By: Marisa Helms-
The Minnesota Vikings and the St. Paul Saints say they treasure their fans and each team says they have designed their new facilities with those fans in mind.
So, how many bells and whistles does a diehard fan need, anyway?
Plenty, apparently. And giving fans what they want isn’t cheap. In fact, amenities can surpass construction costs like labor and steel, according to Chris Allphin, Van Wagner Sports and Entertainment vice president for team and venue services.
Allphin, who is selling seat licenses for the Vikings, says the cost of a new stadium increases “exponentially” for NFL teams who strive to meet the high expectations of today’s fans.
“Twenty years ago, fans were completely happy with a hot dog from a boiler and a stale bun, and nothing more than a couple of replays on an old-style screen,” says Allphin. “Today, fans want gourmet food, they want high-definition LED signs with programmed content, not just replays, and they want Wi-Fi with the expectation they’ll be connected throughout a game.”
When the Vikings’ new, wired, $1 billion, 65,000-seat stadium in downtown Minneapolis opens in 2016, spectators will expect to interact with Vikings-exclusive smartphone apps and be able to live-tweet, check their Facebook status, or their fantasy football scores while watching the game.
Indeed, wireless Internet is a hot game-day offering for Vikings fans like Cory Merrifield, a 36-year-old technology salesman from Shakopee.
“I’m excited about the enhanced, digital interaction,” says Merrifield, a self-described “fan advocate” who created savethevikes.org, to organize support for a new Vikings stadium.
Merrifield says he’s also particularly excited about the two massive LED scoreboards that he hears will be “larger than the Dallas stadium,” and 800, high definition TVs placed throughout the concourses, so fans won’t be cut off from the game while they’re visiting the bathroom or concessions.
Being with the ‘swells’
Seating options in the new Vikings facility have been divided into 16 tiers. The top tier includes seven luxury suites. Architectural renderings of the suites have the look and feel of a suburban kitchen, complete with flat screen TVs, marble countertops, and comfortable, movable seats.
John Wendt, a professor of sports law at the University of St. Thomas, says there’s no doubt the suites will provide a great game-day experience for the wealthy and corporate fans who can afford them.
“Like any other sporting event, people want that excitement, that sense of community,” says Wendt. “And the suites give you a sense of community and exclusivity at the same time. It’s a ‘being with the swells’ effect.”
Fans who cannot afford higher-tiered seats will have other amenities, including more, higher quality food choices. Game-day staples like hot dogs and popcorn will still be offered, but Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority — the entity that will own the new stadium — says there will also be upscale dining options to choose from, perhaps offered by local restaurants, but Kelm-Helgen says those details are still being worked out.
Another big improvement over the Metrodome will be the bathrooms. The new Vikings stadium will have 979 toilet fixtures, which is more than twice the number in the Dome.
Whither the tailgate?
Ask a Vikings or Saints fan to describe their ideal game-day experience, and they will undoubtedly list an essential component that doesn’t even take place in a stadium: tailgating.
But, traditional tailgating locations have not been finalized as of publication by either team. The Vikings say they’re still working with the city on a plan to allow tailgating near the new stadium, and the Saints are looking at some nearby surface parking lots as possible tailgating options.
Tailgating is not something the Vikings or the Saints can afford to treat as an afterthought. Many fans wax poetic about tailgating as a unique space where they can create community with people they never would meet otherwise.
As 42 year-old Vikings season ticket holder Dan Lind, puts it, “On any given Sunday we celebrate our love of the game, and the team is the common bond that brings us together.” Lind, an advertising executive from St. Louis Park, adds, “I hope the Vikings can maintain that tradition, so we can continue to come together before the game itself.”
Over in St. Paul, Saints baseball fan Rob Warren calls the tailgating parking lot at Midway a “major virtue.”
Recreating the “back fence”
While many Vikings fans have trouble parting ways with the Metrodome, Midway Stadium still has an oddly nostalgic pull for many Saints fans. The 1980s-era facility is in an isolated industrial zone where fans are frequently serenaded by the sounds of a chugging freight train riding the rails adjacent to the stadium.
“Midway is just a dump in every way,” says Warren, a Saints season ticket holder since 2002. “The sight lines are terrible, the field is terrible, the facilities for the players are embarrassing. But [Midway Stadium] is our dump.”
For Warren, and most other Saints fans, a Saints game is never about winning the game. First and foremost, fans attend Saints games for the entertainment and the sense of community. The game of baseball comes second.
