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Situated midway between Boston and Providence, Foxborough, Massachusetts has been the home of the New England Revolution since the inaugural MLS season of 1996. The Revs are owned by the Kraft Sports Group along with the New England Patriots, and they have shared a stadium in the town with their sister team from the very beginning. Following six mostly undistinguished seasons at the sub-par Foxboro Stadium, the Revs played the very first game at Gillette Stadium on May 11, 2002 and christened the new facility with a 2-0 win over the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas).
Known colloquially as “The Razor”, several elements distinguish Gillette Stadium from the 18 others built primarily for NFL teams during the stadium building boom that started with FedEx Field in 1996. Perhaps most notably, it is one of only two such facilities that was 100% privately financed. (New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium was the other). Both projects received public money for local infrastructure improvements, but only in Gillette’s case was this technically considered part of the overall funding package. Another is the adjacent Patriots Place complex, which transforms what would otherwise be a sea of empty parking spaces outside of 17 MLS and 8 NFL dates (plus playoffs and other special events) into a year-round suburban shopping, dining, and entertainment destination.
It cannot be argued that Gillette is an elite stadium in most ways, one that is perfect for NFL games, concerts, and even soccer matches that warrant a venue with 68,000+ seats. However, it is a less-than-ideal home for an MLS club, a throwback to the early days of the league when virtually every team played in a cavernous, largely-empty NCAA football or NFL stadium. Today, the Revolution are one of only four teams (in a league of 19) that still play in such a large facility. Additionally, Gillette is one out of only four MLS stadiums that has an artificial surface, a much bigger issue in soccer than other sports due to the wear and tear that comes from being in near-constant motion for 90 minutes. Several of the league’s more highly-paid stars, many of whom originally played abroad where such surfaces are banned, have made known their hesitation to play on the FieldTurf due to a fear of injury. This sometimes results in opposing teams of diluted quality, which in turn diminishes the level of play and fan interest along with it.
That said, some credit should be given to the team, stadium management, and fans for trying to make the best out of what they have to work with although more could still be done, especially in terms of stadium branding during Revs matches.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Concessions on the main concourse at Gillette Stadium are sold from a combination of around 30 fixed stands and a handful of portable carts. In keeping with the regional (rather than Boston-centric) identity of the two teams that call the stadium home, most of the fixed stands pay homage to New England with names like "Boston Common", "Granite State Grill", and "Freeport Fryer". Given the reduced capacity of the stadium and variability of attendance for MLS, not all of them are necessarily open for Revs games.
There is no getting around the fact that MLS fans pay NFL prices for concessions at Gillette, which is to say that items are fairly expensive. Lines are predictably long during halftime but not bad otherwise, while the food itself is good but not spectacular. Two interesting notes about food service at Gillette are that the concessions operation is not outsourced (as is the case at many American pro sports venues), and the stadium has one of the best records for food safety of any in the United States.
Most of the available fare fits in the "traditional" category: hot dog ($3.75), cheese/pepperoni pizza ($7.50), nachos grande (w/ chili; $6.25), cheesesteak ($8), hamburger/cheeseburger ($6.75), Italian sausage ($6.75), bratwurst ($6.75), crispy/grilled chicken sandwich ($7.50), regular/buffalo chicken tenders (w/fries; $8.50), plain/BBQ/Buffalo wings (1 lb./2 lb./4 lb., $8.50/$14/$21.50), chili cheese fries ($6.75), and regular fries ($4). Philly cheesesteak/Buffalo chicken spring rolls ($6.50) qualify as the lone unusual selection on the menu. Snack items include peanuts ($5), pretzel ($3.75), and popcorn ($4/$6.50).
Healthier options include a Caesar or mesclun salad ($6.50/$8.50, $8.50/$9.75 w/chicken), chicken Caesar wrap ($7.50), veggie hot dog ($3.75), or a veggie burger ($6.75).
Those looking to soothe a sweet tooth will find candy ($4), cotton candy ($4), ice cream (small/large/cone $4/$5.50/$5), fried dough ($4), and Craisins ($3.50).
