Accidental Activist

Lessons Learned from Stadium Adventures

It's important for Hamilton to get it right, to learn the lessons from other cities and build a true neighbourhood stadium that will serve the community well for generations to come.

By Ben Bull
Published July 26, 2010

I've visited a number of stadiums around the world during my 42 years of seeking out the oohs and aahs - and Oskee Wee Wees - of life.

I remember catching the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour at Wembley, with Mick Jagger swatting a giant inflatable mutt with his mic; Madonna straddling her chair at the Stadio Olimpico di Torino (those pointy breasts!); Eric Cantona and Co. slipping the ball past the goalie for the mighty whites at Elland Road.

Some of these visits were eons ago alas, and my recollections muddled, haphazard, hazy. But most are etched into my mind: the stadium as much a part of the experience as the event itself.

As Hamilton teeters towards the development of a bland, 'could-be-anywhere' car-centric stadium, I thought it would be informative to take a look back at some of my stadium adventures, to see if we can learn anything new.

Live At Leeds!

It wasn't The Who I was into as a kid, but Leeds United. I would keepy uppy for hours, pretending to be Billy Bremner, Leeds United's legendary, diminutive number 4. By the side of my bed were glossy posters, trinkets and picture books plastered with the smiling faces of my childhood ball hogging heroes.

By the time I reached my teens I was allowed to go to the games. Elland Road is about two miles from Leeds city center. It's next to an inner city motorway, not far from the ring road. Several buses get you there or thereabouts, many running along Beeston Hill a quarter mile away, spilling out their passengers at the top and sending them tumbling down - shoulder to shoulder, chip butty or pork pie in hand - to the hallowed turf below.

Brendan, Joe and myself would catch the 'football special' - one of the half dozen or so packed to the brim double decker buses which ran from the center of town and left a sticky scent of cigarettes and booze all the way to the ground.

Once at the stadium we would jostle off and squeeze our way through the myriad of tunnels and turnstiles before reaching the main stand.

I remember the less-than-amused mutterings of our fellow passengers as we funnelled into the ground. 'Baa!' was a common cry, as was 'Hey! Get of my f*g foot'.

After the game we'd hop straight back on the bus. Apart from a pub across the street and a shopping precinct on Beeston Road , there wasn't much to stick around for.

The Brickyard

At the infamous Indianapolis Brickyard I had the misfortune of watching the only Formula 1 Grand Prix that wasn't. Right before the Go, all but six of the cars diverted into the pits to protest their puncture-plagued tyres and were never seen again. Michael Schumacher took the lead on turn 1 and never looked back (literally - there was nothing to see!).

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is in a seriously depressed part of town. The upside to this, I suppose, is that the drive was not too bad. Most of the locals clearly didn't own vehicles and there was precious little other reason to drive to the area. So we had the roads to ourselves.

One 'only in America ' aspect of the visit was the parking lot location. Imagine our amazement as we were shepherded closer and closer to the track, until - Hey! We're inside the stadium! Getting to our seats was as simple as slamming the car door and strolling over to the nearest bleacher...

Varsity

Toronto's Varsity Stadium is surely the ultimate 'urban stadium'. Just up the road from Queens Park and the Toronto University campus, and opposite a subway stop - it doesn't get any more urban than this. My mates, Phil, Jon and myself would stop by once or twice a month to watch the Toronto Lynx play football.

Apart from the incessant hiss of the PA - 'The Lynx stay at the Sheraton Hotel!' 'Clothes for the Toronto Lynx are sponsored by blah blah blah...' - the game day experience was spot on. More importantly for me it allowed me another excuse to go for a pint, before, during and after the game.

One thing it did not allow me to do was drive because - hey! There's no parking! Hard to say how much this factored into the low attendances but I suspect the 1-2 thousand who bothered to turn up each week - and the several thousand who didn't - were not overly disaffected by the lack of easy driving. After all this is Toronto - it's not easy to drive anywhere.

BMO Field

Still in Toronto, these days I get my soccer fix at the town's newest soccer cathedral - BMO Field.

I don't know anyone who likes BMO. The hastily assembled metallic stands scream temporary structure!, the parking is plentiful and horrendous, and the stadium is stuck in the middle of Exhibition Place, an out on the limb location just far enough away from everything to be, well - close to nothing.

It's nice, of course, for us Toronto FC fans to have our 'own' stadium (at least we're not sharing the Sky Dome...). And it's not as if it's impossible to get there - there are several transit links available: streetcars, a GO train - there's even a bike path running all the way to my house! But a 'downtown' stadium this ain't.