Most people come to a Saints game for the action between innings. That’s when Midway is taken over by the pig mascots, the sumo wrestling, the nun who gives back massages, and the “Usher-Tainers” who chat up and entertain the fans. You get the picture.
There’s a whole lot going on at Midway on Saints game day, and Warren, a 44 year-old professor at the University of Minnesota, says he and his two young sons have mixed feelings about what will happen when the Saints move to their $63 million, 7,000-seat ballpark in downtown Saint Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood in May 2015.
“I suspect with the new stadium it will feel more normal, like any other baseball stadium,” says Warren. “I worry that the character will be lost, the whole social experience.”
Warren believes there’s something about the “terribleness” of Midway’s design that unintentionally makes a Saints game special.
Take, for example, Midway’s “cross-aisle,” a pathway within the seating bowl behind home plate allowing entertainers and spectators to walk back and forth from dugout to dugout.
The space has become an intimate, “back fence” for fans to stop, mingle and chat with each other during the game.
“It’s a big, social, public party,” says Warren.
This fondness for Midway’s “back fence” is not lost on the Saints’ “Fun is Good” organization. So, the Saints are forgoing game day revenue by leaving out a few rows of seating in order to build a cross aisle in Lowertown, even though the ballpark’s infrastructure doesn’t require it.
“From a functional perspective, the new ballpark doesn’t need a cross-aisle, it’s strictly for the performers and to bring the Midway experience to Lowertown,” says Logan Gerken, project design manager with Ryan Companies. Gerken is in charge of finalizing design and construction details as part of a design team that includes Snow Kreilich Architects and sports facility architects, AECOM.
“The Saints are fantastic at what they do, and are revered for the fun family environment they create,” says Gerken. “For us to force them into a box would be the wrong thing to do.”
Gerken says the new ballpark will also reproduce Midway’s intimacy through its seating bowl and field design. Spectators will enter at-grade onto a concourse that encircles the entire ballpark. He says the idea behind the design is to create connectivity and movement, and to give fans access to different experiences, or “neighborhoods” within the ballpark.
The 7,000 seating capacity at Lowertown will be an increase over Midway’s 5,800. Casual seating includes a grassy berm and bleachers in the left field corner, or molded plastic seats in the rest of the outfield section and the infield reserved seating bowl. For a few dollars more, some fans can look forward to wider, padded seats behind home plate that include food and beverage service. The Lowertown ballpark design will also include a second level that wraps from first to third base, and will offer club seating for 250 and between four to six suites.
Some season ticket holders have complained that they won’t get comparable seats in the new ballpark for what they’ve been paying at Midway, which is contested by Saints General Manager Derek Sharrer.
Season ticket prices will range from $5 to $28 per seat in the new ballpark, close to what they currently cost at Midway ($6 to $22). But, Sharrer says what a fan will get for their money in the Lowertown Ballpark is a huge improvement over Midway.
“Our fans are going to be able to have a more comfortable, customer-friendly experience in the new ballpark for the same prices,” says Sharrer. “We have the opportunity to offer incredible seats at exactly the same price, not in the exact same location.”
Sharrer says the team will release a full pricing schedule for individual seating this summer when the Saints play their final season at Midway.
A magical place
Saints fans will find other major improvements over Midway in the form of higher quality food choices. And there will be a major uptick in bathroom facilities at Lowertown with 130 toilets and 41 urinals located throughout the building.
Bathrooms are no small issue at Midway which is notorious for its dearth of toilets and its reliance on portable toilets leased from the city of St. Paul that are lined up in the parking lot and beyond the outfield. Even Saints owner Mike Veeck complains about the toilets at Midway, where, he says, getting out to the bathroom and back to your seat at Midway takes “about six days.”
Veeck, who co-owns the Saints with actor and comedian Bill Murray and three others, has no doubt that the Midway experience will transfer to the new ballpark.
“There might be a gag here and there that doesn’t work,” says Veeck. “But a lot of the characters will transfer very easily to the new ballpark and we’ll create new ones.”
Moreover, Veeck is sure the new ballpark will be a success because of the energy of the fans.
“Midway Stadium is one of the homeliest buildings in the history of the world, but it comes alive, it becomes a magical place because of the fans,” says Veeck. “Any good building becomes a reflection of what fans bring to it, their enthusiasm. They decide what works and what doesn’t.”