How to build a nice stadium on the cheap

The old adage, “Good, Fast, and Cheap – Pick Two!” applies to nearly everything from soup to software. In no way is stadium building spared. Design, materials, labor – all of these things cost time and money, and to get a distinctive, quality product usually requires a couple of years and a few hundred million dollars for starters. Which makes the Stanford Stadium renovation particularly interesting. Done in only nine months and for $100 million dollars, Stanford now has a first-class facility that it can proudly use to showcase to recruits and alumni alike. So did John Arrillaga’s baby somehow escape the old maxim? Well…. sort of.

Built in 1921, the old Stanford Stadium was the oldest large venue in the Bay Area. It’s had a good history, hosting a Super Bowl and filling in nicely as an understudy for Candlestick Park when the latter was damaged in Loma Prieta. Despite this, the structure itself was very simply built, with bleachers anchored to a man-made oval-shaped hill. The listed capacity of 86,000 made Stanford Stadium appear much larger than it was in person – even though the LA Coliseum held only 20,000 more people, it seemed twice as immense. Stanford Stadium’s large stated capacity ended up being a curse. As a small school (in terms of enrollment and alumni) compared to its Pac-10 rivals, the football program had a difficult time selling tickets for a football program whose rollercoaster fortunes made it difficult to sustain a following among the picky Bay Area sports consumer. For years, alumni and the athletics department wanted to redo the stadium to become more like the Oregon’s Autzen Stadium: a 54,000-seat venue whose intimacy made it one of the toughest places to play in the country.

In 2005, construction finally began following Stanford’s last game versus Notre Dame on November 26, 2005. The project was originally slated to be complete by the team’s scheduled first home game against San Jose State this past September 9. Delays forced the opening date to be pushed back one week until the next home game against Navy. Other than that, there were no considerable delays. Crews worked 16 hours a day, every day to get the job done. A design-build approach was used to reduce development time and make decision-making quick. Longtime Stanford booster and alum John Arrillaga, who also seemingly built half the Silicon Valley, took the reins of the project.

So what does $100 million and nine months get you? Let’s take a look.

The Upper Deck

As the cheap seats, the upper deck is usually considered a design afterthought, or a method to squeeze in the required number of seats after you’ve taken care of the rich folks with the suites in club seats. In this case, it’s a testament to cost-cutting. Over half of Stanford Stadium’s seats (29,000) are in the upper deck, and unlike the previous version, the seats aren’t anchored to a hill. Instead, they’re supported using steel beams and concrete columns. The secret is in the aluminum risers that hold the seats. Lightweight and quick to fabricate, the risers were undoubtedly the best choice to keep costs down, especially with the rising cost of concrete. Nearly every large stadium in the Bay Area has aluminum risers in use somewhere, including the Coliseum, where the portable field level Mt. Davis seats are moved in and out of the stadium depending on the A’s and Raiders’ schedules. It’s unusual to see aluminum used so broadly, but here it makes sense. Such a technique could be difficult to duplicate at a ballpark due to the irregular shape of a baseball grandstand. I could see all of the outfield seats treated in this manner, which has one particular benefit: stomping on aluminum is a lot noisier than stomping on concrete.

Not only are the risers aluminum, they are the same size throughout the upper deck. A typical baseball or football stadium will have a combination of bleachers and regular seats, and this one is no different. However, in this case the row treads (row depths) are the same regardless of the type of seating. At 30 inches, the treads are better than your garden variety bleachers (24″) but not as good as typical chairback seat treads (33″). If you happen to be taller than average height, you’ll feel the lack of leg room immediately. The universal nature of the row tread allowed the design to include a maximum number of seats while eliminating quirks that can come up when dealing with different tread widths, such as different aisles for each seating type. 3 inches may not sound that significant, but in this case it means an extra 4 rows in the east grandstand, translating to 1,000 seats.


