Today was the final day of the National Football League regular season. I know this because the announcer reminded fans of this fact several times during the game. I will be the first to admit I am not a diehard football fan.
My wife summed it up best when she made the observation that I can sit glued to a television for every pitch of a 20-inning marathon baseball game, but if she changes channels to a football game I will be sound asleep before the first snap.
Perhaps I just have not given football its due. I mean I have never attended a professional football game, instead I watch detached from the game by the announcers and commercials.
Whenever I meet someone who has not attended a baseball game in person I explain in great detail how different the game is when you are at the ballpark. Maybe that’s my problem with football.
I received a call from my brother inviting me to be his guest at the University of Phoenix (UoP) Stadium to see the Arizona Cardinals host the Green Bay Packers. Normally I would politely decline, but in this case, I actually needed to go to a game.
The owners of Stadium Journeys asked if I would be willing to write a review of the Cardinals stadium. Since I have never attended an event at the venue, I figured this would be a great opportunity to kill two birds with one Randy Johnson fastball.
As I prepared to leave for the game I realized I didn’t own a single piece of NFL merchandise. For a guy who’s whole closet is filled with Sedona Red, Sonoran Sand, and Black this seemed inconceivable.
I finally decided Sedona Red was close enough to Cardinals Red that it would have to do. I briefly considered running to the store and buying an Arizona Cardinals shirt, but decided I’d rather take the money and go to Chase Field and get another Diamondbacks shirt. Sorry, Cardinals.
On game days at Chase Field I try to be at the stadium two hours early. I would probably go down earlier, but the gates don’t open until two hours prior to first pitch. From a football perspective it’s just a little different.
We were to meet at UoP Stadium at 10 AM for a game that was scheduled to start at 2:15 PM. This worked fine for me, I was all for getting there early and watching whatever the equivalent of batting practice is at a football game.
When I arrived at the stadium I was surprised to see how many cars were lined up at the gates waiting to arrive. It was a lot more than I had expected. Obviously football fans are as diehard as their baseball counterparts.
Of course the other way to look at it is there are only eight home games in an NFL season so if you can only see your team eight times you want to take every minute you can to get your money’s worth out of the seats.
As the gates opened the cars made a beeline, not to park closest to the stadium, but to the edges of the parking lot with each car backing into the parking space. What’s more, nearly every car coming into the parking lot was a pickup, van, or large vehicle. There were several recreational vehicles and more than one was pulling a trailer of some kind.
After parking, equipment began to be unpacked from the trucks and tents could be seen everywhere being erected. This was something completely different and I had no idea what was going on.
After questioning, my brother he explained the stadium would not be opening for several hours. The reason everyone was rushing into the parking lot was so that they could begin tailgating.
To a baseball fan, tailgating usually refers to two base runners following each other closely to score before the relay throw from the outfield. In this case though it is a ritual where fans gather and eat before the game.
I’ve seen a few beer commercials, so I thought I knew what tailgating meant. I expected to see someone with a table top grill. a package of hot dogs, and maybe a bun. I cannot begin to express how wrong this assessment was.
Instead I watched as several vehicles were unloaded. Soon there were shade structures, several tables complete with personalized table cloths, an incalculable number of coolers filled with every assortment of adult beverages you could imagine.
Soon the food began to appear. Rather than a slimy weenie and a stale bun there were all kinds of gourmet foods. On one table were Poblano chiles sliced in half lengthwise and filled with piped sweet potatoes then grilled to perfection
Another table held various marinated meats and vegetables for creating kabobs. There were steaks, chicken, shrimp, and others. The grill was not your Wal-Mart special tabletop model. Instead these grills were custom made, and attached to the trailer hitch of the vehicle.
At the next car over fans were setting up satellite dishes and flat screen televisions. A few parking spaces away, there was one fan who had what looked like a small U-Haul trailer painted in team colors. When it opened, it had a 50 inch plasma television and a full bar with bartender.
The Arizona Cardinals not only tolerate this, but they actually encourage it. Before each game team officials will wander around to the various tailgating parties looking at the food and team spirit.
