Since its opening in 1976 I have been a pretty consistent customer of the Meadowlands Sports Complex. I was at one time a season ticket holder of both the New York Cosmos and the New Jersey Nets. I attended hockey, basketball, soccer and football games there as well as concerts in both the stadium and arena.
Some of my most memorable moments of watching sports were at the Meadowlands:
- In the 70’s, it did not appear as though there was much interest in soccer in the U.S., outside of some ethnic neighborhoods. But when the New York Cosmos brought over some of the biggest names in world soccer they amazed everyone by filling up the football stadium. I saw some of the greatest legends of the game at Giants Stadium, players like Pele, Franz Beckanbauer and Carlos Alberto, but at the time what was even more astonishing was seeing 70,000+ plus fans in the Meadowlands to watch soccer.
- In the NCAA basketball tournament East Regionals in 1990, I watched the miracle shot by Connecticut’s Tate George that beat Clemson at the buzzer and sent the Huskies to the regional final. Alas, two days later, another buzzer beater as Duke’s Christian Laitner knocked out UConn. Two brilliant days of college basketball.
- In 1994, soccer’s biggest event, the World Cup, came to Giants Stadium. I saw three or four cup games that year, but the one that stands out was a match between Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Neither team seemed likely to advance to the later rounds but they put on a excellent display of high scoring (3-2), skillful, attacking soccer. And again there were 70,000+ in attendance. Where else in the world would that have happened?
- Three times I watched the New Jersey Devils make a run through the NHL playoffs to win the Stanley Cup. In 2003, I was lucky to see the 7th and deciding game of the final series against the Anaheim Ducks. The Devils won and I left the arena ready to celebrate. But there was nothing outside but a parking lot.
- After years of watching the Nets live up to their billing at the minnows of professional basketball, I attended every home game as they twice made their way to the NBA finals, in 2002 and 2003. They lost both times, but along the way were some outstanding games, like the double-overtime victory over Indiana in the deciding game 5 of their series.
- Just this past summer, I attended the Copa America Centenario soccer tournament at MetLife Stadium. I got to watch the best soccer that has been played in America since the 1994 World Cup. But I also learned to appreciate that the Latin American fans, unlike many of their European counterparts, don’t have to be separated from each other and are happy to enjoy themselves without any venom directed at the fans of their opponents.
These are all great memories of my experiences at the Meadowlands Sports Complex. But what I also remember is all the things that weren’t quite right at these venues. It is as if the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority forgot to put fan experience on the agenda. Here are some of those experiences, ranging from the comic and stupid to the outright tragic.
- Beer and football tend to be inseparable when you are out at the stadium. While college football hasn’t been much of a success at the Meadowlands, they did for a number of years host an early season game called the Kickoff Classic. I attended one of those with three friends in 2001. We entered the stadium, bought a round of beer and to this day we all remember that as the worst beer we had ever had. It seems inconceivable but from the taste of the beer they had apparently left the keg tapped since the previous season.
- Beer is no less important to hockey fans. But when you are dealing with big events at big facilities who use big distributors, it can be tough to get beyond the usual BudCoorsMiller swill. So at intermission of a Devils playoff game, my son and I were happy to get in line at a stand with a sign for Guinness and Harp. The line was moving slowly and there seemed to be some discussion over every transaction. When we got to the front of the line we realized why. Like the people in front of us and the people in front of them, we ordered two Harps and were presented with two cups of black beer. When I suggested that we had ordered Harp, not Guinness, I was gruffly advised by the server, “That is Harp. It says so right on the keg.”
- One of the advantages of having multiple facilities at the same location is you can share parking lots. I was happy to discover when going to the arena that I could pull into the stadium and ideally park in a less congested area. One of the first times I did this I drove past the stadium and toward the section of the lot that was closest to the arena. They were all set up for this, but they overlooked one thing. The pay booth had been erected on the passenger side of the incoming cars, rather than the driver’s side.
- The New Jersey Devils had arrived here from Colorado and in the early years, they were not a strong team. Over time however they became regular participants in the NHL playoffs and these games played at the Continental Arena were invariably sold out. On one of those early playoff years I pulled into the parking lot at the arena and was dismayed to see the line to get in stretching all the way past the entrance, down the stairs, across the street and back into the parking lot. I thought this was a reflection of the size of the crowd but when I got closer, I discovered the real problem. On this, the biggest hockey night of the season, the arena only had one turnstile staffed at the entrance nearest the main parking lot.
- The Meadowlands is built at the intersection of three highways. There are few options other than to drive there. Finally, some 35 years after the complex opened, a train station was opened on the site with service from Hoboken and Secaucus and by connection from New York City. I was excited to use this new service when attending a soccer game in the summer of 2010 at the equally new MetLife Stadium. (At the time it was called New Meadowlands Stadium since the original naming rights deal fell through after it was made public that the insurance company involved had insured Hitler’s engineers at Auschwitz. Not a good brand name for an area with a large Jewish population.) I took the train from Hoboken and enjoyed a fast, comfortable ride to the stadium. But I also had to get home. When I left the stadium it took me an hour and half to get on a train and more than two hours to get back to Hoboken, a 7.6 mile trip that Google advises would have taken 90 minutes by bike.
- That soccer game involved Argentina and the Meadowlands, knowing they would have a big crowd, was advising fans to get there early. It was an 8 p.m. game with doors opening at 6. My friend and I decided to take their advice, get there shortly after 6 and have a stadium dinner. But when we got there, no food was ready. The woman at the sausage sandwich stand advised us of the problem. They wouldn’t let the employees in before 6, so no one had the time to get ready for the early arriving fans.
- Bad traffic flow is legendary at the Meadowlands despite the fact that it was built amidst a bunch of highways with little else around it. It hasn’t gotten better after all these years. See the bridge on Route 3 at the left of the Google street view above. It is only a few hundred yards away from the entrance to the parking lot. In June, I arrived at that bridge 90 minutes ahead of kickoff for a Copa America game and it took me another hour to get from there to the parking lot entrance. And after the game… I waited two hours before even getting in my car to leave because the parking lot roads were solid gridlock.
None of these customer service failures compare with what happened in 1998 when the Grateful Dead played a series of five shows at the arena. Nine Meadowlands security guards, rent-a-cops from a company called Burns International Security Services, were accused of assaulting fans. The manager of the arena suggested that some of these guards “were taking short cuts at crowd control.”
That is a gross understatement if you consider what happened to 19-year-old college student Adam Katz. No one was ever charged and there was never any official explanation as to what caused the death of Adam Katz, a fan who was attending one of the Grateful Dead concerts. But the Katz family did their own investigation and concluded that their son was ejected from the concert, beaten by security guards and his body was then thrown off a bridge onto the highway. They sued Burns Security and ended up settling for $1.5 million.