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Hefferon: New stadiums need creativity (Oct. 31)

By Jack Hefferon | Tuesday, October 30, 2012

In sports, like with any product, the packaging is important. We don’t just want to see our team win, we want to see them do it in awesome jerseys, while we eat a quality hot dog and drink a cold beer from our great seats (or, at the very least, on a comfortable couch in front of an HDTV).

But the most important container for any sports franchise is the arena itself, the communal cathedral where not just you, but tens of thousands of the faithful all come together to watch, cheer, suffer and complain about Martinez losing a step. At its best, the stadium can be an identity and a teammate to the players on the field, a favorite star that never graduates or retires.

Sometimes, the venue can contribute more to the gameday experience than the play on the field itself – as anyone who has been to a Cubs game in the past decade or so can tell you.

But instead of taking on the embracing aura and mystique of a Wrigley, most modern stadiums package a game more like those plastic, heat-sealed clamshell containers that are impossible to open and end up slicing your fingers open: functional, but not at all endearing.

My two examples are Citi Field and the new Yankee Stadium, the respective New York homes of the Mets and Yankees. Built within a few years of each other, the new stadiums were necessary replacements for the classic but decaying Yankees Stadium of old, and Shea Stadium – the consummate “It’s a dump, but it’s our dump” park.

But instead of building on the traditions of their franchises and their legendary home-field advantages, the new parks are straight out of the modern cookie-cutter. Expensive (and empty) club seats ring the field, and exclusive suites and executive suits have replaced the bleacher bums and priced out many of the upper-deck lifers.

When people think of the Packers, they think Lambeau Field. That’s a reputation the Yankees and Mets won’t have to worry about – at least until it’s time to build the next round of stadiums.

It does seem that the classic stadiums – like Lambeau or Wrigley – do have the advantage of history and tradition, something that a new venue can never replicate. I will never be confused with someone who knows architecture, but walking around Soldier Field for the Notre Dame vs. Miami game a few weeks ago, I was absolutely blown away by the restored columns and gates from the early 20th-century design, but the modern spaceship renovations on top of them left a bitter taste in my mouth.

However, there are plenty of modern stadiums that have carved their own way into history, and offer fans a mystique all their own. The Patriots’ Gillette Stadium is barely a decade old, but its lighthouse and open, bridge-style walkways have made it an arena fit for the Super Bowl teams it has hosted.

In Winnipeg, owners renovated the city’s legendary but rundown Eaton’s department store into a 15,000 person bandbox. The new stadium helped bring hockey back to Winnipeg, and the arena’s size (the smallest in the NHL) has made the Jets the hottest ticket in the league.

And for the Notre Dame student, spoiled by the living legacy of a certain football stadium, there are still newer local venues that are shining beacons for modern stadia. 25-year old Coveleski Stadium is the perfect minor-league ballpark, resplendent with both a JumboTron and a hill in right field to picnic on. And the brand new Compton Family Ice Arena is a world-class facility, but every seat in the house is about one thing and one thing only: a great view of the game.

So building a modern, high-tech arena that creates an instant connection and is beloved by patrons isn’t easy, but some shining examples have shown they can hold a candle to the likes of Fenway and Madison Square Garden.

So if you’re designing a new arena, do yourself – and the fans – a favor. Go outside the box, and break out of the dull, emotionless mold that has become far too common across the country.

Besides, it’s one of those annoying plastic ones, anyway.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer,