Back in 1972 when ground was broken for what would become Giants Stadium, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society were there to protest the paving over of the wetlands. Not surprisingly to no avail. In fact the term wetlands might currently be more applicable for the Meadowlands as an expression of how much beer is sold on the premises.
The original Meadowlands Sports Complex consisted of a racetrack, a stadium (both opened in 1976) and an arena which opened in 1981. The racetrack is alive if not altogether well, the stadium has been replaced with a new one, and the arena lies dormant amidst of pile of unfinished construction.
Is this a sports complex that’s half full or one that’s half empty?
The stadium is the cornerstone of the complex. It was the commitment of the New York Giants to move to New Jersey that really paved the way for the Meadowlands Sports Complex. The Giants played their first game there in 1976. In 1984, the New York Jets moved in. The stadium also briefly hosted a third team, a Donald Trump venture called the New York Generals. A typical Trump venture, they lasted three years after which the league folded and Trump sued the NFL.
The stadium was home for the New York Cosmos in the 70’s and 80’s, hosted several games of the 1994 World Cup and welcomed the New York/New Jersey Metrostars (now the New York Red Bulls) in 1996. Sellout crowds of 70,000+ watched the Cosmos and the World Cup, but for the Metrostars, who were never very good, it was a cavernous and largely empty home.
In 2010, Giants Stadium was replaced by MetLife Stadium at a cost of $1.6 billion. If you’re a fan you have to scratch your head because the new stadium hardly seems any better than the old one. Both are, from a utilitarian standpoint, good stadiums. But they are equally characterless. The new stadium is owned by the two NFL teams so while it is more of the same for fans, it is all about more money for the Giants and Jets.
MetLife Stadium still hosts two football teams and as such has more NFL games than any other stadium. In 2014 it hosted the Super Bowl. It is the pro football that makes the complex come alive, or should I say keeps the complex alive.
The racetrack, the first facility to open, drew an astonishing crowd of 40,000 plus for its first night of racing in 1976. It hosts both thoroughbred and harness racing and is home to one of the most prestigious events in harness racing, the Hambletonian.
But its status is somewhat in limbo. Since it was built, casinos have sprung up in surrounding areas and online betting is now legal in New Jersey. Attendance, which in the early days averaged 20,000 a night, now is more like 2,000. Since 2011, it has been leased to an operator who pays $1 a year. The grandstand was replaced, at a cost of $88 million, in 2013. There has been a constant stream of rumors, including conversion to a NASCAR race track and a casino. But at this point it is still on the half-full side of the ledger.
While the stadium, at least on autumn Sundays, appears to be thriving and the racetrack still has its lights on, the other side of the complex has gone dark. In 1991, Bruce Springstein opened what was then called the Brendan Byrne Arena (named after a former governor) with six sold out shows. In all Bruce played some 56 shows at the arena and another Jersey boy, Frank Sinatra, played a 75th birthday gig there.
In 1996 it was renamed Continental Arena, after the airline which all New Jerseyians look back at fondly after seeing what United is like. In addition to Bruce, the arena had an NBA team, an NHL franchise and a Division I college basketball team. It hosted two NBA finals, three Stanley Cup finals and some NCAA East Regionals.
But by 2000, the Daily News was reporting: ”the traffic appears headed one way, south to Newark. The Devils, Jets, Nets and MetroStars are restless. They want to leave, despite offers of fresh concrete and girders. They want their own urban homes, a sense of identity, a hipper inner city fan base.”
The Devils left in 2007, moving to the vastly superior Prudential Center in Newark. Seton Hall, whose campus is much closer to Newark, left with them. So did Continental Airlines. Izod, a Nets sponsor, picked up the naming rights. But the Nets were also on their way out by 2010 as they were now under the ownership of a real estate developer who was looking to make a killing on a big development in Brooklyn. The name Izod stayed with the arena even after the company stopped making payments. It closed, seemingly for good in 2015.
The American Dream
With the stadium now under the ownership of the football teams, the racetrack in decline and the arena standing vacant and unused, the NJSEA turned its attention to the idea of a shopping and entertainment complex. A mega-mall. Brilliant strategy? Consider that the Meadowlands is 8 or 9 miles south of Paramus, where there are three major shopping malls; 13 miles east of Willowbrook Mall; and about 6 or 7 miles west of the biggest shopping and entertainment complex of all, midtown Manhattan. Not only that but the Meadowlands site is in Bergen County where they still have blue laws that close retailers on Sundays.
So how has that worked out? The Xanadu/American Dream plan has had three owners, bankruptcies, foreclosures and lawsuits, and has cost billions of dollars, not only in construction but in tax breaks and government bonds. So far, what we’ve got to show for it is a pile of incomplete buildings that a friend of mine once described as looking like “something that was salvaged from Shea Stadium.”