Washington-Grizzly Stadium has the reputation of producing the best fan experience in the Football Championship Subdivision, but Chuck Maes knows reputations are like eggs: fragile, easy to break and very hard to put back together.
That’s why people who attend a Montana Grizzly football game this fall will notice three major upgrades to the stadium, all added to enhance the fan experience at a venue already known for sending first-timers away wondering how soon it will be before they can make it back.
“We think we’re the No. 1 program for fan experience in the FCS, and the danger of being No. 1 is you can become complacent,” says Maes, an associate AD at Montana who oversees the stadium that seats 25,217.
“The person who’s in second place is always working to become No. 1, so one of the things (UM Director of Athletics Kent Haslam) has really challenged everybody to do is never rest on our laurels and always try to find ways to improve and be better.”
Since the stadium opened in October 1986, fans navigating their way to seats up and down the east and west sides — the former: 27 rows from top to bottom, the latter: 26 — have had to do so without a safety net. No longer.
By the home opener, against Central Washington on Sept. 6, new handrails, built and installed by Professional Construction Services of Missoula, will be running down the middle of the 42-inch-wide aisles that divide the east-and west-side seating sections.
They will come with no effect on sightlines but loads of effect on personal safety and security for those not born Wallenda.
“People have been asking about handrails for years, so it’s something that’s been long overdue,” says Maes. “This will be huge for our fans, especially for those who don’t feel safe getting down to their seats.”
The 10,580 fans who watched the first game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, a 38-31 victory over Idaho State on Oct. 18, 1986, would have understood the idea of new handrails. But smartphones and ribbon boards? No so much.
The stadium will now have improved reception for cell phones, and LED ribbon boards will run along the faces of sections 229 and 233, otherwise known as the pie-shaped wedges of the upper north end zone that were added during the 2008 expansion.
As the size of the stadium has increased and the number of cell phones in use during home games has multiplied, the former cell tower tasked with handling the demand, from its position on the nearby heating plant, quickly became outdated.
The fix: Crown Castle International spent $3 million, with no expense to Montana, to outfit Washington-Grizzly Stadium with more than 60 small, inconspicuous antennas, all of which feed, via hardwired fiber, into a headroom located in the northwest corner of the stadium. Which is to say, tweet away.
“We found that people could text when they were at a football game but could rarely use their phones for anything else,” says Maes. “The system would just get overloaded. People couldn’t receive phone calls and they couldn’t hop on the internet.”
The new setup provides two antennas per section, which on average seat about 700 fans. The antennas have been positioned so everybody in the stadium has the same coverage and the same opportunity to be connected.
It ups the stadium’s entertainment options for fans. And more important, it means more urgent communications will be able to come in and go out.
“The way fans interact during a game has changed dramatically the last few years,” says Haslam. “So this will allow fans to have fun, but it also addresses the safety issue. Fans and game-day staff need to be able to contact people outside the stadium when the need arises and vice versa.”
The ribbon boards, a no-cost benefit of the department’s relationship with Grizzly Sports Properties, will each be more than 50 feet in length and 48 inches tall, with 40-inch LED displays.
Montana is 176-26 at home since Washington-Grizzly Stadium opened, and the product on the field will always be the focus and carry the greatest weight. But everything else about game days, categorized as “second experiences,” is a close runner-up when it comes to the people who are purchasing the tickets.
When those second experiences are hardly noticed — parking is easy, ushers are friendly, concession lines are speedy — Maes and his team have done their job. And they know bad experiences can threaten a return trip.
“Everybody comes to the game for the game,” says Maes, “but whether they enjoy themselves and want to come back has a lot to do with the second experiences they have.
“Anything we can do to make their experience a little more enjoyable is a positive thing. Those are the things we’re always working to improve.”
And the handrails, improved cell service and ribbon boards are just the start of a master plan that will produce more upgrades over the coming seasons. Says Haslam, “We want to keep Washington-Grizzly Stadium a place people want to be on Saturday afternoons.”
— Montana Sports Information