BASEBALL IN BRITAIN: In November, former major leaguer Chase Utley went overseas to help promote the 2023 London Series between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. (Getty Images)

NASCAR has Chicago street race, return to vintage track

HOLLYWOOD, California — The sports facility industry is stacked with new projects, focusing on the development of traditional stadiums, and for baseball and motorsports, greater expansion into non-traditional venues and new markets.

Those trends were discussed among a panel of executives from Major League Soccer, MLB, NASCAR and the College Football Playoff during the Stadium Managers Association seminar in mid-February.

Over the past decade, no league has built more new venues than MLS, which opens the 2023 season with 29 teams. St. Louis City SC, the newest expansion team, plays its first home match CityPark, its new 22,500-seat downtown stadium, in early March. For the first time in the league’s 27-year history, the $457 million facility includes the team’s practice facility as part of the stadium footprint.

“I’m excited for the supporters’ march over there (from neighboring bars); it’s going to be loud, they’re sold out and the supporters section is our maximum allowed with a 34% rake (in the stands),” said Jeff Stonebreaker, MLS’s vice president of safety and security. 

For North America’s premier soccer organization, the addition of St. Louis builds on last year’s success with FC Charlotte, a first-year team that averaged 35,260 in attendance, second-highest in the league behind Atlanta United FC. In Charlotte, the team plays home matches at Bank of America Stadium. The NFL Carolina Panthers’ venue was upgraded for soccer with a new tunnel club and other improvements, a $50 million investment.

“People scratched their heads when we said we’re going to Charlotte, but the renovation (team owner) Tepper Sports did to this existing NFL stadium was nothing short of remarkable,” Stonebreaker said. “On the final walk-through (before their first match), they were saying, ‘Don’t tell the football guys, because they haven’t seen this side yet, and they’re going to be jealous.’ They proved that you don’t need to build a brand new place.”

This year, NASCAR celebrates its 75th anniversary by showcasing its sport on the streets of downtown Chicago. The Chicago Street Race takes place on July 1-2 with the 2.2 mile course circling Grant Park by the lakefront. As part of marketing premium ticketing packages, NASCAR will build a Paddock Club,  standing three stories tall above the tree line, said Julie Giese, president of the Chicago Street Course and formerly with the Phoenix Raceway.

The event extends to pre-race and post-race concerts with the Black Crowes, The Chainsmokers, Charley Crockett and Miranda Lambert. It’s the first NASCAR event in the Windy City since 2019 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.

“Everything there is fully temporary,” Giese said. “We’re building as quickly as possible and getting out of there quickly too, knowing there are other events (such as Lollapalooza in early August) in Chicago afterward. We’re spending $50 million to bring this event to life. It’s a great opportunity for us to return to the market. It brings our sport to new audiences. We had 70% new attendees at the Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles and we’re anticipating that again in Chicago.”

In addition, NASCAR is honoring its legacy by holding its All-Star Race at historic North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina. Dates are May 19-21. The vintage racetrack, which hasn’t played host to a NASCAR event since the late 1990s, is going through upgrades with additional seating to bring capacity up to 24,000, still an intimate setting for race fans.

DEEP ROOTS: North Wilkesboro Speedway, shown here in 1992, will host NASCAR’s All-Star race in May, the organization’s first event at the track in about 25 years. (Getty Images)

“We’re continuing to push ourselves forward to differentiate our scheduling to go to different markets, which this year includes a nod to our past,” Giese said. “We’ve seen tremendous growth from a new fan perspective. It’s a younger crowd and we are one of the fastest growing brands among Gen Z; we’re proud of the eight sellouts this past year.”

In baseball, MLB’s 2023 schedule includes four international games in Mexico City and London. San Diego plays host to San Francisco on April 29-30 at Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu, a 20,000 capacity ballpark. The series marks MLB’s first regular-season games in Mexico City.

On June 24-25, the Chicago Cubs will play the St. Louis Cardinals at London Stadium, the 2012 Olympics facility going through a retrofit for baseball. The series follows a two-game set MLB held at the same stadium in 2019 between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

“It’s a fabulous stadium in Mexico City, but the challenges are going to be a lot different than they will be in London, where we’re building a baseball field,” said David Thomas, MLB’s vice president of security and ballpark operations. 

MLB is not returning to the Field of Dreams in Iowa this year after holding three sold-out games over the past two seasons at the complex, including a minor league contest. 

“There’s a new ownership group (with MLB Hall of Famer Frank Thomas) and they are reimagining what that site will be,” Thomas said. “It’s under construction for two to three years. We don’t currently have a plan as to when we’re going back. I would anticipate that we will, but that’s not my decision. The past two years were fantastic games and great visuals. It’s been fun to build a venue in a cornfield, where you literally have to start from scratch.”

For the College Football Playoff, the big news is the group is expanding its format from four to 12 teams to determine the national champion, starting with the 2024 season. The tournament will encompass six conference champions and six at-large teams. The first four games will be held on campus among the schools with the highest seeds, said Bill Hancock, the CFP’s executive director.

The expansion provides those institutions with a seventh or eighth home game with opportunities to generate additional revenue in ticketing, concessions and parking.

TOP 12: The College Football Playoff expands to a dozen teams competing for the national title, starting with the 2024 season. (Don Muret/Staff)

The selection committee and the process for selecting those teams remains the same, but they have a lot more work to do with expansion, Hancock said.

He said the country’s passion for college football is “off the charts,” which in part drove the expanded format. This year, the CFP championship was the highest-viewed non-Super Bowl television program.

“We’re coming off a tremendous event at SoFi Stadium,” Hancock said. “It’s an awesome facility and extremely well managed. I don’t know what the next generation of stadiums will be like, but I don’t see how they can top this one. It’s a gorgeous place.”

Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta will be the first facility to hold the national championship in 2025 under the new format, followed by Hard Rock Stadium in 2026. Future sites will be selected over the next 12 months, Hancock said.