NFL teams see pay dirt in modern stadium designs

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At first glance, the Dallas Cowboys' new $1 billion stadium simply reinforces the stereotype that everything is bigger in Texas.

At 2.3 million square feet and capable of seating 100,000, the retractable-roof stadium will be the among the biggest sports venues in the U.S. when it opens in two years, with the largest capacity in the National Football League. The two steel arches that support the roof, a quarter mile each, will be the longest of their kind in the world.

But more notable may be the new stadium's futuristic style. Designed by Bryan Trubey of Dallas-based architecture firm HKS Inc., the yet-to-be-named football venue will be wrapped in glass panels that will become increasingly transparent as they rise. At each end of the stadium, massive glass doors will open onto plazas. Inside the stadium, 180-foot long video screens suspended over both sides of the field will entertain fans.

"The stadium says technology," says Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner.

The design underscores a trend in football stadiums that looks forward rather than back, in contrast to the current vogue in nostalgic baseball stadiums. When the stadium opens, expected in time for the Cowboys' first home game in 2009, the contrast will be especially stark. The helmet-shaped venue will be adjacent to Ameriquest Field, home of the Texas Rangers and a brick ballpark evocative of baseball's past. It was part of a movement to build retro ballparks that included Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards and San Francisco's AT&T Park.

"There's a big historicist movement in baseball that has validity to it because baseball has been around for 125 years as a professional sport," says Mr. Trubey. The NFL, meantime, exploded in the postwar television years, and the first generation of its stadiums were basic and frugal. They created little allegiance or nostalgia among fans. In terms of historical references, "it's kind of wide open," says Mr. Trubey.

Much of the stylistic inspiration for the futuristic stadiums has come from abroad, including Beijing's Olympic Stadium, which is being readied for the 2008 Games and looks like a bird's nest. It was designed by Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron. That firm also designed the well-received Allianz Arena in Munich, which looks like a giant luminescent quilted pillow.

"This is the future of the building type," says David Manica, principal with HOK Sport + Venue + Event, a sports-architecture and planning firm in Kansas City, Mo. HOK, which was the prime force behind baseball's homage to the past, and is now part of the team designing a modern update to Wembley stadium in London.

Other recent futuristic football venues include the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., the retractable-roof home of the NFL Cardinals that opened last year and will host the national college football championship on Monday. It features huge exterior metallic panels that mimic the shape of the local barrel cactus and a grass field that rolls out of the stadium into the sun-drenched parking lot.

To some, though, the future hasn't always been pretty. When one of the NFL's beloved relics, Soldier Field in Chicago, was renovated in 2003, a modern glass and steel stadium bowl was built inside the existing stadium. Some locals say it looks like a UFO crashed into the old venue, whose colonaded facade was preserved.

Peter Eisenman, who designed the Cardinals stadium, says the scale, cost and architectural flourish of the newest NFL venues reflects the economic and cultural power of the sport today. So it's not surprising that they have become "civic icons" not unlike churches, train stations and skyscrapers were to generations past, he adds.

The Cowboys currently play in Texas Stadium, an aging venue in Irving, Texas, that opened in 1971 and seats 65,000. With the Cowboys' lease set to expire at the end of the 2008 season, Mr. Jones has been working to find an alternative. Since 1994, the team has proposed a number of options, from expanding Texas Stadium to building anew in Dallas. In June of 2004, plans for a stadium east of downtown Dallas collapsed when county officials refused to ask voters to approve $425 million in public funding.

That same year, the Cowboys and the city of Arlington some eight miles west of Irving negotiated a deal for a site near the Rangers' Ameriquest Field. In November 2004, Arlington voters approved a sales-tax increase to fund a $325 million portion of the project, leading to the demolition of some residential property in 2005.

The stadium design also reflects a financial reality for all professional sports -- the need for many luxury boxes to help teams pay soaring player salaries and maximize profits. Like most new venues, the Cowboys' stadium puts a premium on catering to the rich, with 200 suites, including at field level. To increase the excitement for well heeled fans, players will enter the field through one of the stadium's eight clubs. That configuration is in large part a product of the NFL's revenue-sharing rules. Unlike the league's enormous TV revenue, which is evenly shared by all 32 teams, or regular ticket revenue, which is split with the visiting team, franchises keep all of the revenue generated by luxury suites and boxes.

Dallas-based architecture critic David Dillon says the stadium's suites and clubs push the upper decks higher and farther from the action, a problem inherent to most new sports venues. But overall Mr. Dillon commends the design, which he says reflects rather than obscures the shape and size of the bowl inside. "It seems to be a stadium very much of its time," he says.

The new venue will not altogether beak with the past. Its roof will open to mimic Texas Stadium's signature feature, a hole that exposes the playing field so that, according to Texans, God can look down on the Cowboys on Sunday afternoons. The hole in the roof also provides an instantly recognizable television shot from a blimp flying above the stadium. "That's an indelible image," says Mr. Eisenman.

Mr. Trubey says the stadium will be the largest column-free space in the world, thanks to the two steel arches that support the retractable roof. Each beam will weigh 3,200 tons. The facade and interiors are mostly steel and glass, rather than concrete and stone, and the shape includes curves and overhangs more akin to office buildings.

The futuristic look also is an attempt to reflect the Cowboys brand, which Mr. Jones says is about "glitz and glamour," rather than "checkered tablecloths." Mr. Trubey says he commissioned brand-marketing and strategy studies before putting pencil to paper. With his studies confirming that the Cowboys' identity is more about flash than tradition, he sketched out the design.

It will be the most expensive stadium in the country, at least until the New York Jets and New York Giants build their $1.2 billion project in New Jersey's Meadowlands that is expected to open in 2010 but hasn't been designed yet.

Though the emphasis on technology is intended to underscore the project's style, it also represents a business calculation. Mr. Jones believes that in the years ahead the Cowboys' biggest competition for fans will come from the increasingly sophisticated home-entertainment industry. To counter home media, the 180-foot boards inside the stadium will, in the words of Mr. Trubey, provide fans with the equivalent of watching the game on a 52-inch plasma screen from 12 feet away.

"You'll be able to see the sweat on their foreheads," says Mr. Jones.



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