario Alioto

Bringing In The Casual Fans

Alioto said the Giants put a lot of effort into attracting the casual fans and the younger generations of fans. 

In 1999, the Giants were the first team in Major League Baseball to give away a bobblehead doll. Now, it seems like every professional team in Major League Baseball and beyond offers the popular giveaway. 

The Giants also host several ethnic heritage nights from Italian night to Filipino nights. 

“We’re trying to build the brand and be part of the fabric of San Francisco,” Alioto said.

Last year, in an effort to attract millennials who work in the surrounding tech industry, the team began offering the BallPark pass, where for $20 a month, fans get a standing room only ticket and watch any game during the month.

“They consume the game differently,” Alioto said. 

Millennials and the younger generations do not necessarily want to sit down and watch every pitch of the game from the first inning to the final out, he said. The program allows BallPark pass holders to hang out for a couple of innings before heading back to work or meet up with friends at the many high-end bars in the stadium or watch the game from one of the designated standing-room locations. 

More than 1,000 people signed up for the pass this year, he said. 

"It's still an experiment," he said. "What we're all still trying to figure out is, what is the next iteration of what a season ticket is going to be in the future?

The BallPark Pass is not for all fans, he said.

"But is there a segment in our audience that is looking for access as opposed to a seat?"

Rendering of Mission Rock from AT&T Park

The Experience Has Grown

The Lakers' Harris remembers when what is now L.A. Live was parking lot No. 2 and No. 3 reserved for the Lakers suite holders.

When L.A. Live was built in 2010, everything changed. Not only are people going to the game, but also arriving early or staying later to hang out at L.A. Live.

Now, the experience of attending a game begins once the ticket holder parks and enters the Staples Center door.

Harris said there are video boards throughout Staples Center that show highlights and pre-game news to keep ticket holders informed and hyped up for the game. 

Food offerings also have changed, Harris said.

"It used to be — especially at the Forum — food was just calories," Harris said. "Now it has become part of the overall event experience. It's about giving them good food, different choices for beers, and different choices for them to eat and drink."

Harris said the Lakers are looking into adopting several mobile programs, such as allowing visitors the ability to socialize with their friends nearby or to order food or merchandise from their seats.

Similar to the Giants, the Lakers are also grappling with how to deal with ticket buyers who prefer not to sit down.

From a sponsor and NBA perspective, watching the game on television with an arena that appears half empty does not look good for the brand or the league. But along the concourse, Harris said, it is a different picture.

Fans are hanging out, dining at the restaurants or bars along the concourse and socializing. 

Fans are just experiencing live basketball differently, he said.

"It's no longer, 'Here's your seat, sit in your seat and watch the game,'" Harris said. "Folks, especially the younger ones, don't want to be told how to take in the game. Some don't even want to sit down. They prefer to stand." 

It is a double-edged sword, Harris said.

"We've built them this great concourse area with great restaurants and bars and food. It's one of the challenges that arenas have," he said. 

He predicts this new trend of standing and socializing could ultimately change how future professional sports arenas and stadiums are built. They could be smaller with fewer seats and more standing areas.

For now, Harris said, it is ultimately up to the ticket buyer to decide the best way to experience the game.

"They are in the building," he said. "They are enjoying themselves … let them enjoy this."

Hear more from Harris and Alioto on what is going on around sports venues and experts on the trends affecting retail at Bisnow's Retail Series: West Coast Summit on Sept. 26 at the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles.

CORRECTION, SEPT. 14, 10:20 P.M. PT: A previous version of this story had an error in the title of Los Angeles Lakers President of Business Operations and Chief Operating Officer Tim Harris. The story has been updated.