Unlike most European and South American soccer venues where alcohol must be consumed in concourse or bar areas (if available at all), fans are allowed to enjoy beverages in their seats. Hop-heads will be pleased by the beer selection, with domestic draughts (16/22 oz., $8/$10) and a wide variety of both bottled and draught craft beers (22 oz., $11) available at several locations throughout the concourse. One cart offers margaritas as well as a limited selection of additional cocktails ($11), and several offer wine ($8).
Soft drink selection is fairly basic, limited to soda ($4/$6.50), Red Bull ($4), and water ($3.75).
Gillette Stadium is undoubtedly one of the finest in the country for NFL football, and is also great from a fan's perspective for major soccer events that draw huge crowds. As an MLS venue in the age of the soccer-specific stadium, however, it leaves much to be desired. The atmosphere at Revolution matches, or lack of it, is probably the strongest argument that can be made in favor of team building its own facility.
The single biggest reason for this is the sheer size of the stadium, which holds 68,756 for large-scale sporting events, but is limited to 22,385 for the Revolution. This corresponds to most of the lower seating bowl and the four middlemost sections on the east club level, or 33% of the available seats. Even if there is a "sellout" (which is rare), a minimum of a staggering 2/3 of the stadium is empty at each match, including the entire upper deck and the west club level. The official attendance was 15,264 on the night I visited most recently, a figure likely based on tickets sold rather than the actual number of fans in the seats but still probably not too much of a stretch.
Almost all of the seats behind the south goal are covered with tarps with the exception of one small section reserved for visiting teams' supporters groups. This is reflective of a policy common in the rest of the soccer world of cordoning off away fans to minimize the likelihood of trouble. Presumably, adjacent ones are made available if there is demand. The several highest rows around the entire lower bowl are similarly covered. Fans are ultimately left with a stadium so big and empty that noise and ambiance tends to quickly dissolve into the ether.
Game play in soccer is governed by a constantly running clock. There are almost no opportunities for venues to affect fan behavior through music and other inducements, as is the norm for the other major North American sports. As a result, match atmosphere is left almost entirely in the hands of supporters. Abroad, a culture of fan-led singing and chanting during play has developed over the decades as a way for those attending to show support and more directly become part of the game experience. MLS is only in its 17th season in 2012, so that culture is still relatively immature in the US and largely (but not entirely) limited to organized supporters groups. At Gillette, this translates to those populating the four GA sections behind the north goal (known collectively as The Fort), who can be heard throughout the stadium for most of every match. Unfortunately, the venue's scale and more subdued behavior of most fans seated elsewhere typically conspire to keep their particular brand of enthusiasm contained to this area.
More could be done to brand Gillette as "The Home of the Revolution" rather than "The Home of the Patriots In Which Another Team Plays". The sheer number of times the word "Patriots" is used in this review is evidence of that. However, credit should be given to the team for making a good-faith effort. The stadium's iconic 12-story lighthouse (which together with the adjacent bridge meant to evoke Boston's Longfellow are part of the stadium's logo) displays moving team graphics during Revs matches. A large banner in the form of a supporter's scarf hangs from the top of the bridge itself and greets fans entering at the north gate. Another nice touch paying homage to New England is the presence of the End Zone Militia, a group of Revolutionary War-era reenactors best known as a sideline fixture at Patriots games. They fire salutes when the Revs take the field, upon each Revs goal, and after the final whistle to celebrate a Revs draw or victory. Signs located in front of the broadcast booths at midfield towards the top of the lower bowl commemorate the Revolution's two major honors, the 2007 US Open Cup and 2008 North American Superliga. "The Fort" is also emblazoned on the tarps at the top of those sections, flanked by team logos.
There was not much activity during halftime outside of ads/promos being featured on the big screens and the Revs Girls launching t-shirts from the field level to fans in the seats.
