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Brief history of sporting events at mismatched venues

The Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants are going to Twickenham Stadium on Oct. 23, bringing American football to the largest rugby union venue in the world.

It will be the 16th NFL game played in London, continuing a series which began in 2007, but it’s the first matchup that won’t be staged at Wembley Stadium.

The teams figure to have plenty of elbow room, as rugby union requires a larger field than American football. The pitch at Twickenham measures 125 meters in length and 70 meters in width (approximately 137 yards by 77 yards), while a regulation gridiron is 120 yards long (including end zones) and 53⅓ yards wide.

The reverse will be true when the New Zealand All Blacks rugby squad plays Ireland at Soldier Field, home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears, on Nov. 5.

These events got us thinking about previous instances of athletic events being contested in venues typically reserved for other sports. A brief history:

NFL

Although the NFL didn’t officially adopt a championship game until the 1933 season, the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans played in a de facto title game the previous year when a postseason game was added to break a tie atop the standings.

But what made the game truly notable was the venue. The Bears played their home games at Wrigley Field from 1921-1970, but frigid weather in December 1932 led the teams to move the season finale indoors to Chicago Stadium, home of the NHL’s Blackhawks. The playing field was 80 yards long and 45 yards wide, and only one goalpost was used. Field goals weren’t allowed, and sod was brought in to cover a dirt surface already in place for a circus appearance.

The Bears won 9-0 in front of a crowd of 11,198. The only touchdown involved two future Hall of Famers, with Bronko Nagurski throwing a 2-yard pass to Red Grange.

College football

Many decades ago, it wasn’t unusual for college football to be played in baseball stadiums and other irregular venues — many classics between Army and Notre Dame were played at the first Yankee Stadium in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. But in recent years, it has returned as a trendy quirk.

Some notable instances:

• Tennessee defeated Virginia Tech last month in front of 156,990 fans at Bristol Motor Speedway. The following week, East Tennessee State beat Western Carolina at the same venue, attracting a modest crowd of 13,863 — and leaving approximately 143,000 seats empty.

• Illinois beat Northwestern at Wrigley Field in 2010. With the right-field wall less than a foot from the back of one end zone, all offensive drives were run in the same direction. MLB’s Chicago Cubs had added additional seating since the NFL’s Bears last played at Wrigley decades earlier, which tightened the configuration for football games.

• Notre Dame survived an upset attempt by Boston College in 2015 at Fenway Park, home of MLB’s Boston Red Sox.

• Army has played four regular-season games at the new Yankee Stadium — a loss to Notre Dame in 2010, a win over Connecticut in 2014 and losses to Rutgers in 2011 and 2015.

• A number of bowl games have been staged at baseball stadiums as MLB teams search for revenue during the dormant winter months. Among them are the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, the St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field, the Miami Beach Bowl at Marlins Park, the defunct Seattle Bowl at Safeco Field and — take a deep breath here — the former Diamond Walnut San Francisco/Emerald/Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park.

Tennis

In the much-hyped Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King vanquished outspoken male counterpart Bobby Riggs in straight sets at the Astrodome in September 1973. The match drew 30,472 fans in person and tens of millions of television viewers around the world.

Andre Agassi and Roger Federer fearlessly took a precarious perch 692 feet above the Persian Gulf to smash a few shots on the helipad of the Burj Al Arab hotel in 2005 to promote the ATP Dubai Duty Free Open.

NBA

A number of teams have played homes games in domes better suited for football and baseball over the years, including the Detroit Pistons (Silverdome), Seattle SuperSonics (Kingdome), Minnesota Timberwolves (Metrodome), San Antonio Spurs (Alamodome), Toronto Raptors (Rogers Centre, formerly known as SkyDome) and Atlanta Hawks (Georgia Dome).

The NBA has held five outdoor games in its history — all of which have been exhibitions involving the Phoenix Suns. The Suns and Milwaukee Bucks played twice in 1972 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, a baseball venue in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Decades later, the Suns played three preseason games at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Southern California — against the Denver Nuggets in 2008, Golden State Warriors in 2009 and Dallas Mavericks in 2010.

College basketball

A landmark event occurred in January 1968, when the University of Houston played host to UCLA at the Astrodome, home of MLB’s Astros and the NFL’s Oilers. It was called the Game of the Century, as Lew Alcindor and the No. 1 Bruins put a 47-game winning streak on the line against Elvin Hayes and the No. 2 Cougars. Houston won 71-69 in front of 52,693 fans. UCLA returned to the Astrodome in March 1971 for the Final Four and won an NCAA championship.

The Final Four was later held at other football or multipurpose stadiums in New Orleans (1982, 1987, 1993), Seattle (1984, 1989, 1995), Indianapolis (1991) and Minneapolis (1992), and it has been staged exclusively in domes since 1997.

