Monday, August 25, 2008

Lucas Oil Stadium: A Fan's Perspective

Last night, I attended my first "game" at Lucas Oil Stadium. I put "game" in quotation marks because I don't consider pre-season NFL games to be real games; rather they are bad excuses for NFL owners to wrangle a few extra (well, more than a few) dollars out of the fans. But that is a discussion for another day. More importantly, between last week's walkaround and last night's game, I've now had a chance to really look at and think about Indianapolis' new stadium and thought that I'd offer a few thoughts.

First, for the record, I intend for this post to be the last time that I refer to "Lucas Oil Stadium" again. I'll probably call it the "The Luke" or "The Stadium" or "Peyton's Place" or "That Great Big Brick Building Downtown That Replaced the Dome" but I won't call it "Lucas Oil Stadium". Sorry. Frankly, I've always had problems with naming rights for stadiums, but I recognize that the almighty dollar requires sacrifices like naming stadiums after local dignitaries or the team (can you imagine the Yankees playing at "Trump Stadium" or the Bears playing at "Geico Insurance Field"?).

So, I can live with the name that a city gives to a stadium so long as the name rolls off the tongue easily enough and bears some relation to the city. Conseco Fieldhouse and the RCA Dome were each named for major companies in the Indianapolis economy and the Pepsi Coliseum is at least easy to say and named for a product with which everyone is familiar (me, I'd prefer the Coke Coliseum...). But Lucas Oil? It doesn't really roll of the tongue, now does it? I could have lived with Lucas Stadium (sounds like it was named for someone), but throwing in the word "Oil" just destroys it. And have you ever looked at the logo for Lucas Oil? Come on, a 5th-grader with PhotoShop could come up with a better logo (not to mention one that looks like it was designed some time since the invention of, oh, I don't know, the internal combustion engine?). Wrigley Field: cool. US Cellular Field: yuck. Soldier Field: cool. Minute Maid Park: yuck. Ford Field: cool. Lucas Oil Stadium? You decide. I thought that Denver's approach made a lot of sense: Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium. Invesco got their naming rights and everyone can still call the place Mile High Stadium. On the opposite end of the spectrum, how many times has the baseball stadium in San Francisco changed names (SBC Park, Pacific Bell Park, AT&T Park)? If Lucas Oil is bought will it become Pennzoil Stadium or Quaker State Stadium?

I'm still curious to know why a local Indianapolis company didn't step up and acquire the naming rights (in particular, Eli Lilly).

Apparently, Lucas Oil doesn't want the stadium to be called "The Luke" because one of their big competitors is Luke Oil. Tough. Mr. Lucas should have thought of that when he threw his money at our stadium.

Finally, just for the record, I noticed last night that you can purchase Lucas Oil t-shirts and hats and oil products at the game. Just what I want to do: Buy a quart of oil for my dragster while I'm at a Colts game. I wonder: How does Lucas Oil taste on bratwurst?

And now we return to our regularly schedul ... er ... the review portion of this post.

So let's talk about The Luke (and I'm going to try to order these comments in the order that a visitor will encounter things, not necessarily importance). The first thing that you notice about the stadium is that it's big. No, think bigger than that. If you drive into downtown Indianapolis on the Airport Expressway, you'll get an idea of just how massive the structure is. And it dwarfs the Hoosier Dome two blocks away. The architects were also very smart to use brick on the exterior of the stadium; it helps give it a much warmer feel, more like a stadium and less like a generic government facility.

One criticism, though, can be leveled at the exterior and that involves parking. I thought that the stadium was supposed to have a large parking lot for tailgating. It does have a large parking lot, but apparently the only people who can use that lot are those with suites or club seats and those people (at least the ones in the suites) seem least likely to tailgate before a game. For last night's pre-season game, the stadium appeared nearly full, but the parking lot was, if not empty, certainly not full. I also learned that, even with all of that parking, there is no on site parking for disabled fans. That so much parking is set aside for the VIPs with no thought given to who might need parking is at best a poor decision and at worst shameful.

Inside, The Luke provides quite a "wow" factor (mostly good "wows" but a few bad ones, too). The stadium is so different from the Hoosier Dome, it's hard to explain. Try this: The Dome is to The Luke as a warehouse is to an upscale shopping mall? I'm not sure if I can capture it better than that. Picture this, though: At the Dome, the concourses surrounding the stadium were simply concrete walkways with concession stands every-so-often. No aesthetics to speak of. At The Luke, the concourses may be concrete, but between decorated walls, pillars, and ceilings, neon lights and product placements, there is much more of a "finished" feel to the place (except for some of the concrete floors that seem very unfinished). At the Dome, you would walk from here to there; at The Luke, when walking from here to there, you might actually find yourself looking at something other than the floor or the back in front of you.

The main entrance plaza at The Luke includes a stage (and the band kept playing until time for the pre-game festivities). And unlike at the Dome where you could only see into the stadium through the walkways to the seats, the entire north end plaza is open to the stadium, so you can see down to the field from the stage, concession stands, and bar. This was one of the biggest "wow" moments at the stadium.

