March 27, 2008

Football Fields Oriented North-South

Stupid Question ™
Sept. 24, 1998
By John Ruch
© 1998

Q: Why do all football fields run north-south?

A: Ah, if only all football fields did run north-south. Then I could give you the obvious answer—to keep the setting Sun out of players’ eyes—and be done with it.

Most football fields have their end zones in the north and south, but some don’t, and both the National Football League and the Pro Football Hall of Fame says they’ve never even noticed the north-south thing. (The NFL has no rules on stadium orientation.)

Of the 30 US professional football teams, 21 (70 percent) play on north-south fields. This distribution is not random and must have some significant value—Sun-avoidance being the most obvious.

But a full 30 percent run east-west, which paradoxically suggests that north-south can’t be that important. Even if we presume Sun avoidance is critical and take domed stadiums out of the equation (most were built whichever way they fit on the real estate), that still leaves six east-west fields open to the Sun (Philadelphia, Buffalo, San Diego, Kansas City, Carolina and Baltimore).

Likewise, of 10 major college teams I talked to, eight have north-south fields—the universities of Washington and North Carolina don’t.

Strangest of all, half of the 33 teams I asked about field orientation said there was no reason for it. The second most popular answer was keeping sun out of players’ eyes.

Among the east-westers, the Carolina Panthers say it’s the only way their field fit on the land. The University of Washington says it wanted its horseshoe-shaped stadium to open onto Lake Washington for looks. Others had no answer, except to say that the Sun didn’t bother their players.

The Sun sure bothers other sports. Columbus [Ohio] Crew spokesperson Jeff Wuerth says soccer fields almost always run north-south so the goalkeeper isn’t staring into the Sun. In the Crew’s under-construction stadium, “the upper-deck reserve tickets on the west side are a dollar more than on the east side,” because the east-siders will have the setting Sun in their eyes.

In football’s pre-stadium days, north-south orientation would keep the Sun out of players’ eyes. But in a giant stadium, in the fall and winter, the decks are high while the Sun is low in the sky. And with modern technology, visors can be added to receivers’ helmets to cut what little sun can get in.
My guess is that north-south was a necessity that faded into an unnecessary tradition.

Of course, if Green Bay, which plays in north-south Lambeau Field, blames the Sun after getting drilled by the Panthers in Carolina’s east-west field next Sunday, I’ll have to reconsider.

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