Patriot Place gives Gillette Stadium something unique among NFL-scale suburban stadiums: a neighborhood-like development that allows for pregame activity at levels typically limited to sports venues that are located inside a city's core. Built next to Gillette on the site of the old Foxboro Stadium, this is a large complex of bars, restaurants, retail stores, and additional entertainment possibilities that include a 14-screen movie theater, music venue, and two immersive adventure experiences. Perhaps the true genius of Patriot Place is that it keeps the stadium in the consciousness of fans and non-fans alike by giving them a reason to come to the site even at times when it otherwise would be completely dormant.
There is certainly enough happening at Patriot Place for fans to make a full afternoon out of a trip to Foxborough before attending a game in the evening. Taking this a degree further, the 150-room Renaissance Hotel and Spa makes it possible to plan an entire trip around a Revolution game with plenty to do before and afterward without ever having to leave the stadium area.
For those who are uninterested in tailgating but want to grab a bite and a beer before the game, Patriot Place features several bar-and-grill-type establishments: Bar Louie, Blue Fin Lounge, CBS Scene, and Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill.
In addition to "casual" dining spots Olive Garden and Red Robin (burgers), the complex also boasts a number of more upscale options, including Davio's (Italian/steak), Studio 3 (Contemporary American), Skipjack's (seafood), Tastings Wine Bar & Bistro (Contemporary American), Tavolino Pizza Gourmet (Italian), and Twenty8 Food & Spirits (Contemporary American).
Those looking for a quick fix can choose from Dunkin' Donuts, Five Guys Burgers, and Qdoba.
Shopping is the other major component of Patriot Place, with major retailers there offering (among other things) everything from clothing, shoes, outdoor goods, sporting goods, and luggage, to office supplies, video games, cell phones, and computers. There is also a grocery store, day spa, and even an outpatient medical clinic.
Special mention should also be given to the Patriots ProShop, a huge team store by the north stadium entry gates that carries just about every Patriots and Revolution item imaginable. Fans of both MLS and the NFL will also enjoy the 30,000-square foot Hall at Patriot Place, the Patriots' hall of fame and museum.
Like those of many teams across MLS, Revolution fans can be separated into two distinct categories: their most fervent supporters and the general public. The former is mostly comprised of those belonging to either the Boston-based Midnight Riders or Providence-based Rebellion supporters groups and stand in The Fort during matches. Given the place that soccer holds in the contemporary American sporting pantheon, it should come as no surprise that among the latter were a large number of families whose kids, both boys and girls, ranged in age from pre-school through high school. A couple of entire youth squads could even be found in the stands.
One great thing about Revolution fans in general is that soccer's status in the US as a niche spectator sport (albeit a rapidly growing one) means that few people who come to Gillette do so for any reason other than for the sake of the match itself. This stands in contrast to teams in the other major sports, all of which usually have an appreciable percentage of "fans" who attend games more for the sake of entertaining clients, "the experience", or something else peripheral to watching athletes ply their trade.
What I wrote about the fans in the Atmosphere section of this review was not meant to suggest that even a majority of everyone else who sits outside The Fort is apathetic or disengaged from the game. They are just as knowledgeable but simply less outwardly enthusiastic in the English tradition upon which the most dedicated American soccer supporters emulate. This was evidenced by a proper response to virtually every game event that warranted a reaction. A couple of notable examples include the vigorous applause following a deserved yellow card being shown to an opposing player and obvious appreciation of a long build-up play by the Revs even though it did not result in a goal.
Given that the supporters belonging to the Midnight Riders and Rebellion usually count but a few hundred per match, they are distinguished from "everyone else" because their influence far exceeds their numbers. Dedicated supporters always attach a set of flags from all the New England states and a series of large player caricatures to the wall at the front row of the northwest corner. There was near-constant chanting and singing between the two supporters groups, and there was a pulsating drum beat underlying all of it, which is a nice nod to both soccer culture and another play on the revolutionary theme. Similarly, one individual who led much of this with the aid of a megaphone sported a tricorner hat while doing so. On occasion, the cheers begun in the Fort were picked up by fans elsewhere in the stadium. Some of these were completely original (at this particular game against Seattle, the presumed superiority of locally-owned Dunkin' Donuts relative to Starbucks was made clear), some were commonly used by supporters of the US national teams ("I Believe"), and some were modified versions of those used abroad ("Seven Nation Army", "We Love New England"). Many Riders and Rebels wave historic red New England flags along with other banners and supporters' scarves on cue. Several also threw streamers into the air when the Revs scored.
