Lifestyle Feature

Rest in Ruins

The Legacy of Akron's Rubber Bowl

Chad W. Lutz
​One look at it now, and it's hard to imagine the Akron Rubber Bowl once held anything, a place where fans used to cheers beers and sing UA's school alma mater. There's a massive pile of blue boards, presumably old bleachers, lying heaped in the stands at the far end zone. Half the seats are bleached near-white from lack of care and overexposure to the sun. Many of the concrete abutments are crumbling and decayed. All of the windows are busted out of the grandstands and press boxes. Leaves, debris, and litter line the rows and rows of seats sitting idle and empty since 2008. At first glance, the Rubber Bowl looks like a forgotten ruin. That's exactly what it is.

At the time Rubber Bowl was built, the city was suffering tremendous hardships thanks to The Great Depression. There was little in the way of money to go around, and backers were having a hard time raising the thousands of dollars needed for construction. According to Beacon Journal reporter Carol Biliczky in 2013, the community rallied around a grassroots campaign that helped grease the wheels for an eventual influx of federal dollars as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiatives, the same people who masterminded the infamous National Parks promotional poster campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s. The University of Akron band performed concerts to collect money, people went door-to-door asking for donations. There were even ads run in the Beacon Journal instructing supporters where they could send their checks.
​Akron Rubber Bowl circa 1950s
​University of Akron eventually raised the money it needed and formally commissioned the Rubber Bowl project in 1939. Its name was to reflect Akron as being the "rubber capital of the world." The plan was to build a 14,000sqft. structure capable of seating close to 37,600. The turf (then grass) was to be laid on top of asphalt so the arena could be flooded for winter sports. And it wasn't just football and hockey fans were excited about; the stadium was set to host rifle and archery games, too.

Crews officially broke ground on the stadium the same year, and one year after that, in 1940, the venue opened. The final cost: a scant $546,000. Today, the stadium would have cost around $9.2 million. The dedication ceremony held in August 1940 drew an estimated 40,000 people, or a little more than 16% of everyone who lived in the city at the time. A smaller USO show served as the venue's first "official" event put on by the Veterans of Foreign Wars earlier that June.

The first few years of the stadium's existence were punctuated by below-average football. The Akron Zips football team, in true Ohio fashion, put on a roller-coaster showing. In its inaugural season at the Rubber Bowl, Akron posted a 2-5-2 record under then head coach Thomas Dowler. The second year (1941) featured a new head coach, Otis Douglas, and a better record in 5-3-1.  However, the following year (1942), and Otis' last, was the worst in school history. The Zips went defeated in eight games (0-7-1). Yikes (Cause we’re from Oh-Hi-O [OH!]).
​This photo from 1941 shows the versatility of the stadium, which in this case was used for a derby car race series.
The field was converted into a 1/5-mile track.

​However, football took a brief hiatus during the next three years due to the United States' involvement in World War II. The Zips wouldn't resume action on George Washington Blvd. until 1946. Since then, the official footballers of the now decaying effigy have posted a near .500 record, winning two division titles (2000, 2005) as well as one Mid-American Conference title, also in 2005. The Rubber Bowl even hosted various incarnations of the Browns, including the once again Los Angeles Rams franchise (then Cleveland Rams), that played both regular season and pre-season games there.

But as much as football is engrained in blood of Northeast Ohioans, there's another sacred pastime denizens of the area cling to as much as their prized lineages of rubber and pig skin, and that being Rock n' Roll. Forget ice hockey. Though much, much smaller, the Rubber Bowl was Akron's answer to Municipal Stadium and Ohio Stadium, with seating capacities enough to house the burgeoning, riotous temperaments of music fans during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. In a single calendar year alone, the Rubber Bowl hosted Apple Records-signed Badfinger, Alice Cooper, Faces, and a band that needs no introduction: the time-tested Rolling Stones.

