Story and photos by Adam Maher
"It's the fans that need spring training. You gotta get 'em interested. Wake 'em up and let 'em know that their season is coming, the good times are gunna roll." -- Harry Caray
Last month, as I mapped out a four-day, three-night business trip to Chicago that revolved around a National Sports Marketing Network (NSMN) gathering, slated for a Monday night, I meticulously planned day trips to two legendary American sports stadiums: Soldier Field for the Gold Cup Final on Sunday, and Wrigley Field for a Cubs game on Tuesday -- it would be my first experience at both venues.
As a member of the sports branding industry, my intentions were to experience the two classic stadiums for comparison purposes. In this case, I would be experiencing two older, more intimate but less technologically advanced venues as contrasted against the newer, amenity inspired but more stadium-savvy venues this country has to offer. Two weeks removed from watching Yoenis Cespedes beat Bryce Harper in the Home Run Derby from the front row at Citi Field, a state-of-the-art facility built in 2009, and the fact that I'm a regular attendee at MetLife Stadium (both venues have more amenities and comforts than my living room -- aside from lacking Internet capabilities) I felt I had enough recent "new-school" in-stadium experience to base my comparisons on.
With Soldier Field being the second smallest NFL stadium (62,871 seats after multiple renovations) and the oldest NFL stadium (1924), I was in for a Sunday afternoon treat as I headed there for the Gold Cup Championship game, Team USA vs. Team Panama. After a short cab ride, my three friends and I walked over a sky way and peered downward over a handrail at rows of train tracks as several trains were arriving with bells and whistles right on time for the game. We then made our way down a well-manicured thoroughfare which led us into an echo-inspiring tunnel that runs underneath a roadway and out to the facade of where Brian Urlacher spent his Hall of Fame career. The entire walk was like a lucid dream, and brought back a distant memory ... I met Urlacher a block away from my house in Montclair, New Jersey in 2002. I was a teenager and Urlacher was an All-Pro, king-sized linebacker. Standing on a suburban sidewalk in his game day jersey, Brian was taking a break from filming his latest NFL commercial at a local elementary school near my house -- I remember immediately telling my friends to "wait here" so I could sprint home to grab a pair of adidas flip flops for Brian to sign.
A decade later here I was. I had finally arrived at the doorstep of Urlacher's palace. Unfortunately, the signed flip flops are nowhere to be found.
After passing through the turn style, my crew entered an empty rotunda that could probably double as a small aircraft hangar. It was a massive open-space slab of cement and the floor was painted as a replica football field. Enough space to hit top speed in a sprint (which I'm glad to say I accomplished). After talking with some locals I learned that the stadium itself is built into the side of a man made hill. It sits on the outskirts of downtown Chicago at the end of the Field Colombian Museum and is about a mile away from the southern crown of Lake Michigan. I took the liberty of walking up to the top row of the north side's grandstands during halftime to snag this epic panorama:
Notice Lake Michigan on the horizon. Most stadiums would have this wall covered with advertisements, but for now, you could repel off the north side of Soldier Field if you wanted to.
The empty spaces inside Soldier Field enclosed with tall walls of cement made for a minimalist environment. Large corridors filled with not kiosks but bands of supporters singing songs was a humbling experience. I thought to myself, this is what it's been like for decades. There wasn't a fancy "museum" shop every 20 feet. There was no Shake Shack or Burger King around every corner. And there weren't advertisements being shelled in my face at a million miles per hour. Also, the security let you head down to the front row to take pictures. Try doing that at a new stadium.
The actual soccer game itself, with its 3:00 pm start time, moved pretty fast, thanks in part to minimal goals and fouls. The USMNT won 1 - 0 on a second half blooper goal with what I was calling their B+ lineup (no Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was suspended, etc.) But the overall "in-game" experience was one of the best I've ever had.
As I watched (and celebrated to the full extent of the verb) Landon Donovan's game-winning goal get stolen by Brek Shae in the 69th minute, the classic environment inspired me to consider the "in-game" fan experience vs. the "on-the-couch" fan experience. In an old, intimate stadium like Soldier, on a 70 degree day or in a 10 degree tundra I'll be happy to set my fantasy lineup, turn off my phone and take in the game at the stadium as opposed to my tablet-filled living room. Having said that, I definitely felt closer to the action at Soldier Field than I've ever felt at any MetLife Stadium game -- granted, I was fifth row at the epic Jets vs. Patriots Thanksgiving blowout "butt fumble classic" last year.
