Stadiums and Screens: Watching Baseball from Kauffman

Kauffman Stadium was built in 1973 for the Royals, Kansas City’s major league baseball team. Its age is apparent: once-trendy wide pillars and walls make the stadium nearly monolithic, a memorial to a time when it was okay to build things with lots of concrete and almost no windows (for the pure and undiluted form of this style, check out Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library). Kauffman is ringed in steel light posts that frame perfectly a single jumbotron directly past center field—a screen that is inexplicably oriented portrait-style, like a book, rather than landscape-style, like every other screen in the United States. True to its seventies’ roots, the screen is crowned with a literal crown and projects a heavily-cropped image that is both slightly faded and a bit green. It’s very hard to watch. Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, featuring only one Jumbotron.

Jumbotron withstanding, Kauffman still exudes a certain type of charm—so I noticed when I visited for the first time at a Royals game last weekend. There’s something really alluring about this type of stadium. Dirty, vaguely ugly, and equipped with sparse amenities, stadiums like Kauffman evoke an archetypal American memory of what baseball used to be: a game born on the battlefields of the Civil War, incubated in roaring New York and Boston in the sick summer heat of the forties and fifties, and paired perfectly with an all-American hot dog and a lukewarm Budweiser. Truly, it’s America’s pastime—so says the marketing arm of the MLB.

Kauffman nowadays is an artifact of these mythical early ages of baseball—it’s one of the oldest stadiums still in use—but once upon a time, many baseball stadiums were just the same. St. Louis’ own old Busch Stadium (my home stadium, built 1966) was a concrete and steel wire rendition of Rome’s Colosseum, except a bit tackier, until they tore it down in 2005. New Busch, which opened in 2006, was strikingly different: it featured a brick façade, elevator and escalators, and two or three jumbotrons (not to mention what feels like about a dozen ribbon screens wrapped around the inner stadium). It’s difficult to watch a game from Busch and not look at a Jumbotron—in fact, it’s just about impossible to look anywhere in the stadium without seeing a screen.

Jumbotrons have become a stadium standard nationwide, from basketball arenas to soccer pitches. Fittingly, a great deal of sports consumption in the United States occurs through screens: TV broadcasts have become a vital source of revenue for every professional league. Some sports have adapted well to the fifty-year-long rise of non-present viewership—NFL games incorporate ‘TV time-outs’ so that networks can run commercials—while other sports have… struggled. Baseball fans were outraged in 2015 when the MLB announced a pitch clock to speed up baseball games and thereby make games more TV-friendly. Football works well on a flat-screen; baseball falls behind. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that in our digital age of constant on-screen consumption, football ratings continuously excel, while baseball ratings slump.

Screens in stadiums are here to stay. The benefits—better visibility for fans with poor seats, a display for stats and scores, and a place to render replays—far outweigh the drawbacks—for most, a vague feeling that some American sports tradition is disregarded. That’s a fair tradeoff. Personally, I have never disliked a Jumbotron at a basketball game, a football game, or a hockey game—three sports of America’s big four. Indeed, these sports have adapted well to TV: each often relies on replays, superimposed graphics, or, at the bare minimum, a close-up on the action.

Baseball, however, ought to be different. The sport is played in the summertime and excelled in the radio era—it’s meant to be casually enjoyed, like a lukewarm Budweiser, rather than actively consumed, like most modern sports. As the way Americans watch sports changes, baseball seems to be falling off the map. Viewers complain that games are too long, or too boring. Maybe they have a point—baseball was most popular in the forties, fifties, and sixties, a time when life was slower than the hyperactive America of 2019. Our movies are explosive, our videos are six seconds, our tweets are 280 characters. Time is moving faster, and baseball is falling behind.

Movers and thinkers in the MLB are frantically trying to adapt baseball to modern American viewing habits to ensure baseball’s continued success. Their efforts are plainly evident when the league established a pitch clock to make the sport more TV-friendly. Even modern stadiums suggest such a push: take a look at how many screens you can find in any arena built after 2000.

But reminders of what baseball used to be are ostensive in the stadiums of older generations. Kauffman, one of those stadiums, projects a version of baseball that is rapidly going out of style. Like the fans who went to Royals games in 1973, I spent the entire night straining my eyes at the field far below with only a vague idea of the specifics of the game. Year after year, stadiums like Kauffman are torn down and stadiums like New Busch are built in their place. Year after year, jumbotrons are installed, and more and more people experience sports via TV sets in their living room rather than concrete coliseums in Kansas City. America has changed since 1973, and Kauffman Stadium doesn’t exactly fit America’s tastes anymore. One day, baseball might not, either. While the sport lasts, however, I can’t think of a better place to watch the game.

The Royals won 4 to 1. I didn’t look at a screen the entire night.

Hap Burke is unemployed. You can find him on Twitter at @happyburkeday.