A thin crowd takes in the Edmonton Elks home opener at Commonwealth Stadium on a warm June evening. An announced attendance of 23,131 – a little more than a third of capacity – dot the green and gold seats. Even that number is swollen by the Saskatchewan fans out to cheer on their Roughriders.
The Elks haven’t won at home in 980 days. COVID’s cancellation of the 2020 season has a lot to do with that statistic, but the team hasn’t helped: The Elks lost their last home game of 2019, went winless in seven at Commonwealth last year, and have lost their first this year. Their lacklustre performance on this night suggests they’re not about to break that streak anytime soon.
But it’s not just the on-field product that is suffering. The great concrete monolith that is Commonwealth Stadium is showing its 44 years. The brutalist architecture and soaring buttresses encase an open-air concourse as uninviting as any in the country. The washrooms and concession booths seem to have not been upgraded since the stadium opened, in 1978, for the Commonwealth Games. It’s comfortable in the concourse on opening night, but when the wind howls through in the fall and winter, it’s colder and more miserable than out in the seats.
The stadium is also too big for most of the events it hosts – or might host. Its 56,300 seats make it the biggest stadium in Canada, bigger than anything in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal. It works for some things, like a tour by fan-favourite Garth Brooks, and Pope Francis will no doubt draw a big crowd when he says mass there on July 26. But short of a bolt of divine intervention, the Elks will only sell it out every decade or two. Other possible tenants that could draw a regular crowd, like the soccer club FC Edmonton, have kicked the stadium’s metaphorical tires and found them wanting. On this night, with 23,000 fans in it, the stadium is empty and unenergetic, killing the kind of atmosphere for which people go to games.