The Football Field System

A measure of confusion.

NUVO Magazine: The Football Field System

Illustration by Chris Kuzma.

Like most of the world, Canada uses the metric system of measurement. But our closest international partners, the United States and, to a degree, Great Britain, use the old imperial system of feet, yards, pounds, etc. It can lead to confusion. Luckily, there is one system of measurement common to all. Wherever cable, satellite, radio, or wireless signals can reach, everyone recognizes the football field system.

The football field system is found in media reports when big stuff needs to be described. It’s perhaps most commonly used to measure glaciers. In October, scientists warned that a glacier in the Swiss Alps may be breaking up. The breakaway chunk, they said, is the size of 12 football fields. But that’s nothing—last February, a giant iceberg calved off from New Zealand’s largest glacier as a result of the devastating earthquake in Christchurch. It was described as a whopping 20 football fields’ worth of ice.

It’s not just glaciers. Minnesota’s Mall of America has been described as either 78 or 88 football fields in size (a significant discrepancy, possibly due to a poorly calibrated measuring field). West Edmonton Mall tops that, at 104 football fields. Both malls include ice rinks, although neither has a football field. An NHL-regulation ice rink is a little more than half the length of a football field. However, the skating rink is not an accepted unit of measurement. Nor is the miniature golf course, although Mall of America has one of those, too. Four minigolf courses would probably be the size of a football field, but, again, this smaller unit is not commonly used. Describing something as “three minigolf courses long” would be problematic due to the lack of industry standardization, as well as the distracting mental image of big, scary clown heads.

Unlike metres and centimetres, the football field cannot be divided into smaller units. Or it can, but since those units would be called yards, they would no longer qualify as units of the football field measurement system. Ironically, a CFL running back who ran the length of a football field would be described as having run 110 yards. The same run on a glacier would be described as the length of a football field. Measurement can be confusing.

It gets worse. Including end zones, a Canadian football field is 150 yards long, while the American field is only 120. A British football pitch—soccer field, we’d say—can be up to 109 metres long, which is a whole different ball of unitary wax. It is thus very difficult to know the precise size of the mall or glacier being described in a particular news report. For example, that rogue Swiss glacier—is it 12 Canadian football fields big or 12 British pitches? Unlike its European Union neighbours, Switzerland never converted to the euro and still maintains its own unit of currency. This opens up the possibility that the Swiss glacier is being measured in Swiss football fields, which could be almost any length.

To complete the confusion, the Mall of America sponsors the Minnesota Vikings’ playing field, now officially known as the Mall of America Field at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. The Vikings’ field is exactly one football field in length. Unless you measure the entire Metrodome—seen from the outside, it’s the size of a small glacier. They get a lot of snow down there.