For much of the 2010s, around one in 10 college football bowl games has been played in an MLB stadium. So have a few regular season games over the years.
Most major stadiums are multi-purposed in some fashion or another, but football games in baseball parks is a weird match. It requires fitting a 120-yard-long rectangular peg into a diamond-shaped hole. It doesn’t always look natural.
And yet, it works. The four recent and current ballpark bowls — the now-moved Miami Beach, Arizona’s Cheez-It (formerly the Cactus), New York’s Pinstripe, and St. Petersburg’s Gasparilla — come off fine every year, even though the St. Pete’s artificial turf looks like a scene out of a dystopian fanfic.
There was a time when baseball stadiums were massive concrete donuts, big circles that could be purposed however they needed to be. Think the old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, RFK Stadium in Washington, or the Kingdome in Seattle.
The newer generation that hosts football games doesn’t look like those. With the exception of Tropicana Field, which hosts the St. Pete, football-hosting ballparks were all built in 1998 or later. They were built, to a large degree, with these specific accommodations in mind.
It’s a far cry from Wrigley Field, whose dimensions demanded in 2010 that Illinois and Northwestern only use one end zone.
“In fairness to Wrigley, they’re a very old venue that didn’t have the luxury we did of going into this with a business model in mind,” Doug Behar, the stadium operations vice president for the New York Yankees, told SB Nation in 2016.
“We worked very closely with our architects to make sure we were able to do these types of events and do them in a manner that meets the Yankees’ standard, that it feels Yankee, that it feels Yankee Stadium. We were fortunate to be able to do a lot of the homework on the front end.”
It’s not a happy accident that a football field at Yankee Stadium runs fairly symmetrically from home plate to dead center field.
The configuration was different at Marlins Park, which hosted the Miami Beach Bowl, but it worked there, too.
“There hasn’t been a time that anybody’s looked at it and said, ‘Boy, this doesn’t fit right,’” said Scott Draper, who’d been the executive director of that game before it relocated to Frisco, Texas. (It got little attendance in Miami.) “A football field fits like it should in a baseball park.”
A lot goes into making a baseball stadium a football stadium.
The operations team at the Fiesta Bowl (which also runs the Cheez-It) brings in 3,800 seats and lays them in the Chase Field outfield, enclosing the field and making for a significantly more intimate gathering. How it looked a few years ago, when it was called the Cactus:
“I just say that it provides a much different feel and atmosphere,” said Justin Balich, who worked as Fiesta and Cactus operations director. “It’s much tighter than a normal open-air stadium. They both have their perks, obviously, or their positives and negatives. But I would say with last year’s game, it was definitely more intimate.”
The Cheez-It is the only one of the ballpark bowl games that’s wheeled seats out onto the field. But it works, because it improves sight lines and looks better than leaving the Diamondbacks’ right field wide open beyond one sideline.
Converting Chase Field from baseball to football takes 10 days of 12-to-16-hour work from a team of laborers, Balich said. That’s compared to a three- or four-day process of converting the University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the NFL’s Cardinals, to host the Fiesta or a national title game. The Yankee Stadium setup comes together gradually over two or three weeks.
The playing field is only part of the work.
If you’re putting a football field down, you’ll have to dig up a pitcher’s mound. The Cheez-It dumps 90,000 square feet of fresh sod atop the diamond, while the the Yankees put it over their stadium’s dirt infield and work with a supplier to make sure the new grass is consistent with the old. The Gasparilla is played on artificial carpeting, so the equation’s different.
But the conversions go beyond the field. Baseball locker rooms are designed for teams of 25 players, plus some September call-ups. Football teams travel with about 100 players. The Yankees bring extra lockers into their clubhouse, while the Cheez-It Bowl puts players in batting tunnels and improvises.
“Each team has a unique configuration as opposed to what they would see in normal circumstances,” Balich said. “The comments we’ve heard back from the teams that have participated and seen the facility is that in some cases they have a better setup than they do when they’re on the road at other institutions.”
A Chase Field hospitality lounge becomes a digital media room for the bowl game. At the Pinstripe, part of the work is converting some luxury suites into coaches’ booths, with all the partitioning and cabling that’s associated. Plus you’ve got other aesthetics going up all around the stadium.
“Obviously there’s a lot of painting, a lot of signage,” Yankee Stadium’s Behar said.
The goal is to find a balance.
The football field needs to be regulation. It needs to be safe, without players hurting themselves on bad grass or falling into dugouts on the third-base line. It needs to accommodate players and coaches as normally as possible.
But what’s the fun in using a baseball stadium if you’re forgetting all about baseball? Especially at Yankee Stadium, maintaining some sense of history is key.
“When you get the marching bands out there and you see the teams come in and do the walkthroughs for the first time, and they’re in awe of where they are, and it’s very cool,” Behar said. “On one hand, it is Yankee Stadium, and it looks and feels like Yankee Stadium. But it has the excitement of a football venue and it’s very transparent and obvious.
“We’ve seen that even with our high school games, high school championship games. When you're in the seats or on the sidelines, it takes a minute. You’ve gotta remember, ‘Oh, this actually is Yankee Stadium.’”