During the game they will recognize one tailgate party as the “Tailgater of the Game.” At the end of the season, all of the winners are eligible to be named “Tailgater of the Year,” quite a prestigious award from the sounds of things.
Clearly this is different than baseball. At Chase Field there is limited parking most being shared with the City of Phoenix and US Airways Center. The parking structures are covered and not conducive to tailgate parties.
Then of course there is the fact that it is 115 degrees in the shade during the summer versus 65 degrees in the sun during football season.
As I was preparing to write my article on UoP Stadium I began to ask these tailgaters what food item would be a must at the stadium for someone to try when attending a game. Most all of those I asked just stared at me confused.
“Why would we buy stadium food when we can have this before the game?” was the typical answer. I had to admit, they had a very good point. The food being cooked in the parking lot by these master chefs was much better than any stadium fare I could imagine.
Another interesting part of tailgating was that many of these people spent hours before the game enjoying each other’s company, yet when they got into the stadium their seats were nowhere near each other.
I would have expected these groups to be people who were either friends going to the game or perhaps people who sit together during the game. Instead many met over the years of parking close to each other or stumbling upon each other by visiting other tailgating tents.
The result is, the fans seem to be more tightly knit than what you find at a typical baseball stadium. Perhaps the fact there are only eight games makes going to a game become an all-day event to be savored. It would be hard to sustain that kind of camaraderie as well as that amount of food over an 81-game schedule.
After a tremendous meal, we made our way to the stadium. I am used to lines to get into the ballpark. At times there may be people 12-15 deep waiting to get into the gates. This paled in comparison to UoP Stadium.
The lines to get into the stadium seemed to go on for miles. It would be a good 20 minutes before you could get through the gates. I say would because I inadvertently cut in line as I was looking to see what was holding up the front of the line. The crowd engulfed me and I just kind of rode the wave of people through security.
At Chase Field security consists of showing security the contents of your seat cushion and for the ladies showing their purses. At UoP Stadium they are a little more thorough. Security literally frisks each person going through the gates and checks not only your bags and jackets, but also went through my hat. I’m not sure what the guards thought I was carrying under my Diamondbacks hat.
Like Chase Field, UoP Stadium is also a retractable-roof stadium. Unlike Chase Field, UoP Stadium only opens in the very center of the roof. The Diamondbacks are concerned about fan comfort and will only open the roof during night games or when temperatures are mild.
With the UoP Stadium roof they are more concerned with crowd noise and typically play with the roof closed so the crowd volume levels remain at a high. In fact, beyond one of the end zones the stadium has a sound meter that lights up as the crowd gets noisier. A fact the NFL frowned upon and made the team turn off during the games.
One of the things I love about Chase Field is that each seat is angled toward home plate so you don’t have to sit diagonally on your chair to watch the action. That is not the case with football since the action can happen all over the field.
Phoenix sports fans are, by nature, a fair weather crowd. At any venue you can typically find a large contingent of opposing fans. UoP was no different, but I was surprised to see the Cardinals fans outnumbering the Green Bay fans by a substantial margin.
I was also impressed to see the number of player jerseys in the stands. At Chase Field you will see a handful of jerseys scattered in a section but at UoP Stadium there were entire rows and sections where fans were wearing team jerseys.
The game itself was disappointing. Before the game started the Cardinals had locked up their play-off position and decided to rest all of their starters making for a lopsided contest.
Despite the home team rolling over and not being competitive it was impressive to see most of the fans stayed to the very end of the game and cheered on the local players. At Chase Field a majority of the fans would have left before the seventh-inning stretch.
As the game ended, the fans exited the stadium at a much faster rate than when entering. The stadium was nearly empty within a few minutes after the game.
Instead of going to their cars and leaving as you would have seen at a baseball game, these fans went back to the parking lot and the tailgating began again. Security came around and announced when the gates would be closing, giving plenty of warning.
At the end of the day, I can say I have a new respect for football fans and even envy some of their rituals on game day. Perhaps the best thing that can be said was I enjoyed an entire game and stayed awake—definitely a first for me.
As if that was not great enough, I watched a whole game and not once did I have to worry about seeing Rally Sally’s face appear on the JumboTron. It was truly a great experience.