We thought about taking the elevator to one of the upper levels just to look around (we got to the game very early), but there was a huge line to go up the escalator (I read this morning that the line was nearly 20 minutes long). That will need to be corrected (apparently there are ramps to the upper levels, but I didn't know that and didn't see the ramps). So, I'll have to wait for another day to look around from higher up. I will say that if you are offered "nose bleed" seats at The Luke, you may have a better vantage point if you charter a plane and fly over the game. Yes, the nose bleed seats are that high up. If you sit up by the south window, you might want to bring oxygen to the game.

There appear to be more concession stands with more choices. That's good. Some of them are even "dressed up" (one has an exterior to make it look like an old fashioned diner). And the food that we had was pretty good. Last week I tried a pork tenderloin (a Hoosier favorite) and it was better than average (and I've certainly had a lot worse) and the cheeseburger that I had last night was quite good. The onion rings and fries were forgettable, but the chicken tenders were large and decent (and not overly greasy).

However, there were some serious kinks that need to be ironed out of the concessions. First, the prices seemed a bit steep on some things and stupid on others. The cheeseburger was $7.50, which seemed a bit high, but probably within the outer reaches of acceptability. The popcorn, on the other hand, was not. If I recall, at the Dome, there was a choice of a bucket of popcorn (think large movie popcorn) or a giant souvenir bucket (where you're really paying for the bucket). I don't recall how much the souvenir bucket was, but I think it was in the $8-10 range. We got one, just to have, but often got a bucket of popcorn to share (and I think it was about $4, but could have been a bit more). At The Luke, popcorn comes in a cardboard "megaphone" (maybe a foot tall with a 4-inch diameter at the top; it doesn't look like much popcorn) for $4.75 or the souvenir bucket for $12! The megaphone is way too expensive for way too little and the souvenir bucket is too expensive. There should be a choice in between. Oh, well.

We also had to settle for cheeseburgers because the machine that makes the Philly steak sandwiches was broken. More troubling was the fact that we had to wait nearly 20 minutes for those two cheeseburgers! Somehow, the concession operator was woefully unprepared for the demand. Chicken tenders, fries, and onion rings were being served up quickly enough, but if you dared to order a cheeseburger, you were in for quite a wait. And I still don't understand why people were being told to stick their hands in their beers when they complained that there was too much head... Yeah, when I'm at a game, I really want to stick my hand in my beer.

Jumping ahead briefly: The concessions were served with nice cardboard cartons to carry everything. However, when we were finished, I wanted to throw away the cartons (they were large and there's only so much room to sit), but I had to walk all the way out to the main concourse to find a trash can (and when I did, it was full). There should be trash cans in the walkways leading to the seats.

Speaking of the seats, those in The Luke are much nicer than those at the Dome. They are wider, have more leg room, and have cup holders mounted on the seat in front (instead of on the armrest). And somehow, they simply felt more comfortable. Back at the Dome, we sat where the stands begin to curve (just a bit) toward the endzone; as a result, two of our seats were much narrower than others and not all of our group could ... um ... er ... fit ... into some of those seats (at least not comfortably). That problem is gone (at least for our seats).

The design of the stadium also now includes far more levels of seating with walkways running between seating levels. This has the benefit of raising the seats of those sitting higher up by a little bit so that they can see over those in front. Plexiglas has been used in place of metal railings in many places which should also help with the view. As a place to watch a game, The Luke should be terrific (at least for football; I'll reserve judgment for basketball).

Still talking about seats, there were two things that seemed a bit problematic. I understand that people who pay for club seats get "more"; they get the best field location and they get cushioned seats. But I don't like the idea of the Plexiglas railings that separated our section of the stands from the club seats next to us. There are even two aisles running right next to each other separated by Plexiglas. It's a bit like the nobility is afraid to brush up against the commoners. Come on, I showered before the game and I don't think that I have anything contagious. We all understand that there are "haves" and "have lesses", but there is no reason to rub it in. And on that note, the way that the ushers were quite rudely directing people who mistakenly thought that they could get from here to there by walking through the club seat area was unacceptable. First, there should be signs directing people so that they don't walk down a hallway only to be turned back. Second, the ushers should always be polite. Third, why can't people walk through a concourse to get to their seat (especially when the main concourse is very crowded)? Again, why rub in the "we've got more"? Perhaps the club seats should have a private entrance where those folks don't even have to see the rest of us? Maybe hang a giant curtain between us and them? I understand that they're paying more, and should get more, but should they get more at the expense of others who not only get less but get it less conveniently? I don't think so.

And now back to the stadium. Back at the Dome, I often used my binoculars to look at the replay screens. They were small, far away, and very grainy (high tech in 1984; embarrassing by 2008). Not at The Luke. In fact, my mother had to keep tearing her eyes away from the giant screens and back to the field. It was almost too easy to watch the game on the screen and not on the field. I almost can't wait for the first controversial replay call so that we can see very clearly what really happened on the field. One bit of disappointment with the big screens was that they weren't being used to display stats. I thought that 1/4 of the screen was going to be used for stats during the game. Instead, it was just used for advertising.

