Jimmy John’s Field in Utica, Michigan
Illustration: Lauren Nassef | Art Direction: Jelena Schulz

Jimmy John’s Field in Utica, Mich., home of the Utica Unicorns, exemplifies a new era of smaller-scale, independently owned ballparks that evoke feelings of a bygone era while serving the distinct needs of their private owners.

“Sports franchises are no longer mom-and-pop operations,” says Jonathan O’Neil Cole, AIA, founding principal of Kansas City–based Pendulum. “Many are owned by corporate conglomerates with multiple teams aimed more at profit than just goodwill. So we approach designing for them with a focus on economic sustainability; we design to a pro forma.”

This means enough flexibility to incorporate opportunities for expansion and reconfiguration over time, and design decisions and sustainable systems that can last for dozens of years. Cole walks us through what factored into the creation of the Unicorns’ $15 million home.

  • “What changed the stadium game? At the largest scale, Camden Yards in Baltimore, which opened in 1992. Suddenly it was a major no-no to have uncomfortable seats or sight line obstructions. It became more about the experience, which led to shifts in the baseball business model. This kind of thinking inspired our open-air, ADA-accessible Cabana Suites behind each dugout: comfortable seating, fire pits, buffet service, and a great location protected by netting.”
  • “After the economic downturn, there weren’t as many corporate sponsors buying suites and spending thousands of dollars on long-term leases. So we shifted our focus to small group areas and diversity in seating inventory. We encourage our clients to build smart and small, so we start with eight to 10 suites, plus party decks that can be converted to suites down the line, or a pavilion that can be modified. The important thing is to have the infrastructure in place.”
  • “The term ‘multiuse’ used to mean stadiums that could be used for both football and baseball; now it means activating the space every day of the year, which is part of our initial design strategy. A ballpark is a unique backdrop, especially in a smaller town; you need facilities in place for community events, ADA-accessible concourses, facilities to accommodate hundreds of people, plus premium bars and legitimate catering areas.”