Mon Oct 18 07:25pm EDT
The B.C. Lions are in a rather unique stadium situation this year and at least part of next year, playing their home games at the temporary Empire Field (pictured above during a June preseason game against Edmonton) while B.C. Place is renovated and has a retractable roof installed. The temporary stadium is probably the most unusual regular CFL venue we'll see this year (Touchdown Atlantic's stadium might top it, but that was only for one game). I figured I'd go take a look at what the experience is like for the average fan, so I bought a ticket for Saturday's game against the Edmonton Eskimos and headed down there with a friend. The game itself was pretty thrilling, as I covered earlier in the Monday's Point After column, and it certainly carried plenty of significance for both sides, as Vancouver Sun columnist Cam Cole discussed. However, the stadium deserves its own post, so let's break down the highlights and lowlights.
The Good: The sightlines at Empire Field are fantastic. Our seats were in Section 216, several rows up, and there was a great view of the entire field. That isn't limited to that particular spot, either, as the stadium offers an intimate experience throughout. Its seating capacity is listed as 27,528 on Wikipedia, but it's probably closer to 30,000 considering the Lions' attendance numbers from this season. Even the highest seats aren't that far from the field, and they seem right next to it when you compare them to the cavernous atmosphere of B.C. Place. You get an excellent view of all the action, and that's one of the most important parts of attending a game in person. The surrounding scenery is also gorgeous, with the mountains clearly visible in the distance.
Having an outdoor stadium in B.C. is also a terrific experience on a nice evening. One of the downsides of the old B.C. Place was that with a fixed roof, it provided a particularly artificial atmosphere. It was a mass of concrete on the inside, and it got quite sweaty and humid during the summer. By contrast, Empire Field feels far more like a true football environment; it's out in the elements rather than inside a concrete jungle. The Orland Kurtenblog guys focused on that in their review of the stadium, and it's easy to see why. The stadium can get chilly and windy, especially on a cool October night, but that's not a problem if you're properly dressed for the conditions. Rain might be less pleasant, but even a Vancouver downpour can be endured with a good jacket, and the on-field chaos that might create would certainly be interesting. Many of the seats on the sidelines are under a roof, too, so there are options available for those who don't want to get soaked.
Empire Field has a retro feel to it, and for good reason. It's built on the site of the old Empire Stadium, where the Lions first played when they joined the CFL. Many of us are too young to remember that, but that doesn't eliminate the value of the history. The field's design and setup make it largely feel like you're attending an old-time football game, and that's pretty cool.
That's not to say that the stadium is entirely about an old-time experience, as some concessions have been made to modern times. Most prominent is the giant video screen at the eastern end zone, and it's a good thing to have. Football has so many different things happening on any particular play that you're really missing out if you have no ability to catch replays. It's one of the things that makes watching games on television great, and it's certainly worthwhile in my mind for the Lions to make that concession to modernity; I'll take being able to see replays over a completely authentic old-time experience any day.
The Bad: However, even that is limited; there's only a video screen at the one end of the stadium. You can see it quite well from most seats, but if you're sitting in that end, it would be awfully tough to catch replays without constantly turning around. That might not be a deal-breaker for everyone, but it certainly would impact my viewing experience pretty negatively.
Another downside of the experience is the behaviour of some fans. This definitely isn't an issue unique to B.C. Place, as it happens at pretty much every professional sports event I've been to, but some people seem to think attending a game is an excuse to get over-the-top loaded and annoy everyone around them. To their credit, the security staff seemed to be doing their best to keep the buffoonery in check, but they have to walk a fine line between being seen as overzealous killjoys and doing nothing. Again, that's not an Empire Field-specific issue, but you have to think it weighs on the minds of some people when they're deciding if they're going to attend a game. There's also those who decide to streak (three separate people Saturday night), which, while good for a laugh, delays the game significantly.
Getting to and from the stadium also isn't the easiest task. There are over 1,300 parking spaces at the PNE, so you can drive, but be prepared to pay $25-30 for parking. Alternatively, there's transit (the option I chose), but unlike B.C. Place, Empire Field isn't directlyon the SkyTrain line, so you'll have to take SkyTrain and then a bus. That actually works out a lot better than it could, as TransLink offers "Football Special" buses on game days that run almost directly from SkyTrain stations to the stadium (a 10-15 minute ride). Getting there on those isn't a problem, as they run plenty of buses and fans' arrival times are staggered enough that there wasn't too much of a crowd when I went. Getting back is more difficult, as you've got 20,000-plus people leaving the stadium at the same time and many hoping to take transit back. TransLink does the best they can (and this was an issue at B.C. Place too, even with it being right on SkyTrain), but their transit system has a tough team dealing with that kind of mass movement. Be prepared to wait a while if you're returning by transit.
The Ugly: Really, most of the larger problems with Empire Field can be attributed to those sheer numbers. Keep in mind that this was on a night with an announced attendance of 21,414, too, over 8,000 below the stadium's biggest attendance this year (the 29, 517 who packed into the stadium for the July 10 game against the Roughriders pictured at right); I'd imagine many of these volume-based problems would get even worse with larger crowds. This is a temporary facility built on a relatively small footprint, so it doesn't have the infrastructure you'd expect from most professional sports stadiums in 2010.
Thus, there are going to be huge lines for the washrooms most of the night (to their credit, the Lions have brought in sizeable numbers of portable toilets to complement the running-water washrooms and alleviate some of the demand, but it's still nowhere near enough to handle the halftime or post-game crowds), and even longer lines for food and refreshments. The food and drink selection is limited, and beer in particular is in short supply; there are only a few stands selling it, and most of them only have small cups of Budwiser for $7. Prepare to stand in line for quite a while if you want one.
The lack of space also makes it very difficult to get around, especially when everyone's moving at a halftime or post-game break. I met up with another friend at halftime, and it took over 10 minutes to fight through the crowds and get to her section. If you're attending the game with a group, I'd highly recommend making sure you buy seats together, as it isn't easy to rendezvous with anyone in another part of the stadium.
One situation that is particularly troublesome relates to the dressing rooms. There aren't any real dressing rooms to speak of; teams use trailers that look like portable classrooms instead. That's probably the best that can be done in these conditions, but that leads to the visiting team's players walking on a catwalk to their dressing room straight over the heads of departing fans right after the game. With the way Saturday's game ended, many of those fans were in a rather bitter mood, and some of them let fly with a string of booze-fueled homophobic invectives against Edmonton's players. That's certainly disturbing (and might cause some parents to think twice about bringing their kids to Lions' games), but isn't necessarily a huge problem. A bigger problem is when fans start trying to climb the fences to get at opposing players, as at least a few attempted Saturday night (causing at least one fight in the process). There were enough security guards around that they didn't get anywhere, but that kind of thing looks amateurish and could have frightening results if anyone ever succeeded.
The Big Picture: In the end, Empire Field offers a pretty solid football experience. The intimate old-time feel of the stadium combines with the fantastic view for something that's tough to top, and fans' proximity to the field and superb sightlines are certainly positives. Most of the issues I had with it are minimal, and many of them can't be easily addressed considering the stadium's limitations. However, it might be worthwhile to hire some more security personnel, try and clamp down a bit on people disturbing the game (streakers) and others' experiences (obnoxiously drunken fans), and bring in more toilets and food/beverage stalls.
Even without those improvements, however, attending a game at Empire Field remains a worthwhile experience. It isn't quite the place dreams are made of, but it's not the concrete jungle the old B.C. Place was either. It's a look back at history and a glimpse of something new, all in one package.