Speaking of advertising, the stadium is, essentially, one giant ad. Between the 2nd and 3rd levels of the stadium is a giant "ribbon" screen (essentially a digital display screen that virtually circles the stadium). Occasionally, the screen would have some interesting information on it, but by and large it was used for brightly colored animated advertising. Cool for a few minutes, but I tried to tune it out pretty quickly. However, the motion and bright lights could, from time to time, be distracting. I'd like to see the ribbon also get used for things relevant to the game now and then. The scoreboard itself is much cooler than at the Dome, with the ability to show the teams' logos (in color, no less) and in a much easier to read typeface. However, it can be hard to actually find the scoreboard with the ads pressing in from both sides. I'll simply have to train my eye to look to the right spot.

During last week's open house, I was very worried that The Luke would be much quieter than the Dome (which could be absolutely deafening and definitely had a direct impact on the game; you could watch other teams struggle to communicate when we got really loud). After last night's pre-season game, I'm still a bit worried about the noise level, but not as worried. I don't think that it can possibly be as loud as the Dome, but I don't think that it will be quiet, either. I guess that says something about our fans rather than the stadium. (I went to a game in Detroit at Ford Field a few years ago. During the 1st quarter, the Lions were [gasp] beating the Colts, but the 20 or so Colts fans in attendance were far louder than the stadium full of Lions fans. It was the quietest stadium I'd ever ... um ... heard?)

OK. Nearly done. A few more quick "cool" items. First (obviously) is the roof. Watching it open was cool. Sorry, I can't quite come up with a better word. It was cool. The same can be said for the north window (which is massive). The unfortunate thing about the north window is that it will only provide a view of downtown to those sitting in certain parts of the city (or to TV audiences, I suppose). For us, when we look through the north window we see the sky; then again, after 24 years in the Dome, seeing the sky from a football game is pretty wild. Even with the roof open, I'm not sure that I felt like I was outside; maybe it's because of the overhangs above us; maybe it's because the roof is so high; or maybe it's because of the massive crossbeams that the roof rests on. So I felt as if I was kinda-in, kinda-out. That is, until I felt the breeze! Once the north window opened, a fairly strong breeze began to fill the stadium. What was really strange was that the division and Super Bowl banners hung from the rafters were blowing in different directions at the same time. All I can guess is that the wind comes in and then swirls around. That should make life interesting for kickers.

Another interesting feature are the field-level suites at the south endzone. Yes, there are a set of suits at field level with just a 4-foot high (give or take) padded wall separating the fans from the playing field. As a place to watch a game, those seats are probably pretty lousy, but as a way to get into the game when the action is on the south end of the field, those seats (big leather recliners, it looked like) should be wild. I just hope that the people in those suites get super loud and super obnoxious (everything short of throwing beer, I guess) when the other team has the ball on that end of the field.

I do feel sorry for businesses close to the Dome. The Luke is only a few blocks away, but as parking seems to be shifting much further south and west, I'm afraid that many of those businesses may be losing out (I suspect that Nordstrom will be sending out a search party for my mother by mid-season). Restaurants and bars near the Dome may still do OK, but I think that stores in Circle Center Mall will suffer.

I also think that the City of Indianapolis is going to have to spend some money to clean up some of the streets and buildings around The Luke. The revitalization that is so evident in much of downtown is much less evident on some of the streets and alleys south of the stadium where many people are parking. As this will be a point of reference for Indianapolis for out-of-town visitors, this will be an area that needs to be addressed by the City.

Well, I know that I've made a lot of criticisms. Please don't take this post wrong and think that I don't like the stadium. I do and I'm looking forward to years of exciting games. But, as I'm sure that it will be garnering rave reviews from numerous quarters, I thought that it was worth the effort to at least point out a few problems, especially ones that can be easily corrected. Just as the Colts have a pre-season, so to, I guess, do the stadium operators. Hopefully, by the time the Colts host the Bears to open the 2008 season, the kinks will be worked out and The Luke will be ready.


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At Monday, September 22, 2008 3:05:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"... Tough, Mr. Lucas should have thought of that when he threw his money at 'our' stadium."

Really, though, It should be named 'irsay's Pocket' because 'your' stadium has become a taxpayer supported slush fund for Irsay and the Colts and will drive the city (and the state) into eventual financial ruin so that you and your Colt supporting friends can sit in comfort and luxury and pay people to play football games for you.

The building of the LOS should have been funded by the people who sit in the seats and who play on the field, not by the taxpayers.

How pathetic! There was nothing wrong with the RCA dome 'warehouse'. When Irsay said that he was shopping around for a new city unless Indy came up with a new stadium we should have said "goodby".

At Monday, September 22, 2008 3:36:00 PM , Blogger MSWallack said...

Without getting into a long-winded debate, I have to disagree with your analysis of the decision to build The Luke. Perhaps the fiscal allocation between the city and Mr. Irsay was not ideal, but the need for a new stadium was real. Moreover, a new stadium, the revenue that it generates within the city (not just to the Colts), and the national (even international) visibility gained will have long-term financial benefits for the Indianapolis metropolitan area.


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