Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Crowds Will Come Back, Sooner Than You Think

"It'll be a long time before I go to an event with a big crowd again."

First of all, that's a lie. The big crowds will be back, sooner than you think. And you'll be back, sooner than you think. While Alabama is planning on full crowds at Bryant-Denny Stadium this fall, The Texas Rangers are going to have no seating restrictions and potentially a full house at their season opener in a matter of weeks.

The proof of attendance jumping quickly after a pandemic is easy to find, because it's what happened 100 years ago during the last pandemic. I could go back to the plagues in the 1500's that are described almost off-handedly in the book I'm reading about the Renaissance and that the theatre continued most places, but sports attendance is the most relatable.

More stadiums were built in the five years following the 1918 pandemic then at any other time in American Sports History. There were dozens. Lots of them are still around, and most of them are considered iconic.

Yankee Stadium, Opening Day, April 1923
Yankee Stadium, Opening Day, April 18, 1923

Three of them, just for a start: The Rose Bowl, the original Yankee Stadium, and whichever other college football stadium is your favorite. You may think I'm being flippant in that regard, but 17 college football stadiums built between 1919 and 1924 are still in use. 

Among them? Ohio Stadium, LSU's Tiger Stadium, Neyland Stadium, the L.A. Coliseum, Spartan Stadium, Stanford Stadium, and nearly anything named Memorial Stadium (Cal, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, etc.) I didn't even count Solider Field and it was built in 1924.

14 more great college stadiums still in use were built by 1930. Legion Field, Bryant-Denny, Michigan Stadium, Kinnick, Sanford. The first proper build-out of Kyle Field to make it a stadium happened in 1927 and therefore counts here since I'm making the list. 

A mere 13 total stadiums still in use were built in the entire decade of the 1930's, including Notre Dame Stadium.

As a track and field fan I would be remiss not to mention Oregon's famed Hayward Field, originally built mostly as a football venue for the Ducks, but gaining more fame in the track world- that opened in 1919, too.

More great stadiums were built in that 1919-1924 era found the wrecking ball. In addition to the Original Yankee Stadium, there's Kansas City's Mulebach Field/Municipal Stadium, opened in 1923. West Virginia's original Mountaineer Field opened in 1924. The original Memorial Stadium in Baltimore opened in 1922. Minnesota's Memorial Stadium, home to the Golden Gophers during their glory years in the 30's and 40's, opened in 1924. San Francsico's Kezar Stadium, the original home of the 49ers and Raiders, took a year to build and opened in 1925. Pitt Stadium where Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino first garnered national attention, took less than a year to build and opened in 1925.

Let's talk capacity for a moment, since that's the big question for games now. When the Yale Bowl was built in 1914, it was the biggest stadium in America at a 70,000 capacity. Hardly a stadium in America approached 50,000  at that point- Fenway Park, Comiskey Park, Tiger Stadium, even New York's famed Polo Grounds were all built before than and hovered around 40,000 at max capacity. The Yale Bowl blew by them and set the standard. The pandemic freaked people out about distancing, just like right now. Games were still played then, but attendance was smaller. The 1918 World Series didn't have one game with more than 20,000 people watching because of WWI issues and the burgeoning sickness. 25,000 were at the 1919 Rose Bowl but that was the max capacity of Tournament Park, the Rose Bowl's predecessor.

But soon after, during this stadium boom, nobody minded crowds at all. Stanford Stadium was built in 5 months in 1921 and and was at 68,000, just under the Yale Bowl for biggest stadium in America at the time. Soon, 75,000 and even 80,000 was out there. The L.A. Coliseum opened at 75,000 in 1923. Yankee Stadium opened at 58,000 and got to 82,000 max by 1927. Nobody was concerned about social distancing by then. 

Rose Bowl official opening, Jan. 1, 1923, USC vs Penn State

Considering how many minor league baseball teams there were in America, it would be reasonable to assume that lots of parks were built in the early 1920's. But it's one thing to reason that and another thing to find proof. Wikipedia is not the greatest source for finding proper building dates for anything. And if that ballpark has been turned into something besides a ballpark, it may not be listed properly. Even baseball-reference is sketchy. Sure, they have the roster for the Western Association's 1923 Springfield (Missouri) Midgets, and even the roster and some stats- even if they link to improper biographies. But a stadium? No chance. Checking the Enid (Oklahoma) Harvesters, no stadium listed there but the Wiki says they played at Association Park, built in 1920. But there's no page for Association Park, nor does it make the "defunct baseball venues in the United States" category page. How many of these hidden former parks are there? Uh, I'm going to say a lot.

As we know now, indoor sports are difficult to attend. But great indoor arenas opened in that era, too. One of the oldest indoor arenas still going is Waterloo, Iowa's Hippodrome- opened in 1919. The actual Hobey Baker Arena opened for Princeston Hockey in January, 1923.

One of the most famous golf courses, Pebble Beach Golf Links, opened in February 1919, meaning it was designed and built DURING the pandemic. The Indy Motor Speedway, originally built in 1909, had 80,000 people at the first 500 in 1911, but those were spread out amongst a 2-and-a-half mile track, not 100 yards of a football stadium.

Conservatively I'd say close 100 stadiums were built in those five years from 1919-1924. Lots of them don't exist any more, but at least a quarter of them do. Five years after a major pandemic, more people were crowded together watching sports than ever before in America and hardly thought anything about it.

Simply, you'll be back, really soon. And so will everybody else.


photos courtesy: Library of Congress Bain Collection, LOC Prints and Photo Collection


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