The main problem with BMO field is the location. Exhibition Place is a special-event-only locale. Once the Ferris wheel stops spinning and the Indy cars screech off into the distance, the tumbleweed is never far behind.

What this means is that, after a game - just like Elland Road - there's nothing to do. You pile out of the gate and realize - you're in the middle of nowhere.

"What shall we do now, lads?" Bruce, or Phil or Greg will ask, looking around.

"Erm, I dunno." someone else will reply. "Go home?"

What this also means is that the stadium is not easy to get to. Like Elland Road on game day, the surrounding streets around BMO, and the local transit are easily overloaded.

True 'neighbourhood stadiums' don't have this problem. Varsity could have handled many more fans because the infrastructure is built to handle waves of people. Subways are hugely efficient at flushing people up and out. And quiet streets and foot friendly sidewalks encourage fans to bike or walk, and even stick around. Those who need to drive have a wealth of little lots to park in, and many ways to filter in and out.

Looking Back

Looking back it occurs to me how many things these stadiums did wrong. Driving to Elland Road and parking was a nightmare. Similarly at BMO Field, TFC fans routinely leave the ground five or ten minutes before the end - even during a one-goal game - to avoid the post-game gridlock.

And transit for these stadiums is sadly lacking. Leeds never jumped on the subway/streetcar bandwagon so it was always about the bus - not a pleasant way to travel at the best of times but on match days, with hoards of fellow fans and the roads already clogged with game goers, the trip was interminable. The Exhibition streetcar down Bathurst bursts at the seams as well - not a fun ride.

As for Indianapolis: well, if Bob Young wants a fully-car accessible locale then he should look no further than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After pulling out of the inside-the-track parking lot, cops closed the roads on the way out, two lanes turned into four and we were onto the highway and outta there before the champagne turned flat.

Die-hard supporters will always trek to the game. Crate up Old Trafford and clump it back together on top of the Gulf oil slick - the fans will still find their way there. But just because you can build a stadium anywhere and fill it, doesn't mean you should. A stadium, like the local team and the fans that fill it, is a part of the community.

Good neighbourhoods - like all Jane Jacobs aficionados know too well - serve multiple purposes. Stadiums and their associated events provide one huge, important purpose which, if integrated carefully into the community, can bring pride and prosperity - and life - to the surrounding neighbourhood.

Which Way to Go?

The RTH vision of a Waterfront stadium spilling out after the final whistle into the surrounding parks, restaurants and lakeside promenades is, in essence, everything RTH is about: Creating healthy neighbourhoods, leveraging our existing infrastructure, getting people onto the sidewalks, making the town come alive.

It's something that has been done so poorly and so often, by so many stadiums all over the world.

Stadiums are not easily torn down or retrofitted. Most of the stadiums I've reflected on are old, dysfunctional - and here to stay. It's important for Hamilton to get it right. To learn the lessons from other cities and build something that will serve the community well for generations to come.

It's down to two options. Which way will we go?

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

21 Comments

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted July 26, 2010 at 14:09:17

Some wonderful personal perspectives, Ben. Thanks for this.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted July 26, 2010 at 17:52:23

Apologies folks. This version contains some duplicate sentences. (That's what you get for sending stuff to the editor in bits and peices...) I've asked Ryan to re-publish.

Cheers!

Ben

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By Jason (registered) | Posted July 26, 2010 at 18:00:36

Looks like you drank one too many while writing this. Lol.
Seriously though, great piece. I was at BMO last week and it was horrendous! A 40 minute drive took 2 hours. I'll post more about that horrendous stadium set-up another time.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted July 26, 2010 at 18:01:22

.This version contains some duplicate sentences. (That's what you get for sending stuff to the editor in bits and peices...) I've asked Ryan to re-publish.

Oh, good-- I'm not the only one who sends corrected versions after my initial submission...

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By jonathan dalton (registered) | Posted July 26, 2010 at 18:54:07

I was at exhibition place for a concert a few weeks ago and had a similar experience. I had a ride with some people but wished I'd taken the GO when we ended up in traffic afterwards. And this is a place with 'good' parking and highway access. Every time I see post-event traffic up close (Bayfront was another example) I become more convinced that we shouldn't be trying to provide any more parking. Cars and large crowds of people just don't mix.

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By Jason (registered) | Posted July 26, 2010 at 19:55:36

And keep in mind, BMO is on bus and streetcar lines and the night I was at the game there were a TON of bikes parked along fences. Probably hundreds of bikes in one area alone. To top it off, a whole lot of folks walked off the site by foot.
And BMO only holds 20,000. Just think of how insane an EM stadium will be with no transit, cycling or pedestrian options for 30,000 people.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 26, 2010 at 19:58:49

I've asked Ryan to re-publish.

Done and done. My apologies, Ben! That's what I get for editing your article in parts rather than from beginning to end!

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted July 26, 2010 at 21:25:27

Oh, good-- I'm not the only one who sends corrected versions after my initial submission...

Must clarify: my initial comment was meant to refer to my own sloppiness.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2010-07-26 20:29:28

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By andrewpmk (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2010 at 00:42:48

It's interesting to note that the Leeds stadium you mentioned has a railway line beside it. Currently there is no train station there, only a bus station, but there is the potential for a train station to be built. So it is not really quite in the middle of nowhere as you suggest. Neither is Exhibition Place really, now if only there were GO trains from Hamilton-Oshawa every 15 minutes...

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By adam2 (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2010 at 09:33:10

If the stadium is built downtown, the suburban population that calls the shots in the city will whine about traffic gridlock before and after the games - this will be the only time they come downtown, but they will want to permanently convert even more streets to fast-moving traffic with fewer street signs. This is not conducive to downtown growth. I can't understand how a downtown stadium built by the people currently in charge can possibly be good for rejuvenation.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2010 at 11:43:29

Awesome story Ben. I like how you have talked about stadiums from a few different countries. I would love an honest account of experiences you have had at the current home of the Tiger-Cats (Ivor Wynne).

Then, factor in that it would only cost $16M to repair/upgrade it, and perhaps tear down Scott Park school and create even more parking. Does this change your statement from my initial question?

There is a quote on the Go East Mountain site that talks of an NFL executive constantly thinking about how to compete with a big screen HDTV, versus getting fans out to the games. Does the fact the IWS is amongst a community, and the proposed WH location offers a similar community feel, bring something to the table that many stadiums don't offer. A good, very positive something?

I have been to quite a few stadiums myself, and I would say IW and Fenway are two of my favorites. Both their history, and the surrounding stadium experience. Fenway is something we should certainly be targeting with regards to the before and after game experience. Plus it's no more than a $10 cab ride to surrounding hotels and downtown.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:56:47

I'm not much for sports, but I've been to a lot of concerts, and don't know that I'm optomistic about all this. First of all, these people throw awful concerts. The last two times I've been to the convention centre I vowed never to come back. First was a Bad Religion/Casualties/Warsawpack show "way back in the day" where nearly everyone missed the first act because security wouldn't let anyone in with studded belts or sweaters (they ended up forcing everyone to coat-check their belts and cutting up garbage bags to give them to hold up their pants). It was many years before I went back. But then a year or so ago I went to see Sage Francis with Rise against, got in the door just after 8 pm and Sage was already over. It then took an hour to get into the licenced area to buy beer.

If you ran a show like this in Toronto you'd be lucky to be eaten alive. Bureaucrats just don't throw good rock shows.

And then there's a suburban location. Reminds me of seeing the Pixies at Arrow Hall out buy Pearson Airport. We were lucky, when we got out (and this was a crowd that filled a large hanger) we were some of the first to get cabs, but even we just barely made it back to Union in time to bus back to Hamilton. It doubled the price of the show, including drinks. And then there's the 4-hour traffic nightmares I've witnessed getting in and out of Molson Park.

Live music isn't ever terribly economic to begin with. In all but the best of times, both musicians and fans tend to be fairly broke. Adding a $40 cab ride to all of this isn't exactly how you encourage people to come out. And requiring them to drive is dangerous as all hell. It only takes a few drunk drivers to turn a highway into a death-trap.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted July 27, 2010 at 13:55:22

Well, blame the innate human disposition for wanting to be entertained and with other people with like interests to see their hero-type entertainers, musicians, actors, athletes, celebrities of any sort.

Sort of sad homo sapiens seems to be constructed in such a way but then I didn't have any say in the matter, then it would have been different of course. ;)

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By synxer (registered) | Posted July 27, 2010 at 14:16:08

Best line ever: "Erm, I dunno." someone else will reply. "Go home?"

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By Ben (anonymous) | Posted July 27, 2010 at 15:26:22

"I would love an honest account of experiences you have had at the current home of the Tiger-Cats (Ivor Wynne)."

My pleasure! I went to IW only one time several years ago. This, even though I lived in Hamilton for 6 years, 4 1/2 of those in the east end. Somehow I never seemed to be able to get to a game (it probably didn't help that I don't really watch North American 'football' ...).

I really enjoyed the experience.

I remember seeing kids and grannies selling parking spots on their lawns and thinking, 'Only in Hamilton' :)
My work friend told me he had 'Executive seats' so I was excited to have a VIP experience. Turned out they were just regular wooden seats in the only corner of the stadium which didn't have any cheerleaders to look at (this was very disappointing...! ).

I remember my friend blocking my view all the time buying beers and popcorn and jumping for all the free T-Shirts and miniature footballs being thrown into the crowd. The man was nearly 50. It was a sad sight to see...

The game itself was OK. I remember that Hamilton lost it with about 3 minutes to go. Their drive to the End Zone went astray. Then, no more than 10 seconds after the fatal fumble, City TV's Rick The Temp comes on the pitch and starts playing, 'throw the ball in the clown's mouth' or some such stupid game. I was thinking, "What the F...? We just lost the game, and now this idiot's trying to get us to cheer for Tina from Burlington so she can win a slice of pizza...? What is wrong with these people!!"

As for the IW location, it worked fine for me. It reminded me of a lot of English football stadium locales, right in the heart of a residential district. The problem I would have if I was a regular is that there are not a lot of after game options in the immediate vicinity. I need a couple of good pubs nearby, and, unless I'm missing something, there doesn't appear to be any. One reason WH appeals to me - and I would certainly check it out if it were built - is that there is stuff to do nearby. I might take my kids so they could go down to the lake. I'd take the missus or friends so we could head up James. It wouldn't just be about going to the event. And of course, I could mingle with the other fans on the street, as opposed to zig zagging through a car-park. To me the going to the game and leaving the game, part of the experience is paramount. You walk through the local streets, past landmarks. It's your city, your event. The stadium, the city, the event, they are all part of the city's history.

I didn't have time to write about the Michael Jackson concert at Roundhay Park, Leeds. Ayresome Park in Middlesborough, St James' Park Newcastle, Roker Park, Sunderland...so many cities, so many stadiums!

@Michelle - It sounds like we have the same writing challenges! The first draft is always a breeze, but then it's edit edit edit. I remember writing a 2 page peice for The Spec which took almost 2 months to craft. No wonder most writers are broke.

Thanks for the comments!

Ben

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2010 at 15:27:01

@Undustrial

Yeah, I remember the nightmare of trying to figure out how I was supposed to get back from Molson Park after Edgefest.

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By frank (registered) | Posted July 27, 2010 at 15:51:39

Just had a long email conversation with Sam Merulla and he says that the "no stadium" vote is still an option.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2010 at 16:24:34

I remember CNE Grandstand back before it was BMO field. It was a great thing to see a concert there during the Ex, though. One day, back in 1983, My friend called me at my summer job to say she had 2 tickets to the Bowie Serious Moonlight Tour concert. I caught the GO train from Oakville after work, met her on the Port Credit platform, and we proceeded to the Exhibition stop. Tickets were general admission, and we managed to get up pretty much near the bottom of the stage. Awesomeness. Gotta love those pants. OK-- enough 80's.

My kids (well, the ones who are football fans) love walking down to IW to catch a game, and they love the whole thing. If we have to drive them anywhere to watch one, they'll go less often.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2010-07-27 15:26:17

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2010 at 00:30:19

Just had a long email conversation with Sam Merulla and he says that the "no stadium" vote is still an option.

Couldn't agree more. From an email I recieved from Mr. Bratina, I think he feels the same.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2010 at 00:34:37

My kids (well, the ones who are football fans) love walking down to IW to catch a game, and they love the whole thing. If we have to drive them anywhere to watch one, they'll go less often.

Love this Michelle.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2010 at 00:37:34

Love your IWS account, Ben. After visiting Fenway Park in Boston, I see the true potential of an area surrounding a stadium. I wonder if nothing comes of this Pan Am process, if there is potential to create this atmosphere around IWS because other than close proximatey to downtown via bus or short cab ride, there are not a lot of restaurants within spitting distance that I can think of. Unless you park and ride at the New Boston Pizza at The Centre (Mall).

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