Access to Gillette Stadium is a major issue for Revolution supporters as Foxborough is approximately 25 miles away from both downtown Boston and Providence, which represents a fairly decent distance in this part of the country. While the MBTA runs commuter trains from both cities for all Patriots games and special events such as major international soccer matches, there is no such service available for Revolution games. In other words, if you're coming to Gillette to watch the Revs, you're either driving or a passenger in somebody else's vehicle.
One point must be withheld for the lack of a public transportation option in a region that relies on it more heavily than most others. The lack of this choice undoubtedly hinders the team's ability to draw larger crowds more regularly. It is also one of the other major factors contributing to calls for a soccer-specific stadium to be built somewhere in Boston proper or nearby community such as Somerville that is MBTA-accessible.
Getting to and from Gillette Stadium can be an absolute nightmare for Patriots games in terms of both cost ($40 for cars) and traffic hassles (the stadium is located on a stretch of US Route 1 between Interstate 95 and Interstate 495, with no other way in or out). The Revs experience is remarkably different, however, as parking is free and the difference in the number of fans results in a generally easy ride into the parking lots. Getting out can still be somewhat frustrating if there is a particularly large crowd and your exit is mistimed, but is nothing whatsoever like the multi-hour gridlock that ensues after each and every Patriots game.
There are 10 men's, 12 women's, and 2 family restrooms on the main concourse. All are fairly sizable, making lines almost a total non-factor, even during halftime.
Compared to a Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins, or Celtics game, an outing to Gillette Stadium for a Revolution match is relatively inexpensive, especially for families and those fans coming from the towns immediately surrounding Foxborough. All seats in the main bowl, including the most expensive, are still quite reasonable and even the club seats are not ridiculous compared to those in the other major North American leagues. Another major plus in this regard is that parking for Revolution matches is free, and tailgating is permitted. Team merchandise is priced fairly, but not exactly a bargain. Concessions inside the stadium itself are undeniably expensive, however.
Seating at Gillette for Revolution games is broken down into six categories: President's Club (premium pitch-side seating), Putnam Club (second tier, with enhanced concessions and amenities), Category 1 (the four sections on either side at midfield), Category 2 (attacking thirds on either side), Category 3 (the corners), and The Fort (four sections behind the north goal).
Season ticket prices are as follows: Presidents Club - $1296; Putnam Club - $972; Category 1 - $540; Category 2 - $432; Category 3 - $324; The Fort - $252.
Single game ticket prices are as follows: Putnam Club - $66; Category 1 - $44; Category 2 - $34; Category 3 - $23; The Fort - $22.
Discounted tickets are also available in 4- or 6-game packages and for groups of 20 or more.
One very positive thing that carries over from Gillette's primary use as an NFL facility and that certainly is not common to all MLS venues is a very vibrant pre-game tailgating culture for Revolution matches. In the supporters' groups lot, VIP lot, and general lot alike, seemingly every other car had a cooler, grill, and folding chairs in front of it. Kids and adults alike could be seen on every virtually aisle kicking balls around, throwing Frisbees, playing beanbag toss and engaging in any number of other activities common to such an environment.
By Major League Soccer standards, the New England Revolution have a long history. As one of the original ten teams when league play began in 1996, The Revs, as they are known in New England, have had the time to build a loyal and dedicated fan base. Like most MLS teams, they are challenged by the general lack of interest in soccer by American fans, although that interest has continued to grow over the years. And those Revs fans who do come to cheer on their local team are provided with an excellent facility in which to do so: Gillette Stadium.
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