My Tuesday afternoon trip to Wrigley Field was nothing short of spectacular, and probably edged out my experience at Soldier Field by a few inches. MLB's second oldest ballpark (1914), Wrigley seats about 41,000 (only 800 fewer than Citi Field, but 9,000 fewer than Yankee Stadium). As a first time visitor to Wrigley, it would be an injustice if I truly attempted in a serious manner to describe what it's like to take in a game at Wrigley. I would fail miserably, stumbling through descriptors like a Yasiel Puig trying to take the SATs in English. Perhaps years later I will give it the old Harvard try.
I will say that there is a lack of jumbo tron and there are no in-your-face billboards -- two characteristics that are nice to see from a fan's perspective, but downright nauseating from a sports marketer's perspective. In comparison to Citi Field's billboards, Wrigley's capability for activation is a laughing stock, but rumors swirling that Wrigley is in for a big renovation with more activation opportunities in mind is cause for hope.
The in-stadium experience at Wrigley is most commonly compared to Fenway. I've never been to Fenway so I'm left stuck to compare it against Citi Field and Yankee Stadium. First off, the food is very good. I don't think I've ever had a better tasting hot dog all my life. The beer isn't as expensive and the lines are surprisingly short for an old ballpark.
The free-to-roam environment made it very easy to take in the game from different angles. You could literally walk the upper deck from foul pole to foul pole without blocking a single person's view, all the while enjoying a perfect view of the game yourself. This is hardly the case at any new-age stadium I've ever been to. Additionally, if there were open seats down low, the security guards were happy to let you walk down and watch the game. Reminiscent of the olden days when fans used to sit on the outfield walls, happy to be stuck "on the fence."
Even by myself I knew I'd truly enjoy every moment at Wrigley -- and I did, thanks in part to the Cubs and Brewers throwing down a remarkable game. Down 2 - 0 in the fifth inning thanks to a pair of on-the-road homers, the Cubs rallied with five runs off five hits to take a momentous lead. It all folded when the Cubs went to their bullpen. Cubs slinger James Russell got shelled and gave the Brewers a four-run rally of their own. Control of the game was back in Milwaukee's hands as we entered the bottom of the ninth inning. With two outs and a man on first, Anthony Rizzo I believe, and the Cubs down 6-5, into the batters box walked right-handed hitter Welington Castillo. I sat watching anxiously from the front row down the third base line in the outfield section as Castillo ripped a high, swooping hit my direction, the crowd rising as it curved about 40 feet over my head, and much to my, and more so the hometown fans' chagrin, five feet left of the left-field foul pole. I was five feet away from seeing a walk-off home run at my first trip to Wrigley! Unfortunately Welington popped out two pitches later, and I started for the exit before the ball was caught.
One major problem we are facing as an industry with today's new-age venues is that a truly less intimate environment to watch the game than what we have in Soldier and Wrigley is becoming the standard. Stadiums are being built to be larger than life (not necessarily in capacity), and when you compare Soldier Field to MetLife, and Wrigley Field to Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, it's obvious to me that fans are literally watching the game from a farther vantage point. This is not the sole reason why, but I believe this problem has caused stadium marketing teams to become more dependent on creating new in-stadium features that instead of creating a different and better experience than watching the game in your living room, the stadium is trying to mimic that living room experience, thus taking away from a good old fashioned bag o' peanuts, beer and some cheers, which is exactly what I experienced in Chicago. The in-stadium experiences that landmark stadiums like Soldier Field and Wrigley Field create have the potential to turn any millennium's phone away from their face for an hour or two. I am scared that building indoor cafeteria's (Citi Field) and having multiple bars at the game (Yankee) take away from that "at-the-game" experience. Hopefully Wrigley and Soldier are able to maintain their rustic and historic scenery, while increasing their revenue through newly added activations and campaigns!