On paper, the differences between Houston’s Reliant Field and Arlington’s Cowboys Stadium aren’t vast. Both have retractable roofs. Both have hundreds of luxury suites and thousands of club seats. Both are meant to act as extremely large arenas via flexible floor use plans. Yet the biggest difference can be summed up by my initial experiences in touring both. The day I visited Cowboys Stadium, I was among the last of thousands of people doing the same thing. At Reliant Field, I was the second of a grand total of two visitors for the 2 PM tour, before I stopped the tour guide to allow three latecomers in at the last moment.
Reliant Stadium is not inferior from a technical standpoint. It even has one major winning feature over Cowboys Stadium, in that it has actual grass, as opposed to the new generation of artificial turf that has been taking hold in many other NFL stadia. However, the public is well past the point of novelty wearing off for Reliant Stadium, which when coupled with a lack of tradition that comes with an expansion franchise, makes it difficult to capture the public’s imagination. Cowboys Stadium has the Ring of Honor, the big star at midfield, and a roof design that mimics the old hole-in-the-roof at now demolished Texas Stadium. Not only does it share the team’s legacy, it has taken that legacy and made it its own, the same way New Yankee Stadium has for Yankee fans. Who knows what would’ve happened had Reliant Stadium been built for a Houston Oilers team instead?
Much has been made of the opulence Jerry Jones has lavished on his new stadium. In all honesty, there’s no better word for it. Everything a fan can see or touch is high quality, often polished to a mirror finish. Sure, the center-hung video board is ginormous, but what about the thousands of other flat panels throughout? So much leather, wood, and metal trim, you’d think you were in a 1/4-mile long Maybach? Polished concrete floors everywhere? As impressive as Reliant Stadium was almost a decade ago, it looks absolutely spartan in comparison.
Again, this is a major sore spot. There are always warnings about the traffic around Arlington when a Cowboys home game is being played, which made me reluctant to get there just prior to game time. In addition, this was a preseason affair, making it about as exciting as watching paint dry. Worst of all, parking near the stadium can cost up to $75! As I started thinking about how I was going to do this without killing myself for a parking pass, I wondered why I bought a ticket in the first place. I realized that it would be best if I missed most of the first half, then drove there to watch the second. I went to a bar and relaxed for a bit, then headed on over to the stadium. The plan worked out perfectly as one of the lots had no attendants at halftime, allowing me to sneak in and get a pretty close parking spot. Somehow I managed to go to two sporting events in Arlington without paying for parking for either one. At least for Cowboys games, the City of Arlington is supposed to receive a whopping $7 per car, to help offset its $300 million investment. To that I say: Marine Layer 2, Arlington 0.
The cheapest seat in the place is $75, way up in the upper deck corners. These are among the only seats which don’t require a PSL. I didn’t even want to spend that much, so I got a “Party Pass” ticket, which is essentially a $29 glorified SRO ticket. The Cowboys have the ability to sell more than 30,000 of these things per game, bringing the stadium capacity to over 100,000.
It’s a good thing I took a tour the previous day, as it allowed me to find some good places to camp out. Unfortunately, all of the places on my list were already packed. Looking around the seating bowl, I noticed that there was already a steady exodus by those who wanted the beat the traffic and didn’t care much for 4th string guys battling it out over the 53rd roster spot, so I quickly headed to the upper deck to see if I could get a prime spot there. I was easily able to get a good seat on the 35-yard line, and by the 4th I was at midfield. The Camatic seats whose virtues I had extolled last year were sturdy and comfortable, and the rail mounting system is just genius.
You’re probably asking, “Why’d you go to the upper deck?” Well, ever since I had seen the initial sketches for Cowboys Stadium, I wanted to see how bad the upper deck seats would be, and whether the video board could make up for it. Some of you may be purists who prefer to just watch to live action and would consider the video board a distraction. I was in that camp before. Now I’m convinced that the upper deck is actually a very good experience.
The seats themselves are higher than the upper deck at Mt. Davis due to the inclusion of two additional suite levels. The view, however, feels very similar. Just as in most new NFL stadia, the upper deck is a view way down. For someone with poor vision, it could be very unsatisfactory. For me it was just fine. I could also switch to the video board, which was at eye level with the upper deck. The hardest thing was reconciling the live action with the video, which was obviously shot at a different angle. Once I got past that, it was easy to switch back and forth.
Still, the video board can be a distraction. I was constantly bombarded by messages in between plays, and constant cutaways to the cheerleaders didn’t make it any easier to take my eyes off the screen. The sound system is incredibly loud. It appeared that canned noise was being piped in when a “Make Noise” message was displayed. The whole package can be assault on the senses. The experience reminded me of a phase I went through playing sports video games ten years ago. I’d often have a game on in the background while I played a fake game on a PC.
I won’t devote much time to the food or beverages here, as I didn’t buy any of those. Needless to say, Miller Lite is a charter sponsor, so you know what to expect in terms of beer variety. The video wall in the above picture is exactly how I’d like to see all concession stands progress in the future. Video and graphics are fully customizable, with multiple displays available for showing the game, statistics, ads, and so forth.
For a venue that requires a journey of five flights of stairs to get from the main level to the upper level, it’s not bad. That’s especially the case if you’re in the end zone area, where each landing facing the field provides a unique view. The landings are large enough that fans often lean on the railings and watch from there. It’s an interesting contrast in that American stadia are trying to incorporate more and more standing room areas, whereas their European brethren are going away from standing “terraces” and building so-called “all-seater” venues. Ramps and escalators are in place, but not prominently featured. Concourses are as much as 65 feet wide, not counting the large end zone plazas.
If Cowboys Stadium reminds me of anything, it’s an airport terminal. The outside is fritted glass and transparent glass. The inside is concrete, cinder block, and displays. I expected more images of the team’s history to flood the concourses. Instead, it’s almost a blank canvas, with only the occasional colorful sign to provide contrast. Perhaps Jones is keeping that open for even more commercialization opportunities. Even the Ring of Honor is subdued with its silver background. Its predecessor in Texas Stadium was a more pronounced blue.
- The tour starts at the Pro Shop (team store), where you go up to the second level, only to descend multiple confusing staircases in order to gain access to the field.
- Jones has indicated that he wants to hold events as diverse as future World Cup games and a US Olympic swimming event. He’s already had the NBA All Star Game and a 50,000-spectator Manny Pacquiao fight, so why not?
- It’ll be interesting to see what happens if Cowboys Stadium gets to host some World Cup games. Would they use a tray system like the one used at Reliant Field, or previously used at Giants Stadium for the 1994 WC? I suspect that the artificial surface, which has plenty of seams and uneven spots, may not be sufficient.
- The Press Box is split into two parts, sandwiching a set of suites. This puts the press in the corners, which is unusual to say the least.
It’s impossible not to be blown away by the monumental excess on display at Cowboys Stadium. Like Staples Center a decade ago, this is the trendsetter, even as the New Meadowlands Stadium gets ready to open. Cowboys Stadium is the class of the league, and Al Davis must have been green with envy as he surveyed its expanses. It’s a phenomenon that’s only really possible in football-mad Texas, with a bombastic owner like Jerry Jones. The 49ers stadium is already awash in ways to cut costs, and that will only deepen over time if/when it gets built. As for just purely watching a game? Lambeau Field is still the big winner, hands down.