If seats in an NFL stadium are painted to spell out words, and those words are visible outside of the stadium, is the signage interior or exterior?
That question lies at the heart of a legal dispute between PSSI Stadium LLC, the primary tenant of Heinz Field, and the City of Pittsburgh and its zoning board.
On Aug. 3, Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued an opinion on behalf of herself and two other appellate judges, affirming a trial court’s ruling that said the stadium had the right to paint stadium seats with the words “Heinz Field” spelled out. Previously the city’s zoning board had denied the stadium’s proposal. When the seats in the northern stands are unoccupied, the letters would be visible from locations outside of, and above, the 68,400-seat stadium, which is owned by the Sports and Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh.
The visibility presented a legal problem for stadium officials. Under Section 919.03.A of the Pittsburgh’s zoning code, signs on the inside of buildings and other structures are permitted so long as they are “non-advertising” and “designed not to be seen from the exterior of such buildings or structures.” The zoning board concluded the proposed signage constituted advertising for the stadium, and, since it would be “designed to face the sky and would be seen from that perspective,” the signage was analogous to a roof sign. The zoning code sharply restricts the size and location of roof signs.
Heinz Field officials disagreed with the zoning board’s interpretation, and noted that in 2012, the zoning board allowed Highmark Stadium, the open-air stadium of the USL Championship league’s Riverhounds Soccer Club, to paint “HOUNDS” in unoccupied seats. The board classified the Highmark alteration, visible from the Monongahela River next to the stadium, as an interior sign and thus allowable.
While the zoning board attempted to distinguish the HOUNDS and HEINZ signs on grounds the former was less visible outside of the stadium and only mentioned the name of the team rather than the stadium, Judge Leadbetter wasn’t persuaded.
“The two cases,” the judge stressed, “are essentially analogous in that they both involve stadium seats depicting words that would be obstructed from view when occupied but incidentally visible from the exterior of the respective stadiums.” She also emphasized that the board should avoid “whimsical and arbitrary applications of ordinances” where two similar situations could yield opposite outcomes.
Judge Leadbetter also found the city’s position untenable given that logos for the Pittsburgh Steelers, University of Pittsburgh and NFL are all located on and near Heinz Field’s playing surface and can be viewed from the exterior of the stadium. She reasoned that proposed signage spelling out “Heinz Field” is more akin to logos on the field than to a roof sign, particularly since the proposed signage “lies entirely inside the structure.”
Seat painting as a form of signage is not new. Other facilities have taken advantage of this advertising option. For instance, Celtic Park, home of Scotland’s Celtic Football Club, recently had seats painted to spell out the name of sponsor Adidas. Similarly, seats in Ivor Wynne Stadium in Ontario displayed the Canadian maple leaf for a CFL playoff game. The ability of stadiums to feature such signage hinges on local zoning ordinances and, as Heinz Field learned, interpretation of those ordinances by zoning officials.