By Yoshinori Yasui / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterSAPPORO — The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters baseball team plans to move from Sapporo Dome (see below), but the facility will remain one of Hokkaido’s largest event venues.
The stadium is scheduled to host some of the matches of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and it is envisaged to be used for the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, which Sapporo is bidding to host. The dome boasts of what is said to be the world’s only “hovering soccer stage system,” in which a gigantic natural turf soccer pitch rolls from outside the stadium into the enclosed arena and then back out again after an event.
Late at night on Nov. 30, workers scurried to move the hovering soccer stage into the dome ahead of the Dec. 2 final home match last season for the Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, a J.League team in the top J1 division. The stage, with a surface of 120 meters by 85 meters and a 130-centimeter height, is used as a natural-turf soccer pitch. As the turf needs water and sunlight, the stage is usually placed in the open area outside the dome and then moved into the dome just before matches.
It weighs over 8,300 tons, but air is blown underneath it to lift it in the manner of a hovercraft, effectively reducing its weight by 90 percent. The stage also moves by itself, with 24 sensor-guided wheels. At a speed of 4 meters per minute, it heads toward the huge stadium entrance — 90 meters wide and 14 meters tall — which has been opened by sliding open the dome’s outer wall. Every time a soccer game is held, workers spend four or five hours on this process.
About 30 workers came and went as the stage moved inside, and the dome was filled with noise that sometimes swelled to an incredible roar thanks to the wheels attached to the stage rolling across adhesive tape put over crevices on the floor.
“Don’t you think it sounds like an elephant’s call?” Nao Fujita said with a smile. Fujita, 31, is in charge of public relations for Sapporo Dome Co., which manages and operates the dome.
Volunteers play an important role in maintaining the stage. During the off-season, the stage is placed outside the dome and is covered by snow. However, in March, just before the stadium begins hosting games, about 200 fans clear away the snow in what has become a seasonal tradition.
“We have the utmost respect for such enthusiastic fans,” said Satoshi Wakai, 53, an official in charge of public relations at the dome.
The natural turf of the stage will be completely replaced later this year for the first time. Sand is sprinkled on it to maintain the turf, but this increases the weight of the stage year by year. If this continued, the stage would become unmovable.
At a nearby training ground, lawn grass has been grown since last autumn to replace the stage’s turf. Naoto Kohiyama, 56, an official in charge of facility maintenance for the dome, touched the steadily growing grass with a look of satisfaction. Kohiyama used to be engaged in the maintenance of turf for golf courses in Niigata Prefecture. However, when he heard that Sapporo Dome would open, he applied, believing he would be able to make use of his experience. He joined the company when the dome was opened.
Turf is vulnerable to high temperatures and humidity. In contrast to conditions on Honshu, turf for the dome in Hokkaido is green throughout the year. Usually, the turf is cut to a height of 25 millimeters but when important matches for Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo are scheduled, the turf is cut at a height requested by the team so that it can fit the team’s tactics. The company managing the dome has also complied with requests from the national team.
In the upcoming Rugby World Cup, two matches — Australia versus Fiji and England versus Tonga — are scheduled to be held at the dome. It is said to be extremely unusual around the world for a rugby match to be held indoors.
“Overseas fans will be surprised by the matches held under the roof,” Kohiyama enthusiastically said. “We would like to prepare the best turf for those matches.”
If a new baseball stadium for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters is constructed, not only baseball games, but also concerts and other events might be held there. It is therefore of concern that business at Sapporo Dome might face difficulty. New ways to utilize this Hokkaido asset, which has world-class equipment, should be considered.
Sapporo Dome was opened as a multi-purpose dome, mainly for soccer games, in Sapporo in June 2001, ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup cohosted by Japan and South Korea. The total construction cost was about ¥42.2 billion, with a capacity of up to 53,000 people. Since the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters relocated to the dome in 2004, the number of visitors and the amount of sales have greatly increased. Sales for fiscal 2016 reached a record high of ¥4.143 billion. The Sapporo city government envisages using the dome as the venue for the opening ceremony of the 2026 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, which it aims to host.