Courtesy of Carolyn Swiszcz — http://www.carolynswiszcz.com/

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Reclaiming the Sense of Place of Great Stadiums

by on 2 May 2018

The greatest stadiums have a sense of place that comes from design, location, and history. The last of those cannot be faked, but the first two are available for interpretation right away. As Minnesota United prepare to inaugurate their new home, and with MLS as a whole in the middle of a stadium building-spree, it’s a good time to reflect upon how we think and talk about the stadiums in our sport and our league. Sponsorship names are an inevitable side of the business, but why should fans be limited by them?

There are few things more fundamental to the identity of a team than their home field. This is especially true for outdoor sports with long histories where a few hallowed grounds predate our current amenity-driven era of rapid replacement and constant sponsorship churn. In the United States, this means baseball. When you think of the Boston Red Sox, you think of Fenway Park and the green monster. When you think of the Chicago Cubs, you think of Wrigley Field and the ivy-covered brick walls. When you think of the Los Angeles Dodgers, you think of Chavez Ravine, and perhaps Ebbets Field. When you think of the San Francisco Giants, you think of their new stadium—whatever it’s called—with McCovey Cove, and Candlestick Park, and maybe even the Polo Grounds.

Elsewhere in the world, fans probably think of soccer stadiums. Manchester United are known around the world, and so is Old Trafford, their stadium. Built in 1909, the ground’s very name emphasizes incumbency and respect. Never mind that the modern day stadium is a ship of Theseus, this is the spot on earth upon which Bobby Charlton played and christened “Theater of Dreams.” This is the sideline on which Sir Alex Ferguson paced. That kind of heritage matters, and it’s something that their rivals, who mainly play in new facilities with corporate names, will never have.

There are a lot of other revered soccer stadiums around the world, like La Bombonera in Buenos Aires, with its famous vertical stand, and San Siro in Milan, with its remarkable modernist architecture. But England, with a history of the game longer than any, is an especially good place to find ancient grounds with atmospheric names and close association with the teams that play in them. Liverpool play at Anfield, whose sculptural gates feature prominently on the club’s crest. Newcastle United have played at St. James’ Park since the 1890s. West Bromwich Albion have called The Hawthorns home since 1900. Best of all, sports have been played on Burnley’s Turf Moor since the 1830s, and the stadium’s name today is a literal description of the original state of the land as it was almost two centuries ago.

Among the stadiums of MLS and the lower divisions, that kind of stadium history is attainable only through patience, prudent planning, and luck. But in terms of recognizing and celebrating the virtues of the design and location of their homes, MLS clubs and especially their supporters have plenty of agency.

Expo Park, Buzzard Point

Consider the new home of Los Angeles FC, which opened on Sunday to rapturous reviews. The stadium has been officially christened ‘Banc of California Stadium,’ after a company which is currently embroiled in lawsuits over corporate intrigue and workplace misconduct. It seems a legitimate question whether or not the new stadium will keep its name for an extended period of time. Regardless of whether it does or doesn’t, if you are a Los Angeles fan, why should you care what the team’s front office has agreed to call the stadium for an annual fee? What does Banc of California mean to you?

With the caveat that I do not know LA very well, here’s a suggestion: the stadium is in Exposition Park, an area of town with connotations that I imagine would only enhance the club’s stature. That’s a great metonym right there.

Even better is the new DC United Stadium, formally called Audi Field. Who cares? The stadium is located in the part of the district known since at least 1673 as Buzzard Point, which is an awesome name. Unlike Exposition Park, Buzzard Point has few connotations besides as an industrial and military zone where nobody really has ever lived. But here, DC United and the team’s fans have an opportunity to build something entirely new, for a team that badly needs a refresh. Forget Audi Field, let the suits and the newspapers call it that. Let the community embrace the location.

Meet me at Midway

The next MLS stadium due up will be Minnesota United’s Allianz Field, which will open in 2019. The corporate patron is more stable than Banc of California, and the connection to the Allianz Family of Stadiums, (including the home of Bayern Munich) certainly gives it a permanence and prestige that is nice. But whatever, it’s still a corporate name, and there’s no guarantee that it lasts as long as the stadium.

Fans have created other names that riffed off the stadium’s distinctive design, and also provoked a really bizarre backlash from a few people who got Very Mad Online about the most popular of those nicknames.

But I hope we can at least all agree to celebrate the stadium’s location, in the Midway neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that evokes its location equidistant between the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis further tying into the team’s “United” name. It’s a neighborhood with a diverse population that also will hopefully develop a great deal and add a lot more people in the coming years, with the Loons as a driving force. (Also, the Battle of Midway was the turning point in the Pacific War, and the name of the airport you fly into which takes you directly above the Chicago Fire’s awful stadium.) It makes all the sense in the world to embrace ‘Midway’ as a metonym for Minnesota’s new stadium, whatever else you call it.

Better stadium names for all

I don’t know enough about every city to have a great idea for what to call every stadium. I also think that some teams (Chicago, Colorado, Columbus, Dallas, and Philadelphia) shouldn’t bother getting too attached to their current stadiums, because they’re awful and they should be trying to move. Some teams have stadiums that are closely tied to their current ownerships, (Red Bull Arena, Stade Saputo) and are a bit hard to knock. Depending on how long these owners stick around, their names might stick. Some teams already have names for their stadiums that are not sponsored and unproblematic to my ears, or are already embedded in the club’s folklore, (Orlando City Stadium, Rio Tinto/The RioT). But Houston, Kansas City, LA Galaxy, Portland, San Jose, and Toronto, are all located in more or less their permanent future home, and yet play in stadiums that have changed names multiple times or are associated with boring companies.

Some fixes are obvious. I generally think of Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Stadium as ‘Sporting Park.’ Some current sponsored names aren’t so bad sounding, like Toronto’s ‘BMO Field’ or Portland’s ‘Providence Park,’ but they’re still problematic because who knows how long the sponsor will last. Toronto’s stadium is on the site of the former Exhibition Stadium, why not play off that? Portland’s stadium, being the oldest in the league by a mile, offers some particularly good options. It is located in the city’s Goose Hollow neighborhood, which is an incredible name. It’s owned by the Multnomah Athletic Club, which I understand to have a bit of a tony reputation, but whatever, fans could take it back in the name of the people. Portland, you can do better.

As for San Jose (located next to an airport), or LA Galaxy (located in some nondescript town within the indistinguishable sprawl of the LA valley), or Houston (located in downtown Houston and the painfully named EaDo neighborhood), I’m out of ideas. But surely there’s something better available, and I hope that fans of these clubs will figure it out.

Across the league, let’s recognize that we can do better with stadium names, and that fans have the ability to make it happen.


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