Since Mexico built Estadio Azteca, the terrifying home of its national soccer team, in 1966, America has replaced virtually every professional sports stadium in the country, in some cases multiple times, and in almost every case at considerable cost to taxpayers. Ask a sports franchise owner why he needs another new stadium, and his answer will probably be about "fan experience," a vague term whose importance can be summarized as such: When fans watch sports on their couch, owners don't make much money. As Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank recently told The New York Times, "We need a long-term solution to keep the Falcons competitive in terms of the fan experience." Blank will get his wish, as he subsequently reached a deal with the Atlanta mayor on a new stadium to replace the Georgia Dome, which hosted the NCAA basketball championship game last night. The Georgia Dome opened in 1992, 26 years after Estadio Azteca. I attended the recent U.S.–Mexico World Cup qualifier at Azteca. And I can assure you that customers pulling for the home team at Estadio Azteca have an extremely competitive fan experience.
A lot of sportscasters, athletes, and fans talk about the "myth" of Azteca. "Myth" is a word that probably shouldn't be applied to sports nearly as often as it is, considering that most claims about teams, players, and venues can be thoroughly fact-checked and verified. But Azteca might be an exception. Imagine if America had only one major sport and we built a single stadium for all the games we played against other countries in that sport. Now, imagine we built that stadium on a de facto burial ground, infamously known as a cultural epicenter of grotesque human suffering, and named the stadium after the perpetrators. Now pretend this stadium was also built in an area with a globally recognized smog problem and at altitudes approaching 1.5 miles above sea level, so all visitors essentially contract instantaneous asthma, and people who actually have asthma are lucky to breathe successfully. For the au jus, each and every fan attending games at this stadium is intricately familiar with the aforementioned details — and torments every visitor with appalling epithets and insufferable noise. There are more than 100,000 of these angry people. And the two most famous players in the history of this sport had their two most fabled games in this stadium. I'm picturing America's equivalent being something along the lines of Manhattan Project Stadium, a venue on top of a mountain in the New Mexico desert that hosts every NFL playoff game, with New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., combined into a single city surrounding the mountain. For Estadio Azteca, "myth" might just be the perfect word. Even after researching and writing this paragraph, I still can't really believe it's all true.
It's not simply the fact of Mexican fan enthusiasm that makes Azteca what it is. The stadium has no peers even in its particular soccer-enthused corner of the globe. It dominates the other stadiums of Central America in much the same way it towers over the residential neighborhood surrounding Azteca itself. Those countries play their home matches in 35,000-capacity-or-so multipurpose stadiums: tiny, rickety structures by comparison, with none of the mystique or atmosphere. South America claims a few comparable stadiums, most notably Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, but features a less intimidating bowl design that adds capacity by pushing fans further back, rather than higher up.
How does Estadio Azteca hold up so well? It's not some architectural miracle, generations ahead of its time. It's about as simple as large stadiums get: Dig a hole, pour concrete, erect some support beams, run calculations on how many people it can fit before collapsing, and put in enough seats to fit that many people minus one, which puts capacity at around 105,000. But if building a big stadium that fits lots of people was all it took to have a world-renowned venue, then America would already have dozens of them. And I was surprised upon entering Azteca to be reminded not of an American college football stadium, but of the Roman Coliseum. The stands in both places are extremely steep, to the point that navigating them gave me vertigo, which doesn't happen to me at any other stadium. Looking across the way, the opposite side of the field looks two-dimensional. This extreme grade is purposeful: It puts every fan as physically close to the action with as keen of a sight line as possible. The stadium becomes a backdrop to what is happening on the field, the game itself becoming paramount, which only reminds spectators they're observing the same ground where the Goal of the Century, the Hand of God goal, and a host of other landmark events in global soccer occurred. The stadium features the game, and not the other way around.
