Monday, May 28, 2012

A du Nord Review of BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston Texas

Guest article by our FIF Wes Burdine who attended his first game at Houston's new BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday.

Nothing seems to get American soccer fans, journalists, and the MLS brass more excited than soccer-specific stadiums these days. Sure the Dynamo beat the Galaxy, but did you see the stadium? It’s the funny little thing that transcends fan tribalism—we all know that a new stadium for one team is a good thing for American soccer and a good thing for American soccer is a good thing for whatever team we support.
With that in mind, I excitedly planned my trip to the Dynamo’s BBVA Compass Stadium. Every year, I visit my family in Texas, an hour and a half north of Houston, and I drag my brothers and nephew to a Houston game. This year, we got to check out the new stadium and see Houston host the Galaxy on May 26th.
Bruce asked me to write up my thoughts in a sort of review and this is going to be long-ish, but I think a new stadium is a big event, so forgive me.
The most important thing for the Dynamo (and the fans) is that this Dynamo game was a sea of orange. Everyone had Dynamo jerseys. There were a couple of the guys wearing any old soccer jersey (the dude in a long-sleeve Real Madrid jersey learned his lesson, I think), but they were minimal. This all spells not just money for the team, but it’s also a good sign that fans are interested in the team—those fans who follow it, want to watch it on tv, etc…

The Lead-Up
The stadium is beautiful from the outside, but it’s so packed into the neighborhood that I hardly got to catch it in its full glory. This also leads to the first negative: parking. Houston is a driving town, so while having a downtown stadium is fantastic, it does not necessarily translate into an urban fan-base taking public transit to the stadium. The as-yet unfinished light rail may help, but there is no Dynamo owned parking lot (just two lots for season ticket holders), so fans like us were caught in an infuriating traffic jam maze. We found a lot that was charging $20 at one entrance and $25 at another.

Inside the Park
Our seats were in section 216, located in the second tier on the end line. The sight lines were fantastic and the proximity to the field was wonderful. However, the decision to not include a roof that extends over all of the seats is sheer madness. The roof currently extends over most of the sideline seats and over one endline (leaving the four corners and our endline uncovered. It was 91 degrees and sunny at 1:30 in the afternoon and this made for two of the most uncomfortable hours of my life. My 7 year-old nephew looked like he was ready to wither up and collapse. Thankfully, the Dynamo do not have any other day games scheduled, because I would never go to another day game even if I were on the payroll.
One of the advantages of Livestrong Sporting Park’s (apologies for comparing BBVA to the greatest soccer venue in the US, but it’s helpful to compare a few notes) roof is that it keeps sound in, making the stadium feel wonderfully intimate. If your goal is to work with your supporters groups to create an “atmosphere,” the roof helps the fans transmit their noise to the opposite end of the field. One thing I’ve observed from Dynamo games is that the supporters groups play music and sing continually, but this doesn’t transfer to the rest of the stadium (last year it was 90 minutes of the brass band playing “Karma Chameleon”; this year, thank god, Boy George was limited to 20 minutes). Eventually, a group of fans along the sidelines will start a “let’s go Dynamo!” chant that will be picked up by the entire stadium, but has the hokey feel of a recorded fight song at a baseball game. One good part about our seats was that they were on metal bleachers, meaning you can stomp your feet and make a great sound for corner kicks.
The traffic pattern to get to our seats was also poorly designed, forcing many fans to walk in front of other fans through the aisles to get to their seats. Along with the other 22k fans, we tried to escape the heat by going back down into the tunnel for the bathroom and drinks but the walkways were all too crowded to even move. When we eventually left, half of the stadium was queuing up for 8 regular sized doors. In general, there was a general lack of thought put into the movement of fans through the stadium.
Here’s where a comparison to Sporting KC’s stadium helps. At Livestrong, you can walk easily around the entire stadium or even move to a few of the standing areas to watch the game. During the half-time break, you can walk over to the team store and easily browse for jerseys. At BBVA, there is a single door leading into the team store, making it extremely tight to move in or out.

The Extras
I emailed Zach, a fan who blogs for Dynamo Theory to see if I had missed anything big and he shared a similar feeling to mine: “It's nice but economical.”
There were a couple of short-cuts that seemed to be made in the stadium construction. I was surprised that each team had just a single bench to sit on. Behind that bench, where the players warmed up, there was a strip of grass and then a long strip of concrete (perhaps rubber), forcing the warm-ups into what looked like a 4 foot wide strip. There is only one large screen for replays that was located over our heads. For those of us unable to see that screen there were two very small screens on the other end that mostly carried the score, shots, and corners.
The supporters groups have a section on the endline that has bench seating (as opposed to the very nice orange seats the rest of the stadium has) that packs in the several different supporters groups. One of those groups marched out in protest after one of their fans was arrested (and reportedly tased; Zach blogs about it here.) At the time, I only noticed a large space where El Batallon had been. It’s unfortunate for all involved that this appears to be an intractable mess. At the time, I laughed at EB’s large tifo banner, “No One Likes Us. We Don’t Care,” but now it strikes me as odd that a group makes their primary tifo display something that has nothing to do with celebrating the team.

Final Verdict
Thank god the Dynamo made it a good game, because the heat and sun made the game difficult to watch. I am imagining an evening game where the soul-crushing sun wouldn’t be beating down and I have to say it’s something to make fans proud. The view of the field is wonderful and the stadium is beautiful. On those pleasant evenings, the 90 minutes of play will be wonderful. But you have to wonder how bad weather days will make filling that stadium difficult. I also can’t help but wish that there were fewer short-cuts and a little more attention to detail, which would make all the other aspects of getting to one’s seat and getting to one’s car a bit less of a chore.
But if you’re a Dynamo fan, you should feel proud. You have a great start and you can keep working to embarrass your neighbors to the North when people compare your attendances to theirs. One parting note to any Houston fans reading. When Hainault (pronounced, “Hey-no”) scored the goal I couldn’t help but wish that the fans would sing his name to the tune of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”—it’s too perfect to not use. That one is free; send me $5 in the mail for more brilliant ideas.


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