Parc des Princes (Paris), Camp Nou (Barcelona) and the European Football Stadium Experience

Photos: First two rows of Paris / Paris Saint Germain / Parc Des Prices. Bottom rows of Barcelona / FCB / Camp Nou.

About four years ago, I finally had a chance to watch a football match in Europe, watching a 2-2 tie between Real Madrid against Valencia. The match itself (I remember Real as a bit sluggish) wasn’t that great, but this Cristiano Ronaldo goal was pretty nice:

What I remember from that match is that the Santiago Bernabéu is an old, non-modernized stadium hosting one of the five most valuable sports teams in the world. Surprisingly (or alarmingly), smoking near the seating area was pretty common and the view really wasn’t so good (I paid the relatively reasonable price of $75 or so for nose-bleed seats). My wife Ha remembers nothing from this match, but a couple of months later she got to see Zidane (before he became coach of Real Madrid) there in the equivalent of an old timer’s charity match for less than $25 (I was jealous).

In planning for our Europe trip this past March, I really wanted to watch more football. I’ve seen Manchester United twice in exhibitions (once vs PSG and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Chicago, the other last summer vs Real Madrid without Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara), and to see them in England is still a big to do for me.

Instead, we were fortunate to see Paris Saint Germain vs FC Metz in Paris, and then Barcelona vs Chelsea in the Champions League (think playoffs) round of 16 at Camp Nou.

The Matches

I knew the PSG match would be a blowout – Metz is one of the worst teams in Ligue 1. Unfortunately, Neymar has gotten injured a couple of weeks before the match (months after I bought the tickets direct from PSG) and Cavani was suspended. Kylian Mbappé, the next great young “chosen one” at 19 years old played ok, but despite all this PSG won 5-0.

Ha and I were in row 1 (technically the second row) in the center of the lower deck. The tickets were about $120 each and all considering, a great deal. Since we were close to level with the field, it was a different view from above, but you could truly get a sense of the speed of play and the level of skill, even from Metz. The crowd atmosphere was just ok and the 48,000 seats in the stadium did not look anywhere near sold out.

One thing I learned is that after matches, home players go to the goal side housing their supporter groups and thank them for their support. Supporter groups chant and sing literally non-stop throughout a match.

For the Champions League match, it was a thrilling experience to see Lionel Messi in his prime play in a high stakes elimination match. Messi responded by scoring his fastest goal ever in less than 3 minutes, then followed that up with an assist and second goal.

Easily the best soccer experience I’ve had, even after paying around $250 per ticket to sit in Lateral 3 (good viewing angles, but fairly high up) on Viagogo, a secondary market for tickets. The face value was around $170, and I think I could have bought tickets for the match direct from the club a week before the event. I didn’t know this would be possible however, so I bought tickets months beforehand just to make sure we’d be able to go.

The European Stadium Experience

Parc des Princes and Camp Nou, like Santiago Bernabéu, are older stadiums. All three remind me (not in a good way) of Candlestick Park in San Francisco, which has now been replaced by the fabulous AT&T Park for the Giants and Levi’s Stadium for the 49ers.

The San Jose Earthquakes MLS team play in Avaya Stadium, which was completed in 2015. Despite housing a mediocre soccer team and holding only 18K people, Avaya is a much better experience than any of the three European stadiums I’ve been to.

How so? Huge high resolution big screens are in all modern American stadiums and arenas, but not in Parc des Princes, Camp Nou, or Santiago Bernabéu. I have good stadium-alternatives food options with food trucks at Avaya but Aramark (popular provider in the US as well) does the food at Camp Nou; our sausage / hot dog was plain bad (not worth finishing). If I remember correctly, there were perhaps 3 different food items one could buy in the whole stadium. 3! The food options in Parc des Princes was about the same.

There is no in-seat food delivery as you might get at Levi’s. Whether you think this is good or bad, there’s no alcohol served either. More on that later.

No ads, no extra information, not even helpful overlays on the big screens, no music, no one hawking snacks in the stand. From a purist perspective, I guess you could say you’re just left alone to enjoy football – in some ways the TV experience for football is the same. That can be a good things, but there’s just a lot of money left that these teams should be and can be making without ruining the spectator experience (see Earthquakes).

These are all just reminders of how American sports, particularly in the last 20 years, has become so competitive from a business perspective, innovating (nowhere near as fast as startups, but clearly fast relative to Europe) to capture more value from the modern sports fan.

Getting back to our hotel in central Barcelona from from Camp Nou was good – a number of different train lines connect at different stations nearby. Worst case, Camp Nou would have been just an hour away walking. Getting back from Parc des Princes was a mess, however. Google and local bus stop information suggested a bus we could take back to our hotel. That bus did not stop at the designated stop. It stopped at another stop (like a mini bus depot) very close by with other buses and just did nothing. I believe it was at least a half hour before any buses left, and all the while, we had no idea what was going on. Bus drivers didn’t know or could not say, or there were no signs that suggested an answer. We would have taken the subway, but the lines just to get into the (one) station were completely packed.

Alcohol and Hooliganism

One of the biggest surprises in European soccer is the lack of alcohol sales at the stadium. I don’t really drink, so it’s not such a big deal, but on the business side, this seems to be a lost opportunity. Then again, I’m not a fan of drunk fans either. I tried to think more about why this is the case, and my guess for it is hooliganism, a term used to describe disorderly, violent or destructive behavior perpetrated by spectators at association football events.

English football in the 1980’s was notorious for this; it was just dangerous to attend games.

During the Barcelona-Chelsea match, I witnessed hints of this after Barcelona went up 2-0, and the Chelsea fans in attendance became upset at a potential missed call. In another section above (and behind us) I had seen a plexiglass-like transparent barrier dividing the top-most section and the one in which I was sitting. I realized that opposing teams fans sat there, but I wasn’t clear why the barrier was needed. I had never seen that at a sporting event before.

After the missed call, I started hearing constant loud bangs on the “glass”. I then started seeing flying objects fly overhead (and likely hit fans). These were coins being thrown by Chelsea (a London-based club). What was astonishing to me is that there was no security to warn fans or to watch the fans doing this.

It was almost everything was perfectly all right and expected. In the US, you see warning messages on the big screens and around you to text message security in case anyone is being disruptive. You feel like you have an outlet in case you feel unsafe. Not the case here.

Then, when you think about not selling alcohol to fans, it does make more sense.

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