Will Patriots, Seahawks play under the roof during Super Bowl?
The Super Bowl location in sunny Arizona will present a dilemma for league officials as they grapple with a question faced by many pro sports teams in an era of retractable roofs: whether to play the game with the stadium open or closed.
At this point, the NFL says it plans to keep the retractable roof open at University of Phoenix Stadium for the Feb. 1 game between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots, but the plan can change as the league gets a better read on the weather forecast for game night. If there is a sign of inclement weather, the roof will be shut.
The fact that the question is even up for debate may seem strange given the location. The game will be played in a place where tens of thousands of visitors flock each winter for the sole purpose of basking in the warm sun, and last year’s Super Bowl took place in New Jersey with the temperature around 40 degrees at kickoff.
But the occupants of the stadium and the other three NFL teams with retractable roof stadiums actually play many more games indoors than with the roof open, even if their counterparts in cold-weather cities like Buffalo, Green Bay and Chicago get by in open-air facilities.
The Cardinals did not play a single game with the roof open this season, despite spectacular weather for some late-season games. The Dallas Cowboys opened their roof only once in the 2014 season while playing only about a third of their games outside since opening the $1.2 billion building in 2009. The Indianapolis Colts have opened their roof at a similar rate as the Cowboys, while the Houston Texans have opened their roof for about 40 percent of the games dating back to their founding in 2002.
Since the Cardinals’ stadium was built in 2006, the team has played 22 games with the roof open and 71 with it closed.
The need for retractable roofs has played a role in recent public debates over stadium projects, especially those relying on scarce public money. A retractable roof typically adds $25 million to $50 million to a domed stadium project, and it typically costs a few thousand dollars to open and close the structures each time, said Mark Waggoner, a structural engineer who has had a hand in several pro sports stadiums.
In Minnesota, lawmakers balked at bids to have the public kick in toward a retractable roof on a $1 billion Vikings stadium being built in downtown Minneapolis, particularly given the cold climate. Team owners decided against paying for it themselves and settled for a fixed roof and bank of glass windows on the side that will slide open to let fresh air in.
A $1.4 billion stadium being built by the Falcons to replace the 23-year-old Georgia Dome has a retractable roof, but the team is picking up most of the cost for the project. As a result, there hasn’t been widespread vocal opposition over the new stadium aside from grumbling from fans over personal seat licenses that are running up to $45,000.
”Is it necessary to have a retractable roof for football? No. For all the needs of the state? No,” said Republican Sen. Julie Rosen, who steered the Vikings legislation through in 2011. ”To me, it’s dollars and cents.”
The roof dilemma for the Arizona stadium is complicated by the vast swings in weather the Phoenix area sees over the course of the football season. For the preseason and first month of the season, temperatures are in the unbearable range of 100 to 110 degrees, making it an easy call to close the roof. By season’s end, the temperature can dip into the 50s. In the middle of the season, the temperature is fabulous but fans on one side of the arena complain that the setting sun is too bright.
”For a quarter or more of the game you’re staring right in to the sun. And (fans) have frankly made us aware loud and clear that that’s not an optimal experience for them,” said Mark Dalton, vice president of media relations for the Cardinals.
The Super Bowl host stadium has not only a retractable roof but a movable field that is the only one of its kind in the U.S. The field slides inside and outside with an intricate set of rails, motors and wheels. The natural grass field is frequently voted by players around the league as their favorite playing surface, Dalton said. The field remains outside about 350 days a year and is wheeled indoors for games, Dalton said.
For the Super Bowl, the teams on the field aren’t the only ones affected by the roof decision. The halftime show relies on elaborate rigging and lighting that can be adversely affected by gusts of wind with the roof open, Waggoner said. For this year’s Super Bowl, NFL vice president of football communications Michael Signora said the league is planning a show that can be ”executed with a closed or open roof and will be prepared either way.”
As for the fan experience, many believe the closed roof makes it louder inside and creates a powerful home-field advantage that was on full display this season when the Cardinals went 7-1 at home. The Cardinals are 12-10 at home with the roof open since the stadium opened in 2006.
To the Cardinals, another stat is more telling. The team has sold out every game at University of Phoenix Stadium since it opened. In the 18 years it occupied the outdoor Sun Devil Stadium at Arizona State University, it sold out all of 12 games. The stifling heat and uncomfortable bleacher seating were partly to blame, but the team was also one of the worst in the league during that period.