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A screengrab of a SDSU Athletics video showing the big screen at Dignity Health Sports Park displays “Go Aztecs” on Oct. 10. The Aztecs later took the field and participated in the team’s annual intrasquad preseason scrimmage, which was closed to the public this year due to COVID-19.

Column: Dignity Health Sports Park is a sneak peek into the future with Aztec Stadium

October 19, 2020

This season, San Diego State football will be playing eight games on the gridiron, but none of them at SDCCU Stadium.

In fact, they won’t even be in San Diego at all. Instead, try going two hours north up Interstate 5. 

On Sept. 15, SDSU Athletics announced the Aztecs would be playing at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California for the 2020 and 2021 football seasons, expediting construction of Aztec Stadium by demolishing the Mission Valley site completely. 

Despite the road trip, playing in a smaller 27,000-seat stadium will provide players, coaches and fans an inside look into the future.

Two years from now, Aztec Stadium will open its gates to welcome 35,000 fans to a new era of SDSU football in Mission Valley. 

With its ongoing construction and the team’s current move to Carson, getting the opportunity to play at a smaller venue can allow student-athletes, coaches and staff to experience a similar feel to that of the new stadium.

As a fan, one of the best parts about experiencing any sporting event at a stadium is the intimacy within the atmosphere. The closer fans are to the action of the game, the more likely it is for them to be able to connect with the game, bring energy and create a great atmosphere.

An issue with SDCCU Stadium was despite having a seating capacity fit for an NFL team, the concrete structure was not ideal for SDSU football from a fan experience standpoint.

The student section seats and other sections along the plaza level were too far from the field, and as a result, depreciated the interaction many people had with the game and with players.

Many college football venues encourage student interaction by placing them close to the field to funnel in noise for opposing benches. 

By playing games in a smaller venue at Dignity Health Sports Park, it allows for SDSU Athletics to experiment with different techniques of student and fan engagement and game atmosphere. 

This can give them a peek into the future at Aztec Stadium, where current map plans place both students and fans closer to the field than ever before.

Dignity Health Sports Park also makes it easier for SDSU Athletics to prepare for gameday operations – with or without fans in attendance. 

For example, television crews broadcasting football games have to rely on the availability of certain angles and views within the stadium to provide a great experience for viewers. 

In Carson, there is more space around Dignity Health Sports Park in comparison to SDCCU stadium that creates a unique viewpoint for fans with the cameras.

SDSU athletic director J.D. Wicker said the move to Carson can allow for broadcast crews to showcase a premier experience to Aztec fans, which is ideal considering local current health guidelines.

“Having the ability to come in, set up and do the television experience that we want to put out led us to where we are,” he said.

Also, when Wicker and SDSU Athletics picked up the keys to SDCCU Stadium, it was in such poor shape to where it would have been “impossible” to be able to get it ready by this November.

Now, with a move to a new, smaller venue in Carson, gameday operations become easier and thus different without spectators in the stands.

Wicker mentioned selecting Dignity Health Sports Park as the venue for the next two seasons was done with the players in mind.

“It was all about the student-athlete experience,” Wicker said in a press conference. 

Some of the players have already taken a liking to the new amenities of the stadium – from the locker room, to the quality of the field – after the team’s intrasquad scrimmage on Oct. 10. 

“Dignity Health (Sports Park) is a beautiful stadium, and we know we’re lucky to have something like this,” senior offensive lineman Kyle Spaulding told SDSU Athletics. “A lot of schools don’t get stuff like this and we’re getting taken good care of up here. It’s a beautiful field, beautiful facility and I’m excited to have our season up here.”

The biggest benefit for players, coaches and training staff? Expanded locker rooms with modern designs and all the bells and whistles of a stadium fit for today’s college football standards. Also, with the ability for extra space, it can be utilized in case a player has to go through COVID-19 protocols.

Sophomore quarterback Carson Baker said despite California’s public health regulations prohibiting fans from attending games at Dignity Health Sports Park this season, the team plans to ignite energy from the sidelines in a new and exciting environment.

It’s a beautiful stadium, a beautiful atmosphere and we’re gonna bring energy (as a team) with no fans,” he said. “I know Aztec fans are gonna be watching at home so we’re gonna go out there, bring energy, have fun, all that stuff.”

After spending a day at the stadium itself, senior safety Tariq Thompson admitted it is better than what he expected heading into the season.

“I didn’t expect it to be this nice,” he told SDSU Athletics.

During his time at nearby Saint Augustine High School, Thompson was never able to play on this field. Now, he finally gets that chance to make up for it. 

“I’ve never been able to come here (to play),” he told SDSU Athletics. “I watched one high school state championship game here. Something I’ve always wanted to do is play on this field for high school, obviously, but now that I’m in college and doing it, it’s fine. I mean, (I’m) excited to play here.”

The first football game of the 2020 season for the Aztecs kicks off against UNLV less than a week from now – on Oct. 24. Even though there won’t be fans in the stands, there will be new experiences created with this move to Carson.

As SDSU leaves SDCCU Stadium and Mission Valley for the next two seasons, the new (temporary) era in Carson will bring endless optimism and opportunity – not just for another shot at a Mountain West Conference title – but also a sneak peek into a brighter future at Aztec Stadium in 2022.

Sports editor Kyle Betz contributed to the reporting of this story.

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