Without question, the New England Patriots have been the class of the NFL since Bill Belichick became their head coach back in 2000.
Their three Lombardi Trophies, four Super Bowl appearances, 14 playoff wins, and .700 win percentage set them apart as the top franchise of the Noughties—a decade in which they endured only one losing season.
You’d figure that the home for a team like this would be, in the words of Massachusetts’ own John Winthrop, a “shining city upon a hill.”
Prior to this season, though, you’d have been wrong—or, rather, not yet right.
Gillette Stadium is, in itself, a good setting for a football game. Its three broad, flattish tiers rise almost imperceptibly from the field to a formidable stacked height, crowned by full rows of floodlights.
The sometimes-harsh elements of New England’s winter season are given ample open space, through the end zones and from above, to come in and play. In the subtle polish of dark red and blue, with guts of grey concrete, the venue embodies the stolid professionalism of the organization it houses. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, but you’re not living in luxury, either.
Until the tail end of the Patriots’ 2007 season, that was the sum total of the game-day experience. Outside, construction skeletons, dirt-strewn pedestrian walkways, and parking lots littered the flatland patch of Foxborough along Route 1, where Gillette had been plopped down in 2002, just up the road from an unremarkable suburban neighborhood.
Over the past two years, though, completed pieces have filled big spaces in team owner Robert Kraft’s ambitious framework.
From a 142,000 square-foot Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store in 2007, to The Hall—New England’s own football hall of fame—in 2008 and several prominent restaurants in 2009, the stadium that once stood alone has become the nucleus of what Kraft calls “a super-regional lifestyle and entertainment center,” complete with its own four-star hotel and 14-screen movie theater.
Make no mistake: Patriot Place is that “city upon a hill,” and it makes Gillette Stadium as elite among sporting venues as its Patriots have been among football teams.
FANFARE Score: 28
(StadiumJourney.com's unique "FANFARE" metric scores venues on a five-point scale in six categories, with additional bonus points awarded at the reviewer's discretion.)
Food & Beverage: 4
The in-stadium concessions, unfortunately, are anything but elite. Sam Adams on tap is an admirable alternative to the standard domestic fare, and $4 small beers aren’t a bad value as ballgame brews go.
But Gillette’s too-typical selection of $5 hot dogs and $7 sausages is uninspiring, and paying $9 for a combo at one of the two McDonald’s locations sucks the “value” right out of your value meal.
Given that, there’s no earthly reason to get your grub inside the gates.
Along the thoroughfares of Patriot Place, several city blocks’ worth of dining options have been slotted between shops.
Ranging from $8 burritos at Qdoba to $50 rib eye steaks at Davio’s, with chains such as Red Robin and Olive Garden and several other restaurants priced between, there’s something for every palate and budget.
And then there’s Five Guys.
The burgers and fries served up by this Alexandria, Va.-based chain deserve paragraphs upon paragraphs of praise.
Suffice to say, there’s nary a freezer on the premises—meaning fresh 80% lean beef, vegetables, and bread—and the spuds that end up as your fries are cut and cold-soaked the morning of your visit. A burger, fries, and a drink costs around $10, and you’ll bless every penny of it.
Maybe it’s the ever-present (and sometimes oppressive) touch of the New England cold, the parking lot talk of “layering up” and keeping your feet warm, and the resultant sea of heavy jackets, coveralls, and snow caps.
Maybe it’s the sheer overflow of that crowd, which fills all of the stadium’s 68,756 seats and spills over heavily into areas for “standing room only” ticket-holders, or the feeling of taking part in the mass movement of so many people to and from their seats, or the sound of them all screaming for a big play or shouting to finish the announcer’s sentence: “First down!”
Maybe it’s just that the Patriots, who are 60-12 all-time (and 7-0 in the playoffs) at Gillette, usually give their home crowd plenty to cheer about.
Whatever the reason, the place feels like big-time professional football. From the tailgate-swamped lots to the bustling shops to the concourses and stands, it exudes “place-to-be” appeal.
The modern fan can follow his fantasy team and the rest of the NFL at CBS Scene, a restaurant and bar just outside the gates.
Next door, The Hall at Patriot Place ($10 admission) celebrates New England football, through exhibits ranging from local prep school history to the actual snowplow used in the infamous 1982 “Snow Plow Game,” in addition to the frequent presence of legendary former players.
