- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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The first NFL game I covered was at the Edward Jones Dome, the Minnesota Vikings versus the host St. Louis Rams, the 2000 playoffs. Back then, it was known as the TWA Dome, and man, it was loud. One of the newest stadiums in the league, opened in 1995, it was designed to maximize walls of noise stacked like bricks, a raving loony bin of overdubbed screams and claps and stomps. Best home-field advantage in the league, it was called.
The Ed still is a new stadium, but not new enough, not by NFL standards. Next year, it'll rank in the oldest one-third of NFL stadiums. The boom of new venues has turned a building that was supposed to last 30 years into one that needed $30 million in renovations this past offseason. With a lease that states the Rams must be in the league's upper 25 percent in stadium revenue or they can opt out, it's no secret the Rams' eyes are roaming.
A new home, with more and bigger luxury boxes, more club seats and more concessions -- similar to what the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, New York Jets and New York Giants enjoy -- might be the only way to keep the team in St. Louis.
Unlike old stadiums that underwent face-lifts, like Lambeau Field and Soldier Field, the Ed is so new it's not worth saving.
"There's this disposability that's part of our consumer culture that seems particularly bizarre when you're talking about stadiums," says Oregon State English professor Michael Oriard, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs in the '70s and recently wrote "Brand NFL: Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport."
"There's something perverse about making so much money and needing even more yet."
So how does a stadium transform in nine years from the toughest place to play to outdated? Football doesn't change. The field's dimensions remain the same. Games still last 60 minutes. So to squeeze more money from football, owners change the structures that surround it. And when you have the Cowboys collecting $327 million last year, compared to the Rams' $206 million and the Vikings' $195 million, the new breed of NFL owners -- many of whom manage teams daily -- want spectacular venues.
Things used to be different. The league's first owners, guys like Art Rooney and George Halas, were not billionaires. A franchise was a long-term investment. Later came richer men, like Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams and former Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who owned teams but made their real money elsewhere. Dallas' Jerry Jones and Washington's Dan Snyder have made trendy the notion that football is an endless daily revenue stream.
"Owning a team is no longer a mom-and-pop operation, and it's no longer a rich playboy operation," Oriard says. "It's for capitalists."
Those capitalists are critical of their peers who don't squeeze every possible dollar out of their stadiums. Shrewd businessmen like Jones roll their eyes when smaller-market guys like Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown and Wilson complain about revenue sharing -- after all, they don't even license their stadium names. Better to be likeNew England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who last year opened Patriots Place, an outdoor mall surrounding Gillette Stadium.
"A new stadium has the opportunity for inventory that doesn't exist," one team exec says. "It's part of the experience of being in a new venue."
But the fact that Ralph Wilson Stadium and Arrowhead Stadium are dumpy is what makes them cool. You're purposefully experiencing old. Your father used to sit in those seats. Once an owner trades the value of the old experience, he or she is locked into the latest trends. And that's dangerous. That's when you end up like the Rams.
Sounds scary, but there's going to be a day, sooner than you think, when the $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium seems old. When a team has a larger, newer stadium, with a more expensive HD screen than Jones' $40 million one -- and one that won't get hit by punts. And it'll continue after that.
Trends always get old. But rooting for a winner -- what those Rams fans were doing in 2000 -- doesn't.
What made the TWA Dome alive was that the team was headed to the Super Bowl. Rams fans are more tired of guard Richie Incognito's personal foul penalties than they are of the Ed.
How's a billion-dollar stadium going to fix a loser better than, say, a great GM?
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.
The Edward Jones Dome is still a new stadium, but not new enough, not by NFL standards. Next year, it'll rank in the oldest one-third of all NFL stadiums, Seth Wickersham writes.