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Why NFL Stadiums Are the Modern Day Cathedral

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterApril 26, 2012

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 04: The 'Way of Life' mural, also known as 'Touchdown Jesus,'  is seen on the campus of Notre Dame University before a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Purdue Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium on September 4, 2010 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For a thousand years, every city in the Western world poured all of their wealth, natural resources, artistic vision, civic pride and faith in God into building cathedral churches.

Now, they build football stadiums.

Ancient cathedral churches were the pinnacle of medieval engineering. They pushed the limits of carved stone to achieve fantastic height, width and beauty. Lincoln Cathedral took the title of World's Tallest Building from the Great Pyramid at Giza, which had held the title for 4,000 years—and it was not surpassed until the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

Duomo di Milano, from MilanoTravel.org
Duomo di Milano, from MilanoTravel.org

Cathedrals were ornately detailed and lavishly decorated, with master craftsmen overseeing teams of artisans who would carve, join, paint, gild and sculpt awe-inspiring finish details and works of art—inside and outside. They served as houses of worship, as offices for high-ranking clergy and as dormitories for monks.

The grueling work took generations, even centuries to complete. Architects, masons and laborers spent entire lifetimes working on a building they'd never see finished. The Catholic Church's need for cathedral-construction labor was so great it began forgiving the sins of anyone who contributed.

The investment of resources invested in the the cathedral churches were staggering. According to the BBC, Salisbury Cathedral contains over 70,000 tons of stone, 3,000 tons of timber and 450 tons of lead. Because of the massive resource requirements, ancient cathedrals physically reflect their cities, using materials readily available.

One of the most recent European cathedrals, St. Michael's Cathedral in Coventry, England, was built in 1954 at a cost of £1,350,00. Per thisismoney.co.uk; that's over £61 million in today's money. If a modern price could be put on the land, materials and labor required to build one of the great ancient cathedrals, it would easily be hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Cowboys Stadium was built using state-of-the-art engineering and construction. Its price tag? $1.2 billion.

Cowboys Stadium interior stonework, via Stoneworld.com
Cowboys Stadium interior stonework, via Stoneworld.com

Cowboys Stadium is every bit the monument to opulence ancient cathedrals are. According to Stoneworld.com, the ultra-luxurious interior contains enormous amounts of rare stones quarried from all over the US—plus Italy, France, Portugal and even the Arctic region of Norway.

The interior contains over 3,000 HDTVs. According to USA Today, that includes two 160' x 72' monsters, the largest video displays in the world, suspended over the field. Three-hundred luxury suites nestle inside the world's largest pillarless room—the roof over which not only retracts, but the walls bounding either end open 180 feet wide.

ARLINGTON, TX - MARCH 12:  A general view of the exterior of Cowboys Stadium before the weigh-in for the WBO welterweight title fight between Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines and Joshua Clottey of Ghana on March 12, 2010 in Arlington, Texas.  Pacquiao an
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Anglican bishops, some of the wealthiest men in Europe at the time, willed their parishioners to build them these amazing churches in accordance with their vision. Often, the bishop who'd be seated at the cathedral church served as architect, too.

Like those ancient bishops, Jerry Jones didn't just use much of his own vast wealth, he called upon the resources of the community to get his dream stadium built.

Per the Dallas Morning News, the City of Arlington contributed $325 million in construction bonds to the project, plus another $147 million to help pay off the Cowboys' loans. Arlington financed those bonds with increases in sales, hotel-motel and car-rental taxes.

Like the cathedrals of old, stadiums are powerful attractions for visitors—who become customers. NFL stadiums compete for non-football attractions like concerts, expos, bowl games and offseason sports teams, and the best get the best.

The cathedrals of old engaged in centuries-long games of one-upsmanship: they constantly grew bigger, better and more beautiful. NFL stadiums are no different; Cowboys Stadium is currently the biggest and best, but the next one is always on the horizon.

This brings us to Minnesota.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MAY 17: NFL lawyer Jeff Pash (L), NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Art Rooney II (R), president of the Pittsburgh Steelers arrive for court ordered mediation at the U.S. Courthouse on May 17, 2011 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As the NFL
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

After almost a decade of uncertainty surrounding the existing Metrodome, the latest (possibly last) attempt to secure public financing for a new stadium was on the brink of failure. The NFL flew Commissioner Roger Goodell and Steelers president Art Rooney to explain to legislators that this was their last chance to ensure the Vikings don't wander from their northern home.

"There was no implied threats, or any threats at all," Goodell told assembled media, but Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton read between the lines.

"It was very clear that they see that the Vikings will be in play [to move] if this is not resolved or unfavorably resolved in this session," Dayton said.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, per the Minnesota Star-Tribune, opened a stadium bill hearing with an incisive question: "Why should the state of Minnesota contribute to a stadium for a billionaire owner?"

The NFL makes billions of dollars in revenue and splits much of it equally amongst its 32 billionaire owners. Its G4 plan exists specifically to dole out nine-figure stadium construction loans. Why should a city, or state, impose levy taxes on its residents—or legalize multiple new forms of gambling—to foot the bill?

The short answer is because if they don't, Los Angeles might. But the long answer is intriguing.

Sportseconomist.com, citing Economics and Christianity by Ekelund, Hebert and Tollison, points out that almost 9,500 church buildings were constructed in medieval England and Wales alone. The investment in time, stone, metals and labor was mind-boggling.

Certainly, houses of worship have an important place in any community. Much more so in medieval Europe, where the Church served many more roles in society and employed many more people. The architectural innovations achieved in cathedral building paid dividends for future generations—and created incredible structures that inspire awe and wonder in everyone who visits them, centuries later.

But were enormous, opulent church buildings always the best use of resources?

How many more buildings, roads, sewers and aqueducts could have been built with all that stone and lead and know how? How many more public works projects could have been completed? How much better could medieval life have been? How could Minnesota's public millions better be spent? Shouldn't they be legalizing "racinos" to build new schools instead of new stadiums, if anything?

Of course, the answer takes us back to the beginning: cathedral churches were both the product, and inspiration, of tremendous faith in God and civic pride. Cathedrals dominate the skyline of the cities they serve, and act as a monument to what the city is capable of.

NFL stadiums are the same way: they're the manifestation of what a city is capable of, as well of how much they care about their team. For Minnesotans, footing part of the bill for another zillion-dollar monument to the NFL's greatness is worth keeping their beloved Vikings.

Most people don't attend church at massive cathedrals. Church no longer dominates all aspects of daily life, even for the most religious. Someday, the math on these colossal ultra-luxury stadiums just won't work out. Someday, Commissioner (Pope?) Goodell will explain to some city they need to collectively build a new cathedral of football in his honor, and they'll decide the money would be better spent elsewhere.

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