This past week, ESPN.com published a best-to-worst ranking of NFL stadiums. The factors in play to determine each fortress’s standing included atmosphere (20% of the rating), features (20%, which included the specialty “bells and whistles” of each venue), traditions (15%), tailgating (15%), the facility’s location (10%), all-inclusive cost to attend games (10%), and the stadium’s history (10%).
The top five in ESPN’s rankings were fairly predictable, and include Lambeau Field (Packers, with five of its categories within the top three and three being top-ranked), CenturyLink Field (Seahawks, which included three category runners-up), Arrowhead Stadium (Chiefs), Heinz Field (Steelers), and the newest of the bunch, U.S. Bank Stadium, which became the Vikings’ home in 2016.
By the way, it’s worth noting that the NFL’s two newest stadiums — in Las Vegas (Raiders) and LA (Rams and Chargers) — were not part of the rankings, because, well, fans and media have yet to experience them first-hand.
The five lowest-ranked stadiums were FedEx Field (Washington FT), TIAA Bank Field (Jaguars), Paul Brown Stadium (Bengals), Hard Rock Stadium (Dolphins), and Bank of America Stadium (Panthers). Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that all of these teams that reside in these lowest-ranked facilities have been, for the most part, dismal of late, and the only recent Super Bowl participant within the past 30 seasons was the Panthers in 2016.
But right above the Carolina franchise’s 24th-best (or fifth-worst) home stadium is, surprisingly, Gillette Stadium, home of the six-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
Gillette, originally dubbed CMGI Field before the naming sponsor went under prior to the start of the Patriots’ 2002 season, is ESPN’s 23rd-ranked facility despite the fact that only eight other stadiums opened after Bob Kraft’s glittering replacement to the old Foxboro Stadium threw open its doors in the spring of 2002, for a Revolution soccer game.
That means that a relatively young 18-year-old facility is actually ranked behind such elderly stadiums as Lambeau (opened in 1957), Arrowhead (1972), Bills Stadium (1973), the Saints’ Superdome (1975), and Soldier Field, home of the Bears since 1924. Admittedly, some of these older stadiums benefit in the rankings because of their “history” and “atmosphere,” more so than Gillette Stadium, but it’s still gotta bug the Kraft family that their once-sparkling 68,000-seat facility is ranked so low by ESPN.
I can’t really say that Gillette is better or worse than other NFL facilities, because I’ve never been to any other cities’ stadiums, other than Gillette’s ultra-depressing predecessor. But what I can say is that Gillette Stadium, for the most part is, in this day and age, nothing special.
First, though, the positives about it.
Gillette was a long-needed replacement to Foxboro Stadium, and to his credit, Bob Kraft did not move the team out of New England when he bought the team and couldn’t get a downtown Boston stadium deal (even though he slow-danced with the governor of Connecticut to potentially move the franchise to Hartford). Kraft also built the stadium primarily with his own money, and didn’t sell the high-priced “personal seat licenses” that most owners have used to raise pre-construction capital.
And Gillette Stadium, when it opened, was indeed a remarkable facility, although to many, myself included, it would have had to look fantastic given the dismal nature of Foxboro Stadium, with its wind tunnels, aluminum bleachers, and lack of restrooms. The “bridges” on either side of Gillette were nice touches, along with the replica “lighthouse” on the stadium’s north side.
When I first visited CMGI Field in May 2002 for the Revolution soccer team’s home opener, I marveled at the facility’s amenities, but lamented the fact that the lighthouse seemed unfinished, as it appeared skeletal and looked more like an oil derrick than a New England maritime staple.
But I have been to numerous sporting events and concerts and sporting events at Gillette Stadium since, and, other than new HD scoreboards at each end of the field, the stadium looks exactly the same as it did in 2002 — and so does that ridiculous lighthouse, which has not changed one iota over the years.
A new field lounge was built on the edge of the stadium’s south end zone in 2014, which eliminated 1500 loyal season ticket-holders’ seats. It was a slap in the face to those fans who had to get relocated, and the view from the lounge was hardly an improvement. It was an obvious money grab for Patriots ownership, as passes to the lounge back then cost $1,500 for one year, with a purchase of at least two memberships required. And here’s the kicker: the cost was in addition to the price of the season tickets.
The ESPN ranking had Gillette 10th in atmosphere (a bit of a laugh, since Patriots fans are known to be significantly less loud than the fans at most football hotbeds), 27th in features (next-to-last among stadiums in the rankings!), 13th in traditions, 18th in tailgating, 20th in location (certainly not a surprise, since Foxboro is a good half-hour from either downtown Boston or Providence, RI), seventh in history (I guess six championships count for something), and 28th, and dead last, in cost.
Ouch. Well, the Krafts had to get back their stadium costs somehow, but as ESPN says, “While the Patriots’ success makes high prices understandable, the typical game-day cost is more than $200 more than the next-most expensive team.” The story goes on to note the exorbitant baseline costs to attend a game: ticket: $485 (get-in price: $184); 12 ounces of domestic beer: $5.76; hot dog: $4; parking: $40. Total: $534.76.
Patriots fans also typically pay high prices for their time, as ESPN admits, “Getting to and from Gillette is also a nightmare, as the limited options in and out of the stadium cause gridlock.” That means you better get to Foxboro early, and prepare to leave late because Route 1 is really the only option in and out of the joint other than a game-day train that is not feasible if you want to tailgate.
With the Tom Brady era come and gone, Gillette Stadium will likely begin to lose its relatively high rankings for history and traditions, so its only chance to boost its 23rd-best ranking (in reality, it’s 25th out of the NFL’s 30 stadiums, because the LA and Vegas gridiron cathedrals will obviously bump Gillette down further).
So I would advise the Krafts to use this virus-inspired downtime at their NFL facility to come up with some ideas to improve the place, and then implement them in the absence of fans, and not think that the amenities and concessions that were appealing in 2002 are still going to cut it in 2020 and beyond.
Especially since the likelihood of the 26-year sellout streak continuing without an end in sight is bordering on delusion, given the team’s transition to a rebuilding franchise in the years to come.
Hey Bob: You built it; they came; but you can’t assume that’s a never-ending gravy train. Your franchise today is worth $4.4 billion, after you bought it for $172 million in 1994 — it’s time to invest some of that in improvements. Lambeau II or bust!
And finish that lighthouse!