Remember those late afternoon games in Texas Stadium, when Madden and Summerall were calling the game, Danny White was blowing it and the artificial turf was stained with water marks around the 20-yard line? Or how about those old AFC West battles on NBC, when the Raiders played the Chargers on a dirt-covered field, left over from a Padres team that still had a month left in its season?
Sports stadiums and arenas don’t just present different atmospheres for those in attendance. Each arena adds something different to the viewing experience. There’s an old saying — which pops up whenever ABC/ESPN courts Dennis Miller, Tony Kornheiser or a retired coach looking for a resthome until they return to the sideline — that people don’t watch games for the announcers. And I’m not saying I’ll tune in to watch two bad teams play simply because I like how the stadium looks on my antique television. But there are some stadiums that stand out. I like how they look on television, whether it’s the turf, stands or lighting.
I thought of this while watching the Niners and Saints in the Superdome on Sunday. The Superdome is one of those distinct stadiums, although it has just as much to do with college games as pro ones. I always liked watching the Sugar Bowl as a kid. It was always at night and on ABC, playing opposite the Orange Bowl on NBC. The lighting looked darker; sometimes there seemed to be a haze in the air, as if something that could only be brewed in New Orleans had seeped through the doors and was polluting the inside.
I’ve never had any special bond with the Milwaukee Bucks but I always enjoyed watching games at old Mecca arena, whose floor had different shades that made it look like some artist went a bit out of control when allowed to design the court. Those Bucks games in the ’80s often involved Larry Bird and the Celtics mopping the court with the home team, much to my disappointment, but the games were at least visually pleasing.
An arena I’ve always hated from the comfort of my couch? The Palace in Auburn Hills, home to the three-time champion Pistons. To be fair, maybe the bad feelings stem from the arena’s debut season of 1989, which ended with a championship for the Pistons after they swept the two-time champion Lakers. The lasting image from that series is Magic Johnson walking off in agony after injuring his hamstring in Game 2. And in 2004 Detroit repeated its demolition of LA, with Chauncey Billups starring in the role of Joe Dumars. Still, the Palace — which according to some people is one of the nicest arenas in the NBA, if you’re actually in attendance — adds nothing on the screen. The games always seem boring, the crowd dead, the setting plain. It was like that when the Pistons were good, and it’s like it when they’re bad.
Compare that to games played in the Silverdome, the Pistons’ home before moving to the Palace. I loved watching games in the big dome, played in front of big crowds, a giant blue curtain cutting off tens of thousands of seats.
Much to my soul’s regret, the best NBA arena on TV was always the Boston Garden, although the old Spectrum in Philly was a close second. The parquet floor — that damned parquet floor — played a part in the Garden’s appeal, as did the cozy confines. The fans — those drunk, loudmouth, can’t-see-that-Magic-was-better-than-Bird fans — were on top of the court and always at the top of their game (just ask them, they’ll tell you how great they were). I even loved the nets in the Garden and how they looked on the screen; they hung lower and the cords looked thicker than the average basketball net. The court actually looked smaller than a regulation NBA floor, probably owing to the camera angle. The length looked more like something you’d find on an elementary school court in rural Minnesota.
Here’s a great one from the Spectrum. I was always thrown off by the benches being on the near-side.
How about Minnesota’s arenas? The Target Center is Palace-level boring on the small screen. Target Field looks like two dozen other places on TV. Nice but hardly memorable. The Metrodome has a unique look — you can tell the difference between it and domes like the one in Atlanta — but it had a much odder appearance when it first opened and Tony Dorsett was running 99 yards down the sideline. What’s with the shoddy yard-lines, which look like they were covered in cocaine before someone helped themselves to a line or 10?
Williams Arena remains one of my favorite college basketball arenas to watch a game, even as the product on the offensive end of the court is often unwatchable. The raised court plays a big part, the players tucked down below while the coach sits or stands above them. The court itself was always fun to look at.
Duke and North Carolina present nice pictures for college basketball, provided the TV is muted when Dick Vitale is broadcasting. I’ll always stop on a Vanderbilt game to see the school’s strange court, even though my knowledge of the program’s history begins and ends with the exploits of Will Perdue. The past decade, I’ve actually grown to dislike the way the NCAA arranges the court for every Final Four and now for Regional action. No matter the setting — whether it’s a dome that seats 40,000 or an arena that holds 18,000 — the court looks the same. Same lighting, same seating for the benches, same camera angles. It’s all way too vanilla — just the way the NCAA wants it.
For about six seasons, Staples Center has dimmed the lights at Lakers games, providing a theater-like setting for the home heroes. Unfortunately, when the crowd acts like it’s in a theater — the cell phones that deliver calls from agents with bad news about that bit role in the new Michael Bay project are probably louder than the courtside fans — it detracts from the atmosphere. The games back at The Forum were much brighter, the crowd livelier, even if they couldn’t match up to environment in the Garden.
The NBA today has numerous arenas that rival the Palace for boring spectacles. The Hawks have been one of the great boring franchises of the past 15 years and it’s not just because of the personnel. I see Atlanta’s playing a home game and I begin nodding off two minutes before tipoff. Wizards, Bobcats, same story (no, the on-court product doesn’t help). Boston lost more than some buried leprechauns when it left the Garden and now Celtics games are played in just another arena, albeit one with Tommy Heinsohn bellowing.
Too many NBA arenas look the same these days, just like too many baseball stadiums and too many football stadiums look too much alike. So a plea to architects and TV directors: Bring the camera closer, put some strange designs on the court, alter the lighting. Spend your money on these things because there are countless people judging arenas and stadiums based on how they look on a television screen.
Well, there’s at least one person — and he’s sick of complimenting the Boston Garden.