I recently attended the grand opening of the tennis area of a new sports park in Maryland. It was a great fall day - bright sunshine, happy people, everyone pumped up about the possibilities for kids and adults to get involved in physical activity.
But as I looked around the new facilities, I realized something was missing - the chance to socialize.
Make no mistake, the outdoor courts were gorgeous. They had the lines for 10 and Under Tennis to encourage children's play. The soccer fields were equally nice, and included a lighted stadium court. There were even fields for cricket - cricket! - as well as an aquatics center, a pro shop and a host of other facilities. It was altogether an impressive area.
But there was nowhere to sit and watch the action. No picnic tables, no bleachers, no benches. Parents who came to watch their kids play had a choice - stand at the fence and look in at the tennis courts, or sit in their cars in the parking lot some distance away. Neither of those options seemed particularly appealing, given that in our area, summers are hot and humid, and winters are cold and inhospitable. Even the indoor tennis courts, covered by inflatable structures, lacked seating areas. Parents could stand around the periphery, or they could sit on the court surface. Not exactly welcoming.
I'm hoping that since it was only the opening of this complex, spectator seating is going to be added at some point. But if that aspect has been overlooked in the interest of saving money, it's actually a hugely self-defeating move for the park itself.
The irony here is that sports parks exist to promote sports, to keep kids active, and to enhance sports tourism in the area. All of those things generally mean that you want families to come visit. But if you want that, you have to provide the facilities for them. That means seating for parents and others, snack bars, rest rooms and water fountains to keep everyone happy (and to satisfy building codes), and playgrounds for the younger set. And no matter how good your court surface is, no matter how well lighted your soccer fields are, no matter how nice those other facilities are, if you don't have ways to occupy people who aren't playing, you're going to hear complaints.
Builders of sports facilities have noted on multiple occasions that watching sports is as much fun as playing them. It's why balconies overlook racquetball and squash courts. It's why bleachers are provided next to softball diamonds. It's why pools have decks and lounge chairs, as well as splash pads, hot tubs and tot pools nearby.
When you take spectators and non-athletes out of the equation, you take a good portion of the excitement out of the game. For kids who are playing , you take out the joy of showing off their skills for their parents and friends.
I really hope this facility - which seems to have everything else going for it - gets a social life, and soon.