Smaller stadium is better

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:44 AM ET

At the time it seemed like a good idea. And several times since, it has been. But the time has come to downsize Commonwealth Stadium.

For both the Edmonton Eskimos and the FIFA U-20 World Cup of Soccer, the big stadium is creating perception problems which have become a negative for Edmonton's image and an environment which is less than it could be.

The timing is right to return the stadium to something resembling the 43,000-seat gem it was back when it was built for the 1978 Commonwealth Games.

LOOKS LIKE A DISASTER

What the world television audience is seeing from here in the U-20 World Cup looks like an unmitigated disaster.

Thousands of empty seats here are contrasted by full stadiums in Toronto, Victoria and Burnaby, where the capacities range from 19,500 to 10,000.

Edmonton drew 26,804 for the quarter-final, 24,687 for a round of 16 game and 31,579 and 32,058 for two Canada games (with half the fans unable to get into the stadium due to the ticket fiasco and rain and the Canadian team running most of them off after half time in the other game).

The event has already sold more than 217,385 tickets for eight games and Edmonton is being viewed as the one host city in Canada in which the event hasn't had fans in the stands.

The Eskimos face the same perception.

This year, in addition to putting tarps over 8,000 endzone seats and closing down an endzone bar where hundreds of people used to stand to watch a game, the Eskimos are also draping green and gold tarps over seats in the four upper-deck corners.

"We've done it to tighten up the stadium," said Eskimos CEO Rick LeLacheur.

LeLacheur knows what has happened here to some extent with 33 C temperatures and 5:45 p.m. starts for the soccer, which not only brings fans to the stadium late for mid-week games, but hot.

"People want to sit in the shade. The shade side of the stands is the west side. That's the non-TV side. The west side stands always have more fans than the TV side."

But the bottom line is the stadium is mostly just too damn big.

FLAGSHIP FRANCHISE

Back in 1982, when the Eskimos were winning five Grey Cups in a row and the city could tap into three levels of government money toward the hosting of Universiade '83, somebody got the bright idea to expand the joint to 60,000. Eskimos season-ticket numbers soared to over 50,000. It was a success.

Edmonton was the flagship franchise of the CFL.

Edmonton's Grey Cup games have attracted crowds of 62,531, 60,431 and 60,081. The Eskimos have drawn as many as 62,444 for a regular-season game and have had six crowds over 59,000.

The park was close to full for 10 days of the IAAF 2001 World Championships In Athletics. Brazil drew 54,000 in their last soccer game here prior to going south and winning the USA '94 World Cup. The stadium was sold out of tickets for the final of the ballistic FIFA U-19 Women's World Champions.

But looking back ...

"Personally I think they made a mistake back in 1982 when it was 43,000 seats," says LeLacheur.

Remember that stadium? Grass inclines in the corners and endzones to frame the field. Eye candy to TV sports viewers.

"The size of our stadium is a good thing and a bad thing," says LeLacheur.

"It really has been a really great thing on a lot of occasions. But most days it's a bad thing. So many times, it makes the stadium look empty."

The Eskimos deal with it all the time. They draw 40,000, as they likely will Friday night against Saskatchewan, and you still see a lot of empty seats.

Meanwhile Montreal sells out a 20,202 seat stadium and it's a success story.

CHEAPER TICKETS

"There has been a benefit for our fans because our tickets have been cheaper," said LeLacheur.

But he'd rather have a tough ticket. If the stadium still sat 43,000, LeLacheur is confident that the Eskimos would be sold out and events like the soccer championship would build to sellouts as the event progressed.

So much is added to the environment with a packed stadium. And there are a lot more reasons to buy advance tickets to events and Eskimo season tickets.

"Being back to 43,000 would be perfect," said LeLacheur. "It would be full every time and for most events."

But what do you do? Knock the wings off the stadium? Replace the grass in the corners and endzone?

One thing to reduce the size would to be to build the Eskimo's offices and dressing room on the north end of the stadium.

That's been looked at, but hasn't gone anywhere.

New seats are desperately needed in the 29-year-old stadium. Wider seats with cup holders would bring the capacity down. But they price out at $275 a seat and LeLacheur figures they'll have to be replaced in stages.

First, a plan is needed to downsize the stadium. It's time.


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