It's estimated between 40,000 and 42,000 people showed up to see Mick Jagger and Co. take the stage on July 11, 1972. Old cutouts from the Beacon Journal make the concert look like a warzone. Temps soared near ninety that day. By the time the gates opened, people were baking under the mid-afternoon sun. To make matters worse, there was a severe soda pop SNAFU. Refreshments ran out before noon, leaving many of the early arriving concert goers high and dry. The Stones hadn’t even arrived at the arena yet and already the event was prime for catastrophe. Sprinkle in a few (a lot of) drugs, turn the volume up to eleven, and you have yourself the perfect recipe for rock and roll. 
​A rock n’ roll scene if ever there was; riots breaking out at the Rolling Stones Rubber Bowl concert July 11, 1972.
(Akron Beacon Journal)
​Several brawls were reported to have broken out as the concert progressed. Police scuffled with the crowds and eventually arrested twenty-seven people for throwing bottles and rocks, assault and battery, and drug possession. People were seen passed out on the field from the heat, getting trampled by everyone else paying next-to-no attention. A giant video screen that was supposed to show close ups of the band throughout the performance malfunctioned and didn’t end up working. And the frenzy was only heightened by the energy of The Stones' unforgettable set list. The band rocketed through discography staples like "Gimme Shelter," "Brown Sugar," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and, "Jumping Jack Flash,” with “Street Fighting Man” as an encore, yeah know, just for good measure.

Que bella!

Forty years later, however, all that enigmatic energy and illustrious history is overshadowed by the stadium’s now-crumbling foundation. Peer through the fencing erected to keep vandals out (and what a job it’s doing) and there isn’t a trace of the venue’s antiquity the naked eye can account for. 
Debris and rubble litter the floor of the Rubber Bowl
​In September 2009, after about a year of construction, University of Akron opened the ridiculously over-priced InfoCision Stadium for an unnecessary $61.6 million. Remember that inflation-adjusted construction cost of the Rubber Bowl ($9.2 million)? But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose. I’m not here to poke the bear (that hard).

Despite holding fewer people and having less space for parking, InfoCision Stadium formally usurped its older brother and now serves as the official home of the Akron Zips. The final game at Rubber Bowl was played on November 13, 2008.

Five years after the stadium hosted its final football game against University of Buffalo, a fitting 43-40 overtime defeat, the Rubber Bowl was sold to Canton-based Team1 Marketing Group for a mere $38,000. No need to adjust your screen. That’s in current-market value. The deal included the stadium and all six acres the property sat on. A steal no matter how you slice it. Initially, Team1 planned on purchasing a USFL football team and renovating the abandoned structure to accommodate the new franchise. But, as it turns out, USFL officials ultimately decided otherwise and moved expansion forward without an Akron affiliate.

Strike one.

Then, in 2014, Team1 came up with a plan to turn the stadium into a multi-sport dome complex. But this plan, like the USFL project, never came to fruition.

Strike two.

All was not lost, however. Or, perhaps, it was, we just didn’t know it yet. Two last-ditch efforts to revive the fallen shrine included a proposed hip-hop concert that was supposed to take place in the summer of 2015 and use of the building for a minor league football team. Both ideas were eventually struck down due to concerns of over-dilapidation and potentially hazardous disrepair.

Strike three called.

Current Akron Mayor, Dan Horrigan, has expressed, on numerous occasions, that’d he’d like to the see the stadium torn down. Police are now detailed to guard the ruins, which are quickly becoming a sort of ghost-town destination. Getting the pictures for this article, I saw three cop cars parked in and around the property. No doubt the venue poses a potential liability issue, especially since the fences used to keep people out are in about as much disrepair as the stadium itself. Kids have been trying to break into stuff they shouldn’t since the dawn of time, myself included.
And, for now, I suppose they should. Before long, Akron’s Rubber Bowl will follow in the footsteps of other time-passed-over monuments to the area like Peninsula’s Hell Town and Cleveland’s League Park. Imagination and whatever you can find on the internet are now our only windows to what this effigy for a generation once held. Which, if given the right lighting and the right mood, can help you hear 35,000 screaming college football fans waving blue and gold banners chanting, "Akron! Akron! Akron!"