Gillette Stadium has two neighborhoods, really. One (Patriot Place) surrounds the stadium, self-sufficient in its abundance of attractions. CBS Scene doubles as a nightclub, and shops for global brands such as Reebok and Hollister stand next to the theater and plethora of restaurants mentioned above, in addition to the row of sizable chain stores located across the parking lots to the east.
In their midst, a bank branch and a four-story health care center suggest that the Patriots’ block of town aspires to be a hub for more than just out-of-town football fans and shoppers.
Perhaps equally as fascinating are the otherwise run-of-the-mill neighborhoods a stone’s throw down Route 1, in the shadow of these developments.
A far cry from venues like Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium and Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, which sit squarely in the heart of those cities’ downtown areas, Gillette’s parking lots rub elbows with side streets lined by houses that could be found in any American small town. Less than a mile east of Patriot Place along the highway, on the corner of North Street, a video rental store and pizzeria sit across from a gas station and a McDonald’s.
Commuter rail connects Foxborough to big-city Boston on game days, but the two feel worlds apart in spirit.
The rowdies who filled Foxboro Stadium (the Patriots’ previous home) would have been much more intolerant of the visiting team’s colors, most fans in attendance insisted. Patriots fans of old, they said, would raucously liquor themselves up in the parking lots before rampaging inside the gates.
A real rough bunch, by all accounts—and, yet, no sign of them this year.
Plenty of good-natured ribbing, loud cheering, and team spirit. Amongst the tens of thousands, plenty of characters stood out. One fan dressed up as a wolf-man, one as a silver-faced Patriots superhero from his own imagination, and even one as Randy Moss.
Most importantly, they came in droves. In a season when some NFL teams’ attendance figures have taken a hit from tough economic times, New England fans shrugged off a wet, windy morning to fill their stadium to its brim and make the kind of noise a professional football team deserves from the home crowd.
In one way, of course, tens of thousands of fans and a charming small-town backdrop don’t mix well—a realization that crushes all but the earliest to leave Gillette on game day.
Remember the sea of tailgaters in the vast, crowded parking lots? The two-lane highway (Route 1) through the charming small town?
That’s the only way out. For everybody.
Some people park in the $40 spots around Patriot Place, while some choose the $20 lots down the highway. (No one uses the town’s stores, whose game-day towing policies are ferocious.) Some head for the exits in the fourth quarter, while others wait out the storm for hours after the game at their tailgates. All of them must confront the bumper-to-bumper gridlock that builds in both directions away from Gillette.
Expect to spend extra hours getting through the first miles back toward wherever you came from.
Return on Investment: 4
As much as Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place pack an ultra-modern excitement punch, rivaled only by the rich history and intrinsic value of venues such as Lambeau Field and Camden Yards, spending a Sunday there might hit your wallet even harder.
The Fan Cost Index (FCI) developed by Team Marketing measures NFL teams’ game-day affordability by calculating the average price for a family of four to buy four tickets, soft drinks, and hot dogs, two small beers, programs, hats, and parking. On average, that experience costs about $415; this year, New England’s FCI was close to $600.
Only 10 teams were above the league average FCI; only Dallas’ astronomical $758 outstripped the Patriots.
For that price, Gillette Stadium, the on-field product—and all of Patriot Place’s bells and whistles—should be every bit as good as they are.
In case you’d forgotten, in visiting some less-than-stellar stadiums, that a trip to an NFL game can be a big-time experience, the price tag here should be an easy reminder.
Etc. (Everything Else and Bonus Points): 3
One point for the distinctive lighthouse and bridge marking the stadium’s entrance, a replica of the Longfellow Bridge that connects Boston and Cambridge. The team enters from under it to thunderous applause, and the organization has used it with great success to increase the venue’s brand equity.
Another for the Moss-costumed fan and Randy Moss himself, whose impromptu touchdown celebration competition via Jumbotron drew big cheers from a happy crowd, and took the edge off of recent tension between Moss and some local fans and media.
Lastly, one point for the tailgate party four cars over. The beer you donated didn’t take the sting out of my Jaguars’ 35-7 loss like you’d hoped, but getting to experience your Patriots’ place certainly helped.
[This article was originally published on StadiumJourney.com .]