Greece has the Parthenon, Rome has the Colosseum, and Edmonton has Commonwealth Stadium. Yes, it’s fair to put the Stadium right up there with the world’s most recognizable landmarks. This year, the Stadium turns 40, and it’s time to reveal the things you never knew about one of the most prolific venues in Canada.
Owned and operated by the City of Edmonton, Commonwealth Stadium is the largest open air stadium in Canada. With a 56,400-seat capacity, the entire populations of Edmonton’s Spruce Grove and Stony Plain suburbs could simultaneously attend an event – with room to spare. It’s the home of the Edmonton Eskimos, and over the last 40 years, the stadium has played host to two Grey Cup games, a U2 concert that drew in 90,000+ attendees over two nights, a near sellout Pink Floyd extravaganza, the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup opening ceremonies and first game, the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and much more.
It all started in the 1930s, when the City of Edmonton acquired 26 acres on a long-term lease. The plan was for a sports field that included baseball diamonds, rugby and soccer fields, a track, and a cricket pitch. However, Mayor Joseph A. Clarke had more ambitious plans for the land. Banking on the popularity of football, he and city council worked hard to create a one-of-a-kind stadium. In 1939, the Edmonton Eskimos played their first home game at the venue. The stadium was named Clarke in his honour. Today, a smaller, refurbished Clarke Stadium still stands in the shadow of Commonwealth Stadium as an homage to where it all began.
In the early 70s, Edmonton bid for the 1978 Commonwealth Games. It quickly became apparent that Clarke Stadium was too small for the event. Rebuilding Clarke Stadium was a consideration, but by 1974, it was agreed that a new, bigger stadium was a better option. Construction on Commonwealth Stadium commenced in 1975.
It was a colossal undertaking with the removal of 500,000 cubic yards of dirt from the infield. The sight of 40 trucks, eight earth movers, numerous backhoes and other excavators was unforgettable. Interestingly, an $18.2+ million dollar roof was hotly debated. The public was not a fan of the price tag, and ultimately, the ‘no roof’ camp won, making the stadium the open air venue we know and love today.
As the 1978 Commonwealth Games date drew near, the builders were required to install “a royal retirement room”, a private bathroom for the venue’s most prominent guest: Queen Elizabeth II, who would arrive to open the ceremonies. In the end, her Majesty didn’t request use her private restroom, but that doesn’t mean the illustrious toilet was never used. It was only used once, but very notably, by a 6-year old Justin Trudeau!
Heather Seutter is the Director of Commonwealth Stadium, and she’s proud to help maintain the venue’s history while ensuring it has a place for today’s diverse audience.
“Being an open air, outdoor venue is part of what makes Commonwealth Stadium so dynamic,” she says. “Being outdoors brings a different perspective to a live or sporting event. Another key to the experience is our outstanding relationships with the Edmonton Eskimo Football Club, concert promoters, contractors, and food and beverage operations.”
The food and beverage options go beyond the traditional hot dog and soda. Two buffets on site allow patrons to dine on roast beef and to have a cocktail mixed at the bar while never missing a second of the action on the field, thanks to big screen televisions and large windows.
For Seutter, the magic of Commonwealth Stadium never fades.
“It’s always interesting to see how people react to being in a place like this,” she smiles, “Everyone has a story about the Stadium, and I love to hear people share their memories about an event that impacted them 5-20 years ago. Some of the music bands and live shows, are once-in-a-generation events, and it’s a unique experience being in an outdoor venue with such a large crowd and detailed production.”
“Since it’s such a large facility,” Seutter continues, “it’s important to ensure that it stays relevant in the community and has a place for all Edmontonions and visitors. We strive to cultivate positive relationships with the people around the stadium, and with Mother Nature – we never know if she is going to smile on us or give us some challenges. Weather is an important feature for us. Sometimes it’s a great aspect. Other times it makes things more interesting!
“As a 40-year old facility, it’s important that we continue to give audiences an outstanding experience. To ensure that, recent upgrades from the City of Edmonton and the Edmonton Eskimos include new stadium seating, expanded WIFI and Internet, new mid bowl LED ribbon boards, an upgraded jumbotron, and in-game entertainment. We look at the trends, what is relevant, and what fans want.”
Commonwealth Stadium also supports the community. Following events, on site food and beverage contractor Western Foods donates its surplus to the Hope Mission and the Bissel Centre. The venue itself is frequented by community groups for their fundraising events and is used for high-profile charity drives, like CapitalCare Foundation’s Feast on the Field.
The stadium has received numerous awards, including the Urban Architecture Award of Excellence, a 2016 Prairie Design Award, the 2013 Mayor’s Award for Universal Design in Architecture, and the 2014 Stephen Barr Award of Excellence for Recreation Facility Design. Yet no award can compare to the feeling athletes, bands, entertainers, and guests feel when they step through those doors into the immensity of the stadium that feels grandiose, yet so welcoming at the same time.
Coming up for the historic facility is a lifecycle maintenance face lift; expanded access for all kinds of events; even more diversification to accommodate soccer, football, and rugby at the pro and amateur levels; and the continued drive to ensure the stadium is a safe, accessible, world-class venue for the citizens of Edmonton and visitors.
It’s been a long road for Commonwealth Stadium, from it’s humble start as Clark Stadium to it’s international presence as the modern behemoth with the ability to catch the attention of royalty, music’s elite, and world champion sporting events (it’s in the running with stadiums in Montreal and Toronto as a potential FIFA 2026 World Cup venue). But for Edmonton, Commonwealth Stadium feels like home because it is part of our home. It’s the big deal we have going on right in our own backyard. So, Greece can have it’s Parthenon of the gods, Rome can boast its Colosseum, Italy can have it’s leaning landmark, and Paris it’s gigantic iron tower; Edmonton has a stadium that not only brings the world to our doorstep, but one that also has been working hard for 40 years and will continue to be in action for the foreseeable future.