Cardinals' unique stadium set to take center stage

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- As the architect of the critically acclaimed University of Phoenix Stadium, Peter Eisenman knew he would have no trouble finding Super Bowl tickets.

He just had no idea he'd be watching his favorite team play for the NFL title in the retractable-roofed stadium he designed.

Eisenman, a native New Jerseyan, has been a New York Giants season-ticket holder since 1957.

"Sure, I could go see the Patriots play the Packers, but this makes it really different," Eisenman said in a telephone interview from his Manhattan office. "To go to see the 'G-men' play, you have to understand bringing the stars together on that one. As a football fan, as a 50-year season-ticket holder, I thought, 'This is karma."'

No matter how the game turns out, Eisenman will probably go home happy. His creation in the farmland west of Phoenix is expected to be among the biggest stars of Super Bowl week.

The $455-million home of the Arizona Cardinals and the Fiesta Bowl opened two years ago to widespread praise. In February 2006, BusinessWeek named it one of the world's 10 most impressive sports structures. It was the only one in North America.

Eisenman wanted football fans to rave as well. At heart, he's one of them.

"I had a lot of love for that project," he said. "My soul was in it. I am a fan, and I wanted it to be a place that a fan would love to see a game."

The stadium's sleek look has become the subject of debate and amusement among local residents. Some liken it to a barrel cactus. Others see a spaceship, especially when the structure is lit at night. A few say it resembles nothing more than a coiled snake basking in the desert sun.

"It's this sort of gleaming container sitting in the cotton fields out there," said John Meunier, an Arizona State University architecture professor who advised the Cardinals on the project. "It's an egglike enclosure. It feels like it's enclosing something that's rather special."

That's not the case on many autumn Sundays, when the ho-hum Cardinals play there. But the stadium has played host to a Bowl Championship Series title game - Florida 41, Ohio State 14 in January 2007 - and two Fiesta Bowls, including Boise State's unforgettable overtime victory over Oklahoma last January.

The building will also be the site of an NCAA men's basketball regional in 2009, and there are plans to lure a Final Four.

One thing is certain: the 206-foot-high stadium is a singular structure in the rapidly changing Phoenix metropolitan landscape. On clearer days, it is visible from the top of Camelback Mountain, a 2,700-foot peak some 20 miles to the east.

Eisenman worked with stadium builders HOK Sport and Hunt Construction Group to create the 63,400-seat stadium, which will have its seating expanded to about 75,000 for the Super Bowl.

Many of those attending the Super Bowl will visit the stadium for the first time. They're in for a surprise.

"Anyone who asks, I said, 'We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto,"' Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill said on the day the stadium opened in August 2006.

Many domed stadiums resemble aircraft hangars. Eisenman created a sense of airiness in his stadium, with a translucent roof and a series of vertical glass panels that allow the desert light to filter into the 1.7-million square-foot structure.

"So many of the roofed stadiums almost have a gloomy feeling about them," Meunier said. "There's a wonderfully milky, pearly, diffused light."

As part of the effort to promote openness, the concourses behind the lower grandstand provide views of the field. When a fan leaves his seat for a hot dog and a beer, he can still glimpse the action as he's waiting in line.

Another unusual feature is a retractable field, the first of its kind in the United States. The 18.9 million-pound field slides out the stadium's south end on a tray, allowing it to receive maximum sunlight. The design also frees up the building's 160,000-square-foot event floor for trade and consumer shows, conventions and concerts.

The Cardinals put $150 million into the stadium, with most of the rest coming from a tourism tax on hotels and motels, and a rental car surcharge.

For the Cardinals, the stadium represents an enormous upgrade from open-air Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, where they landed after fleeing from St. Louis in 1988. At night, Sun Devil Stadium can be a raucous place for Arizona State games. But the Cardinals played mostly in the afternoon, so fans baked on metal bleachers in September and October.

Arizonans love their air conditioning, and the stadium's 8,000 tons of cooling provides plenty.

The stadium has also provided lots of cold cash for the Cardinals. As team officials campaigned for taxpayer support, they said new stadium revenue would help the Cardinals compete.

The Cardinals have sold out every home game, which rarely happened in Tempe. They also landed a $154 million, 20-year naming-rights deal with the University of Phoenix.

But the stadium has yet to offer the homefield advantage many fans envisioned. Nor has the building transformed the Cardinals into a playoff team.

The idea of the Cardinals playing in the Super Bowl, instead of merely hosting one, remains remote. But those attending the game are likely to be impressed by the team's home. NFL owners awarded Arizona the Super Bowl in October 2003, only a few months after ground had been broken on the stadium.

"I think a lot of the NFL owners who haven't been there are going to have a feeling of 'Wow, look at this place,' " Eisenman said.

Eisenman said he experienced the same feeling before the Gators met the Buckeyes in the BCS title game last year.

"I got there four hours early," he said. "I sat in my seat and watched the stadium fill up. It was like an out-of-body experience. It was fabulous, and I loved it.

"It's like a daughter getting married," he said. "It doesn't happen very often, and you happen to like the groom. That's what makes it special."

Eisenman will probably have that feeling again when the Giants run onto the field in the Super Bowl. He said he believes the Giants turned their season around when they gave the Patriots fits in an otherwise meaningless regular-season finale.

"Suddenly, they were a different team," Eisenman said. "Then I began to think, 'Holy jeepers, they could go a long way.' "

All the way to Eisenman's newfangled stadium in the desert southwest, it turned out.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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