Monuments to Greed: Team Owners Want a New Kind of Ballpark and a New Kind of Fan

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate on October 9, 2008, and re-printed here in dubious honor of the recent plans for the Red Wings to get a brand new, significantly publicly-financed, hockey arena even though the city of Detroit just declared bankruptcy.)

Sports fans took another hit on the chin this past Sunday night when the floodlights went out over the hallowed diamond of Yankee Stadium for the last time. Count the Steinbrenner boys as the latest in a much-too-long line of deconstructionists looking to reshape the face of professional sports in the 21st century.

As unbelievable as it may sound, fans simply do not matter any more.

Not all fans, at least. Not most fans. “Those eight million people passing through the Yankee Stadium turnstiles the past two years?” asked Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan. “The wrong kind of people.”

Welcome to the era of the new fan.

This New Yankee Stadium fan “will delight in the premium amenities, including cushioned seats & in-seat wait service, concierge services, private restrooms & a private entrance, elevator, and concourse & and a delectable selection of all-inclusive food and beverages,” notes the New Yankee Stadium website. “An exclusive experience for those with discerning taste who seek the very best that life has to offer.”

How exclusive? The luxury suites will run you from $500 to $2,500. Per seat. Per game. At least the sunshine’s still free.

We are living in a time of stadium sabotage, where billionaire owners use the threat of moving beloved franchises to new cities unless the local citizenry, whether fans of the teams or not, agree to use their tax dollars on new, privately owned sporting arenas. It’s a scene that has been played out over and over again in the last quarter century.

On November 6, 1995, Art Modell, then owner of the Cleveland Browns, one of the NFL’s most historic and frantically followed franchises, announced he was moving the team to Baltimore. The very next day, on an issue put on the ballot by Modell himself (before he decided to skip town), Cleveland taxpayers overwhelmingly voted in favor of paying the $175 million bill to fix Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Modell moved the team, now called the Ravens, to Baltimore anyway. Over a hundred lawsuits were filed by fans and the city of Cleveland. They were settled out of court.

The Cleveland fans got to keep their Browns, who returned three years later as an expansion team. By that time, the taxpayers had shelled out $300 million to fund the new stadium. And in the interim, owners of the Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers threatened to move their teams to Cleveland. Those owners, for all of their chicanery, got publicly funded stadiums built in their respective cities, too.

Who says billionaire entrepreneurs can’t work together?

On July 2 of this summer, Clay Bennett, owner of the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics, announced that his team would be moving to Oklahoma City, breaking the lease that the Sonics had to play in Seattle’s Key Arena through 2010. Why? Seattle’s taxpayers wouldn’t pay for a new stadium. Not surprisingly, Oklahoma City did agree to spend millions of dollars to refurbish their gym. And they are not alone.

In the last decade, “$16 billion of the public’s money has been spent for stadium construction and upkeep in cities all over the United States,” notes syndicated sports columnist Dave Zirin. “Unfortunately, these costly public projects end up being little more than monuments to corporate greed: $500 million welfare hotels for America’s billionaires, built with funds that should have been spent on clinics, schools, libraries—and levees.”

This puts the notion of athletic competition in a whole new light.

“The fiercest competition in sports these days is not between teams or leagues, but between governments and their citizens,” observes former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton. “Rudolph Giuliani, in his last act as mayor, pushed forward plans for two new stadiums—one each for the Yankees and Mets, to show what a nonpartisan guy he is— totaling $1.6 billion, the bulk [of which will] fall to the city, landing on its taxpayers.”

The Boston Celtics, basketball’s most storied franchise, paid for the leveling of the old Boston Garden with nearly two decades of insignificance. The New York Yankees are baseball’s most storied franchise. Only time will tell what fate holds for them.

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