In the picture above, you see a short lower deck, the lower concourse immediately above it, then the upper deck and press box. Surprisingly, this is not a common configuration for football. Unlike baseball, where current design trends dictate open concourses that have views of the field, football stadia architects are not bound by such an aesthetic. Instead, they’re told to use all available space for seats and suites. The open concourse shown here isn’t just for a pretty view, it has a practical purpose as well. New ADA requirements demand that 1% of all seating be wheelchair accessible, with at least the same amount of companion seats. Upper deck seating is inaccessible for wheelchairs from the tunnels/vomitories because they all use stairs or have no landings for wheelchairs. To allocate enough wheelchair seating for both the upper and lower levels, the lower concourse was created. There’s also some accessible seating at the top of the upper deck along each corner and end zone. Sidebar: as part of the Coliseum’s renovation to bring the Raiders back, the formerly open lower concourse had concrete walls or slatted fences placed in back of many of the seating sections. Nowadays, the only places where you can get a good view behind a seating section are – that’s right – in some places where there is wheelchair seating.

The press box is also a place where money was saved. They started by incorporating a pre-existing elevator for the old press box (nice reuse!). The three level structure appears fancy enough, with two separate stadium club areas: one enclosed on the first floor and one on the roof. In between are the “print media” level and the TV/radio level. The building only has seven luxury suites, which is a low number that reflects how college football is sold. While the big program schools have lots of suites (though not nearly as many as NFL stadia), the real money is in those enclosed club areas, where high powered alumni and boosters can mingle and network. By placing all of these facilities in a single structure, assuredly much money was saved as opposed to the usual alternative: spreading thousands of square feet of luxury suites around the ring of the stadium.

Cutting corners
A few other little touches show signs of cost-cutting while not appearing cheap:

  • The beams and railings weren’t painted, giving them an “industrial chic” look.
  • An entire scoreboard/video board from the old stadium was saved and reused.
  • The set of arches in the north end aren’t adorned with engravings of latin phrases or marble gargoyles. They’re clean and simple.
  • I went into one of the men’s restrooms on the lower concourse and noticed that it didn’t have a ceiling. No big deal there, it was well lit. If you’re worried about a stench wafting into the concourse, it shouldn’t be a problem. The stadium will get used perhaps a couple dozen times a year (at most?).
  • The landscaped hill that forms the outer façade appears relatively unchanged, except for some new bushes here and there. The stairs that take you up to the upper concourse (much like the Coliseum) are still there.

Spending money where it counts
There are two places where there was no evidence of skimping. First is the fantastic distributed sound system, made of numerous clusters of JBL Pro speakers. It had, to my somewhat trained ear, a nice flat response that was clear from everywhere in the stadium. Best of all, there was little leakage outside the stadium that I could detect – an all-important aspect for a stadium that is close to some well-heeled residential neighborhoods. The reduced footprint of the seating bowl contributes to this effect as it takes less power to provide the PA to everyone in the stadium.
“Hi-Def Football” has been a recent tagline in selling the new Stanford Stadium. The video screens spread throughout don’t disappoint. The video/matrix boards (Daktronics, I believe) in both end zones are excellent, even though they aren’t needed to broadcast the game since the sightlines are so good from anywhere in the seating bowl. I can’t leave out the numerous HD LCD screens throughout the lower concourse (HP provided, of course), though at first glance it looks like they weren’t set up properly. The colors appeared a bit washed out, as if they were using simple analog coax when they should’ve been using some kind of digital or composite connection.

Grading the experience
While just about any change would’ve been a vast improvement over the old Stanford Stadium, this renovation went beyond what I had expected. The new stadium is not only modern with this millenium’s creature comforts, it has legs. If they needed to expand it by 10,000 seats it could be done fairly easily. They preserved the character of the old structure while improving it seismically, giving fans the best views of any Bay Area football stadium to boot. It’s possible that the package could start to look dated in a decade or two, but college football is a far less demanding market than the pro sports. That said, I’m not certain that many of the lessons here can be applied to a new A’s ballpark. There are too many different and segmented markets that have to be catered to at a MLB facility. MLB is not simply about the game anymore. It’s about having as many avenues as possible to take a fan’s hard-earned cash. Stanford Stadium doesn’t speak to that, at least not with $3 hot dogs and one-size-fits-all treads. Now if the Cardinal can only field a decent team…

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