In decades past, fortunate NFL fans looked down from suites towering above the 50-yard line. Now, the premium options are moving down — to the ground, in fact.
With a new lease in place, the Ravens plan to renovate their stadium, and they’re considering digging out the rest of its lowest level. The ambitious project would open opportunities to indulge spectators’ desire to see and hear the game from the players’ perspective, rather than the bird’s-eye level of a soaring punt.
“Certainly, proximity to the game action is going to be a big focus for us,” Sashi Brown, team president, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.
Options being considered include new field-level vantage points and social spaces, and excavation of a service level beneath the stands so it rings the stadium instead of stopping partway around. The lowest level is used mostly for stadium operations, but it could soon be also used to provide a twist on the usual fan experience.
“I think the majority of stadiums have a full service level around the full circumference of the stadium. In our stadium, that’s not the case,” Brown said Thursday, a day after the state Board of Public Works approved the team’s new 15-year lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority. “I’m not sure why that was, historically, but we think that’s something we can remedy.”
Driving the improvements, and therefore the lease signing, is a new state law that lets the stadium authority borrow up to $1.2 billion to pay for improvements at the two publicly owned professional sports stadiums in Baltimore: $600 million each for M&T Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. What’s more, the cap only limits the amount of outstanding bonds at any one time.
No bonds could be issued without a lease, and the lease had to be long enough to pay off the longest-term bonds. So, getting a long-term lease done this winter was essential to the Ravens moving ahead with a new period of renovation for the 25-year-old, 71,000-seat stadium.
For this phase, the team retained in 2021 the Populous architectural firm, which also designed a $120 million stadium renovation project completed in 2019. Improvements at that stage included new, high-definition video boards and new suites in the stadium’s four corners.
Brown said it would be premature to provide specifics of new plans before they’re finalized, but agreed to outline some of the club’s ideas to The Sun and said renovations could begin in 2024.
In 2018, the Ravens opened a small, field-level box, in partnership with Bud Light, with seating near one of the end zones and the tunnel used by the visiting team. Other NFL teams have moved in recent years to offer more expansive spaces — seating and social areas — at field level. SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, home of the Rams and Chargers, has “the SoFi Social Club” behind one of the team benches, while New England offers Patriots fans a “field lounge” near an end zone.
“We are looking at all those types of products. But the theme, essentially, is how to get people closer to the live action,” Brown said.
Opening up the lower level, which houses operational equipment and locker rooms and connects to the field, could offer a new — as yet unspecified — way for fans to see the game.
“It will allow us to deliver certain services to fans in a much better way,” Brown said. “We are contemplating some products that would be down there that fans could access,” he said, declining to elaborate.
The team also hopes to use the new funding to better connect the stadium to nearby Horseshoe Baltimore Casino and Topgolf Baltimore driving range. They’re south of the stadium in an area being transformed from a mostly industrial corridor to an entertainment district. Among the possibilities for the Ravens is creating a plaza with activities that would greet fans coming from the casino and parking lot.
The club would initiate any such project, and the Board of Public Works would need to approve the issuance of bonds and the construction contracts.
Under the lease with the stadium authority, the team doesn’t pay rent, but continues to pay for operations and maintenance. The agreement expires in 2037; the Ravens have two five-year options to extend for a total of 25 more seasons at M&T Bank Stadium.
Stadium Authority Chairman Thomas Kelso said the stadium, which opened in 1998, would be expected to last more than 50 years.
As fan tastes change, Kelso said in an interview, the parties could get together “probably well before 15 years” and add time if substantial new projects are needed.
“The way fans watch games today is different than 20 years ago,” he said. “What we’re looking for 15 years from now is probably something we can’t even contemplate today.”
The Orioles’ lease was to expire at the end of 2021. With no new deal imminent, the stadium authority and the baseball club agreed in February 2021 to extend the agreement through Dec. 31, 2023, with the team retaining the right to exercise a one-time, five-year extension by Feb. 1.
Under their new lease, the Ravens will retain revenue from non-NFL events, such as concerts, college football games and exhibition soccer matches, and the state will collect the 10% admissions and amusement tax. The tax is applied to the base price of each event ticket, with 80% going to the stadium authority and the rest to the city.
That’s a change from the previous lease, under which the authority gave a negotiated portion — varying from event to event — of the tax to the club to subsidize losses in case the event lost money.
“In the new agreement, the Ravens agreed that they would assume all risks for non-NFL, in-stadium events in exchange for the right to keep all revenues from these events,” Kelso said.
The parties hope the new financial structure — with more potential upside for the Ravens — will lead them to book more big concert acts and host other events that boost state tax revenues and consumer spending in the city.
While it varies from place to place, some states have grown increasingly skeptical about public financing of stadium construction or improvements, but opposition in Baltimore seems to be tempered by its sports history.
The shock of the NFL Colts’ middle-of-the-night departure still haunts some fans and elected leaders. After decades as Baltimore’s team, the club — in a dispute with the city over improvements to Memorial Stadium — left town for Indianapolis on a March night in 1984.
In the Maryland General Assembly last year, the bill approving the $600 million each for the Ravens and Orioles passed the state Senate unanimously and was approved 123-10 by the House. The Board of Public Works voted unanimously, as well, to approve the football team’s lease.
Baltimore Sun reporter Hayes Gardner contributed to this article.