What’s the Difference Between an Arena and a Stadium?

Have a seat and we’ll explain.
Arenas and stadiums have some key differences.
Arenas and stadiums have some key differences. / Grant Faint/Moment via Getty Images

The word stadium conjures up something massive. Consider AT&T Stadium. Home to the Dallas Cowboys, the venue seats roughly 80,000—up to 105,000 can be accommodated with standing-room expansion—and occupies 3.1 million square feet of space. Even larger is Michigan Stadium, the field for the University of Michigan, which can fit 115,000.

While stadiums are often enormous, that’s not strictly what separates them from being labeled an arena. So what’s the difference between the two?

The qualifying difference between an arena and a stadium is whether it’s a permanently enclosed structure. Stadiums are open-air construction that feature tiered seating around a sports field or stage. They have no permanent roof or walls.

Arenas, in contrast, are closed to the elements. They also host sporting events, like hockey or arena football, but tend to be smaller and better suited for other live attractions like music or plays.

Stadiums can have roofs—AT&T Stadium does—but they’re usually retractable. (Sometimes, stadiums with temporary roofs are called domes.) Nor do they need to be Texas-sized behemoths. Curtis Granderson Stadium at the University of Illinois seats just 1800 spectators.

Another venue term that gets tossed around is amphitheater. While it means largely the same thing as a stadium, some venues reserve the word for places with superior acoustics. The Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, for example, is referred to as an amphitheater.

An amphitheater’s aural advantages can be either architectural, naturally-occurring, or both. Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver, Colorado, is thought to be one of the most sonically-pleasing venues in the world thanks to rock formations that are ideal for sound transfer.

Stadiums as we know them take plenty of cues from ancient architecture. Rome’s famous Colosseum (which is labeled an amphitheater by some) inspired Ohio State’s stadium in 1922. Circus Maximus and its chariot races put AT&T Stadium to shame: Some historians believe the facility could hold up to 150,000 to 250,000 spectators.

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