Take Me Out To The Ball Game, But Only If Youre Rich


Professional sport was once a unifier of American society across all classes. But now stadiums are being built for the corporate, and wealthy, elites. They do not want to be anywhere near ordinary sports fans, who are being squeezed out of attendance by fewer seats and higher prices.

Voters from the northern state of Minnesota gave the United States some of its most progressive voices including Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone, as well as some of its most comprehensive health care and anti-poverty programmes. Yet Minnesota is now one of the states that is building new baseball stadiums with fewer seats for the public and far more luxury seating for the wealthy. The previous stadium opened in 1982 and so was hardly old; but it only sat some 250 corporate elite people and others with deep pockets to entertain their clients.

 

The new Twins Ballpark, in Minneapolis, will have 3,000 seats in clubs, lounges and suites to cater for the affluent but will admit about 15,000 fewer ordinary fans because cheaper, upper deck seats will be stripped out; the upper class wants to be segregated from what it sees as boorish, hooligan behaviour in the cheap seats. Professional sports may once have fostered national unity across classes, but it is now oriented toward the needs of the upper-income ranks.

 

Many of these new stadiums are being built in highly policed zones set aside for the local and transnational elite – or tourist bubbles – and this makes it clear who they are intended for (1). Petco Park in San Diego was situated next to the Gaslamp Quarter district, already an entertainment and tourist bubble. Camden Yards, built in 1992 and the magnificent home to the Baltimore Orioles, is only a 10-minute walk from the city’s Inner Harbour, a glossy veil that Baltimore has built to hide its decay. These tourist bubbles, gated communities for entertainment, separate the business class and tourists from the average residents who live and work in a city with deteriorating housing and schools and worsening poverty. There is consensus among economists that new sports arenas contribute very little to development in impoverished cities (2). Instead, they divert attention, and provide circuses and safe environments for the most fortunate.

 

   A better class of fan

 

Within the stadiums, further barriers are raised to protect the upper class even from the middle classes. The upper classes are the true targets of these new palaces. The leading baseball newspaper in the US, The Sporting News, said on 31 March 1997 that these stadiums are "built to accommodate corporate chieftains who liked the idea of going to a game as long as they didn’t actually have to mingle with the sort of people who go to games". Private suites and lounges protect the suits from the rest. Not only are the seats in these areas much more expensive, they have their own upscale food vendors with higher prices, and uncrowded bathrooms that are not accessible to others.

 

Many Americans used to enjoy the tradition of buying cheap tickets and moving down to the expensive seats by the field when they were empty. This is no longer possible. My brother and I would watch the empty seats along the first and third base lines and after about three innings we would move down to these seats that we certainly could not afford. This was common. If someone with tickets appeared, we moved on without a fuss.

 

In the new stadiums, guarded doors separate the sections and a ticket must be shown to enter the upscale areas that have climate-controlled lounges with plasma TVs that show the game, and separate parking lots with private entrances to the stadium. Excellent seats in the front of the stadium remain empty and those at the back are the best that can be afforded by a family of four unwilling to pay more than $100. Quite a few of these new stadiums cost far more than the ticket price because they do not allow fans to bring in their own food. Once the cost of food and parking ($15 in Milwaukee) is included, a family of four must spend $200 without souvenirs.

 

Families used to bring sandwiches or fried chicken to the stadium but now are checked to confiscate food not purchased at the stadium. The few ballparks that do allow outside food restrict consumption to areas designed for family picnics, another gate that separates the haves from the rest. Baseball stadiums were never really melting pots, but I remember going to games in Philadelphia and smelling unusual foods and looking over to see people who did not look like me. In the new ballparks this experience will rarely be available.

 

I also remember the fans in Philadelphia, who cheered for the team, yelled at the opposing players and were critical of the umpires. They were passionate fans who sometimes screamed obscenities and often drank too much. According to a website (www.ballparkdigest.com) that provides information about the amenities of each stadium, the new one in Philadelphia "seems to attract a better class of fan". The hooligans have been removed. Today’s upper class patrons are very different from the fan of the past and the stadiums reflect this. An earlier generation came to watch the game and cheer for the home team. They kept a scorecard of each player’s performance during the game and discussed strategy. Football fans recited statistics and pretended they were calling the plays for the quarterback.

 

The corporate elite see going to a game as a way to entertain a client and work on a business deal, and are not captivated by the game itself. Because they can easily become bored, the new stadium has become a theme park with lots of things to do besides watch the game and enjoy fine food in a secluded environment. The lounge areas contain museums of sports memorabilia and the history of the team. There are also interactive areas where patrons can, for an extra charge, enter a batting cage and swing at balls thrown at the speeds that the professional players find tough. Patrons can also pitch a ball at a target and have the speed of throw measured. Bragging rights are another antidote to the boredom of the game.

 

Guess who’s paying the bill

 

The cost of the construction is paid by all taxpayers, even though many in the service class cannot afford the cost of a proper family outing to the game. Ordinary people, including those enthralled by the home team, did not want to pay the bill for a new stadium and elected officials were well aware of this. In Minnesota, two newspapers conducted more than 20 public opinion polls over the past decade and not one indicated that taxpayers were willing to pay for a new stadium. They were willing to increase taxes for health care, education, highways and even renovation of the old stadium, but not for a new one. Both the city of Minneapolis and St Paul held referenda in which voters soundly rejected the proposals of mayors and the team owner (the richest man in the state) for taxpayer finance of a new stadium. When voters in these cities were asked whether they would approve of new taxes to build the stadium, they overwhelmingly rejected it.

 

Voters have begun to recognise that these new coliseums are for the entertainment of the few, and no longer bread and circuses for the many. Not just the hooligans are being excluded. But elected officials in Minnesota (and other US states) found ways to circumvent the public, and Minnesota‘s governor and legislature approved the new taxes.   ________________________________________________________

 

Richard A Keiser is professor of political science at Carleton College, Minnesota

 

(1) D Judd and S Fainstein, eds, The Tourist City, Yale University Press, 1999.

 

(2) A Zimbalist and R Noll, Sports, Jobs and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums, Brookings Institution Press, 1997.

 

 

 

Original text in English

 

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