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Stadium experience still unmatched

I'm probably not doing myself any favors by admitting I grew up watching NFL games in the most hostile subdivision of the least attractive venue in North American sports history: the 700 level of the old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. There, in the uppermost section of that damp, beer-smelling donut of concrete and steel at the terminus of the Broad Street subway line, I went to my first Eagles game when I was eight, during Randall Cunningham's MVP season. I was there for the highest scoring playoff game in NFL history -- Eagles 58, Lions 37 -- and two or three games a year through high school. In college, I learned to call Ticketmaster Wyoming to avoid the jammed phone lines when Eagles tickets went on sale and waited in line overnight for obstructed-view 100-level tickets to postseason games. Since moving to New York after graduating college, I still make it back for a few home games a season.

I was a witness to heinous acts in the upper reaches of the Vet. But it was here that I also first experienced the galvanizing power of sport -- the way a team could bring together strangers, regardless of race or gender or socio-economic background, united by love and, yes, hate. It's a special thing anywhere, but I always felt this strain was stronger in provincial, blue-collar burgs like Philly.

All things equal, a fan who's experienced that kind of psychic connection wouldn't pass on attending a game just because he's already had the experience, just as no parent would skip a daughter's piano recital because they can hum the melody to Für Elise.

Sure, it's easy to stay home. And it only gets easier the older you get, as pragmatism overcomes passion: $9 domestic beers are lunacy wherever you're from. But for the fans who pack NFL stadiums week in and week out, there's no shortage of reasons to go. "I can give you a hundred," says Marisa Scully, a 28-year-old dog trainer from Philadelphia who's had Eagles season tickets in her family since 1968 and attended games since the mid-90s. "It's like a party with you and all your people who are on the same side. The adrenaline. The energy. It's intoxicating."

The familiarity of going to the stadium makes it ritual, one reason football elicits such frequent comparisons to religion -- and not just because it's played almost exclusively on Sundays. It's the sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself. For eight Sundays -- maybe nine or 10 in a good year -- fans go to the grounds seeking truths they can't find anywhere else: like Patrick Swayze's Bodhi in Point Break, searching for the ultimate ride, possessed by the sort of ardor and passion only team sports can elicit.

The sustained roar of a crowd on third-and-long. The cathartic eruption when the lineman drags down the quarterback. You may be able to replicate those noises with THX-Certified 5.1 Digital Surround Sound, but you can't feel the stadium. "There's just something about being at the game: the crowd, the food, the weather, the whole thing," filmmaker Jesse Newton says. "You share in the highs and lows with complete strangers. It's a lot bigger than anything you can experience in your house."

Newton, 28, attends "one or two" games every season. "Can't really afford more than that," he says. "I'd be there weekly if I could."

Newton's first game was at the Vet with his grandfather. For many, the Eagles represent a connection to the past that spans generations. Scully's parents attended games when the team played at Franklin Field, back when the Vet was a space-age figment. Season-ticket holders often park in the same lot, see the same strangers, take the same route into the stadium every week, year after year. The parade of familiar sights is idiosyncratic: the shopping-cart pushers hawking rock-hard soft pretzels, the hustlers moving bootleg shirts with the interchangeable logo of that week's opponent; overzealous tailgaters with multiple flatscreens, a ping-pong table and a deep-fryer. It's only amplified on the inside: the chants, the fight song, the mordant wit and gallows humor of a populace so intimate with futility, those perfectly timed zingers from the wiseguy six rows back.

"There no substitute for the feeling of sitting in the crowd," Scully says. "The social interactions that go on, meeting up with my friends at halftime. It's about the camaraderie. Everyone there is your friend. You know when you see someone in that green jersey that you guys are on the same side."

When you go to a game, you're not paying to discover the outcome; you're paying for an experience. And for that experience to warrant the cost, it's got to be personalized. "Its not just any live game," Scully says. "Its about going to your game."

In the end, attending an NFL game in person is a matter of personal value. If you only have a passing interest -- say you're a reporter assigned to cover the experience of attending a football game -- you're probably going to be underwhelmed. Fifteen bucks for a corned beef sandwich from a seat where the game is merely a rumor doesn't sound like anyone's idea of a good time.

The NFL overtook baseball as America's most popular sports league because it's made for TV. Games are played almost exclusively on Sundays, making it the most accessible and easiest-to-follow sport for the average fan. A casual sports fan can watch every one of a team's games without any significant compromise of their lifestyle. Football even fits on a rectangular screen better than any other sport. (By contrast, some of the most rewarding intricacies of a baseball game, like fielder shifts, are lost in transmission during MLB telecasts, victims of the camera's tunnel-vision on the batter-pitcher confrontation.) High-definition TVs only enhance the stay-at-home experience, with crystal-clear images and lifelike audio. Comfort, check. Controlled climate, check. Maybe a few more dollars in your pocket. Who doesn't need that?

But isn't there something to be said about humanity? Are we that jaded? We're already a wired culture that experiences our most authentic realities through the red-blue-green of LCD displays. During the week, we fire instant messages to co-workers sitting 10 feet away and check our tweets at the dinner table. The stadium is one of society's last bastions of community incarnate and plebeian spirit -- the place where you can unabashedly love thy neighbor and hug a stranger. At the stadium, you're a free agent: no longer hostage to the TV producer's narrative or the mind-numbing lather-rinse-repeat of commercials for beer and erectile-dysfunction drugs. Or Tony Siragusa. Even in HDTV or 3-DTV or whatever comes next, you're there but you're not there. No matter how clear your picture is, you're still just watching a photograph broken down into millions of pieces of data, trillions of zeros and ones, beamed into outer space and back down to your TV.

But the stadium is the stage. And when you're there, you're a part of the chorus -- a scratch mark on a panoramic urban legend.

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