Meanwhile, go to the Cowboys Stadium website, and the intro to the "Luxury Suites" section greets you with this hubristic promotion: "from your luxury suite, you have a memorable view of an architecturally-significant and technologically advanced sports venue. The stadium will personify leadership, excellence and the Dallas Cowboys [sic] position as one of the top sports franchises in the world." (I actually felt my soul escaping my body reading that paragraph.) Not to pick on Jerry Jones — other new American stadiums also have: fish-tank infield walls, that thing in the Marlins Park outfield, "suite and pool rentals" at Chase Field in Arizona, and "performance cooking stations" in the Legends Suite Club at Yankee Stadium. Adding these features to improve the fan experience is to change the definition of being a fan.
Azteca completely lacks those absurdities, which helps you focus on the simple things that make it special to begin with. As we arrived at our section in the upper deck, the steep grade, never-ending steps, and intensity from the home fans implanted me with an apocalyptic certainty that Azteca was named quite purposefully to remind visitors of the pyramid of Tenochtitlan, the infamous Aztec structure that stood on the same ground as present-day Mexico City. Human sacrificial victims would ascend the massive pyramid before their blood would stain the steps, much to the delight of the Aztecan citizens. As the riot police escorted us up, until we reached the very top, I couldn't resist the vision of my own blood running down the stadium stairs, flowing to field level and pooling in the ancient dried lakebed sands, pleasing the same gods as the human sacrifices from centuries previous.
I wondered if my vision was the amalgamation of careful architectural plotting and a home crowd obeying decades of experience, gesturing and vocalizing their dismay about my very existence with every passing second. I wondered if the scale of this place was simply fucking with my head. Or maybe, like watching reels of plane crash footage before flying, I shouldn't have gone to the Anthropology Museum the morning of the match. But this is beside the point: I want all this to be intentional, I want to believe in the myth of Azteca, because we barely have any stadium myths in America. And many of the stadiums those "myths" happened in are now parking lots.
With every passing second of unconscionable noise and threatening, vulgar gesture referencing my own doom, the choice phrase of American sports owners came back to mind. I'm a fan who paid lots of money to come here, and I'm certainly experiencing something, albeit some combination of fear, awe, and nervousness in dynamic doses depending on the course of action on the field and what projectiles are currently obeying Newton's inevitability on a vector toward my head. I wonder — between sideways glances at the riot police protecting me to see if they seem as angry with me as their native countrymen — if people will still be traveling to see Jerry Jones' Pleasure Dome when he no longer has the biggest video screen, and I wonder what Jerry might be saying about the fan experience then, and if people will still be going to Azteca. I think they will, because the fan experience isn't about fans interacting with stadiums, but fans interacting with other fans.
This is the owner's fallacy of the fan experience. They're enthralled by the idea of attracting fans with more and larger screens and other niceties because that's something they can control, even though that's not what many fans want. Fans desire something that, when done right, can never be experienced from the solitude of the couch: the proverbial sense of belonging to something larger. And that something can't be capitalism's excesses, because we can get that from basically any TV channel, mall, or the mere knowledge of Pitbull's existence. But, almost by definition, there's no way to manufacture myth or a sense of belonging to a larger historical epoch, which is precisely why franchise owners won't accept this explanation of the ideal fan experience.
Which isn't to say there's nothing a team can do to give itself a myth. The stadiums that have survived the Great Stadium Boom are some of the best ones we have. Wrigley, Fenway, Lambeau Field (which is undergoing its final year of major renovations), and Dodger Stadium (which just got a substantial but respectful renovation that makes improvements while leaving the general aura untouched) were not lauded as gems when they were built, but have come to be as age, lore, and respect have made them more than their brick-and-mortar. Unfortunately, these are the few lone survivors. And people still want to tear them down.
This isn't about being anti-profits per se. (Actually, it's easier to make money on a stadium when you don't have to pay for a brand-new one. Nine out of ten fourth-graders in the AT&T commercial agree.) At Azteca, I overheard two American friends discuss how much money they spent on the trip — citing figures even Jerry Jones or Arthur Blank would be pleased with — dodging beer projectiles hurled from the other side of the Riot Police Border as they ate Cup-O-Noodles and LimeAid-like beverages because they were the only concessions sold. They posed for pictures with the bizarre-to-us snacks, then went back to singing and watching the game. There are a lot of things owners can't bring from Azteca — and some they don't want to — but they might be pleasantly surprised how little money they have to spend to get the experience fans want.