Syracuse University has played its home games at the Carrier Dome, which seats nearly 50,000 and is home to the school’s football team, since the multipurpose facility opened in 1980.

In recent years, two college games were staged aboard aircraft carriers. North Carolina beat Michigan State in November 2011, with President Obama in attendance atop the USS Carl Vinson in Coronado, California. One year later and about a mile away, Syracuse defeated San Diego State aboard the USS Midway in San Diego. SDSU also played an outdoor game in 2015 at Petco Park, home of MLB’s San Diego Padres, losing to crosstown rival University of San Diego.

Baseball

The Los Angeles Dodgers played their first four seasons on the West Coast, 1958-61, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Cramming a baseball field into the football home of the USC Trojans and Los Angeles Rams turned out to be an odd proposition. Even with a 42-foot-tall screen in play, the left-field wall stood only 251 feet from home plate, creating an attractive target for batters. Straightaway center field was 425 feet deep, and right-center was 440. The Dodgers beat the Chicago White Sox in the 1959 World Series, drawing more than 92,000 fans to each of the three games played at the Coliseum.

Similarly, the Texas Rangers have played several exhibition games in recent years at the Alamodome in San Antonio, where the right-field wall is only 280 feet from home plate.

The Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks opened the 2014 season with two games in Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground, where each game drew 38,000-plus fans. The dimensions were fairly typical, at 328 feet down the foul lines and 400 to straightaway center, given the space available on the larger, circular cricket pitch.

We didn’t forget about the fabled Polo Grounds in New York, which boasted arguably the strangest dimensions in baseball history — well under 300 feet down the lines and as deep as 505 to straightaway center. Alas, the odd configuration wasn’t a product of baseball being crammed into a mismatched venue. The stadium name was a misnomer, having been simply carried over from a previous iteration that was indeed built for polo.

Hockey

When the University of Michigan and Michigan State ice hockey teams faced off in a football venue in October 2001, it was viewed as an intriguing novelty. Marketed as the Cold War, a crowd of 74,544 turned out to see a tie at Spartan Stadium.

That game inspired the NHL to follow suit in November 2003, with the Montreal Canadiens defeating the Edmonton Oilers at Commonwealth Stadium, home of the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos. The game drew 700,000 ticket requests (actual attendance was 57,177) and the NHL began regularly scheduling outdoor games within a few years. Subsequent outdoor NHL games have been played at NFL stadiums in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago, New England and Santa Clara, California; at MLB ballparks in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, Washington and Denver; at the CFL venue in Calgary; and at the college football stadiums at Michigan and Minnesota.

The largest crowd ever to see a hockey game, according to Guinness, was a rematch of the Cold War — with Michigan beating Michigan State in The Big Chill at Michigan Stadium in December 2010. The announced attendance was 113,411, although Guinness later certified the total at 104,173.

More than 105,000 tickets were sold to the NHL game at Michigan Stadium, where the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Detroit Red Wings in a shootout on Jan. 1, 2014, but Guinness couldn’t confirm that the actual attendance topped the mark set there in 2010. Two months later, the Ottawa Senators defeated the Vancouver Canucks at BC Place, home of the CFL’s British Columbia Lions. The stadium’s retractable roof had to be closed because of rain for that one.

What is now known as Tropicana Field was built to lure an MLB team, which it did when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays debuted in 1998, but the dome stadium’s first major tenant was an NHL franchise. Starting in 1993-94, the Tampa Bay Lightning played their home games there for three seasons, when it was called the Thunderdome, and occasionally drew crowds in excess of 25,000. The Lightning set a record for highest attendance at a Stanley Cup playoff game in April 1996, drawing 28,183 fans to a game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Modified sports

Sometimes the sports themselves are transformed to fit the venues:

• Perhaps in the spirit of the Bears-Spartans 1932 NFL game, the Arena Football League launched with four teams in 1987. The sport is played indoors on a field approximately one-quarter the size of those used in regular football, with eight players per team on the field instead of the usual 11. With the exception of the suspended 2009 season, the AFL has operated continuously ever since.

• Metro footy is a version of Australian rules football adapted to be played on American football fields. Nine players take the field for each team, as opposed to regular footy, where 18 players per side compete on much larger oval pitches.

• Soccer gave birth to indoor soccer and futsal. Indoor soccer typically uses a surface about the size of a hockey rink, with six players per side, including the goalkeeper. Hockey-like dasher boards, which are in play, surround the field. Futsal can be played indoors or outdoors on a surface smaller than indoor soccer, with five players per side, including the goalkeeper. There are no walls in play.

Golf

In 2015, Callaway Golf set up a temporary nine-hole, par-3 course at Petco Park. The course is scheduled to be open again Nov. 3-8 this year.

Lastly, in what must unequivocally be the most unusual sports site in history, Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard struck two golf balls with a 6-iron on the moon during the third manned lunar mission in February 1971.

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