Fun and games: MLB boosts entertainment at the ballpark

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Visitors revolve five-stories high in baseball-shaped ferris wheel cars. Below, a rainbow of liquid fireworks dances 150 feet in the air to the beat of pulsing music. While parents dine at the Big Cat food court, kids ride themselves dizzy on a carousel.

This isn't your run-of-the-mill amusement park. In fact, it's not an amusement park at all. The festival-like environment is the just-opened home of the Detroit Tigers.

As baseball strives to create a more family-friendly atmosphere, state-of-the-art stadiums have merged sports and entertainment to create a new field of dreams.

The Tigers, with its Comerica Park, is just one of the many clubs that now offer an in-stadium extravaganza.

When it opens later this month, the Houston Astros' new Enron Field will showcase a 57-foot full-size replica of a 19th-century Wild West steam locomotive that will run on an 800-foot track above left field. Other big-league stadiums provide interactive sections that allow kids to track how fast they can hit and pitch baseballs.

Across North America, ballparks are serving up hot tubs along with hot dogs as they court patrons.

As ballparks undergo a building boom that is unprecedented -- almost 20 of the 30 MLB clubs have built new stadiums, plan to build new stadiums or have renovated old ones -- team executives are embracing recreation.

"The owners are very conscious about making a baseball game entertaining for a family and for a baseball fan," said Carrie Wobbe, a spokeswoman for HOK Sport, one of the nation's leading stadium architectural firms.

The cost of a new ballpark varies, with some topping $500 million. Many are built through a combination of public and private funding, with the bulk of financing from municipal sources. Rebuilt stadiums that house more luxury boxes and corporate-pleasing amenities also lead to big business.

As many as 12 new baseball stadiums could be built in the next few years for an estimated total of $4.3 billion, and that could generate an additional $475 million in revenues leaguewide by 2003, according to Paul Kagan Associates. New facilities in San Francisco, Detroit and Houston could add $30 million to $40 million in revenue per club, according to the research company.

Kagan says that MLB teams playing in stadiums no more than 10 years old brought in an average of $47 million at the gate in 1998, while the other pro baseball teams averaged $28 million in gate revenues.

A PIECE OF THE ACTION

With all the stadium revitalization, sponsors are eager for a piece of the action. Financial institution Comerica paid $66 million to put its name on Detroit's stadium for 20 years. Enron Energy Services reportedly paid $100 million for the 30-year naming rights to the Houston Astro's new ballpark.

Other companies are opting for special-attraction sponsorships. At San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park, Coca-Cola Co. sponsors the Fan Lot, where kids can see the world's largest baseball glove and run the bases inside a mini-ballpark. The in-stadium catering doesn't stop at the attractions. For the finicky food fan, the New York Mets' Shea Stadium slices up sushi, while carnivores at the Baltimore Orioles' Camden Yards can load their plates at an outdoor barbecue stand. The Arizona Diamondbacks serve up microbrewed beers at their Bank One Ballpark.

Patrons seeking culture can expand their art knowledge with a visit to the Seattle Mariners' Safeco Field, which features a $1.2 million public art display. The Diamondbacks offer a display titled "Great Moments in Baseball Paintings"; for even more luxury, the team offers a hot tub and swimming pool section.

But marketing experts caution that the convergence of sports and entertainment can go too far -- and alienate fans. "There's a fine line between adding entertainment value without getting in the way of the game," said Jeff Maggs, VP-group account director at Pittsburgh Pirates ad agency Marc USA. "That's a challenge. Yet the game itself isn't enough to [draw] people in. People get bored easily, they need to be entertained. It used to be just sit in the stands and let the game come to you. But now it has to be much more interactive."

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