Could high school football stadiums drive economic development?

Among other reasons, the construction of impressive new high school football stadiums in Texas is justified by the idea that they will promote economic development:

School officials have responded to critics by pointing out that the stadium would also be used for soccer games, band competitions, and some state football games; there’s also the hope that retail and restaurant development will spring up nearby. A high school football stadium serves the community in ways other than just bringing in visitors, business, new residents and more tax dollars. One of them is clearly Texas pride in the game-day spectacle.

The evidence is pretty clear with sports stadiums that the public money spent on them tends to go back to the owners and teams, not the community. Could high school stadiums – paid for with tax money yet serving the community – be different?

One point of skepticism is to ask how many significant events these stadiums would hold each year. The biggest crowd events are football games. But, a high school team plays roughly five to eight home games each year. While these stadiums are bigger than the average high school stadium, are there enough fans to support local businesses? It seems like the stadiums need to hold a lot more events to truly bring in people. (Perhaps some of them could attract concerts or festivals?)

A second question is how to directly link the football stadium to economic development. As the article notes, a number of these communities are expected to grow. At least some of this growth would have happened without the flashy new stadium. Are the communities going to survey new residents and businesses to see if the stadium factored into their decision? Or, having built the stadiums, will they attribute positive changes to the stadium?

Finally, it sounds like these communities are locked into competition for stadiums (and other amenities as well as general growth). Is it necessarily the case that building a great stadium would give one suburb a significant leg up on another suburb? If this is a zero-sum game or an arms race, someone will lose. A different view might be that Sunbelt suburban growth will continue in a number of these communities and may not be strongly related to the construction of high school stadiums (or other public amenities).

“Tom Brady, sociologist of religion”

A new documentary series looks at how sports fosters belonging and Tom Brady is one of the people behind it:

The theory, as you might guess from the title, is that sports, broadly constructed, are a kind of religion. As Chopra intones during the introduction, with images of stadiums and religious pilgrimages rolling by, sports “have believers, priests, and gods. They have rituals, miracles, and sacrifices. Sports unite us. They are a calling.”…

In parsing “the religion of sports,” Chopra and his star-powered co-producers are trying to understand a resilient form of meaning making and community formation in the United States. It seems a little silly to group Chopra and co. with social theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville and contemporary scholars who worry that America’s community structures are fraying. But, incredibly, that’s the project they’ve created: a sort of jock’s guide to civil society. While the series can, at times, come across as a rosy-eyed passion project, its central insight—that sports can be understood as a way that people find belonging—reveals a rich theme for artists who seek to grapple with the strong sense of cultural division and isolation experienced today by Americans of different ethnic, class, and political backgrounds…

Chopra takes this literally: “Sports is an actual faith. It’s not even metaphor. It’s real. You practice these things,” he said. This is debatable—Chopra is looking at religion purely as a matter of practice, while discounting the importance  of belief. Sports are not about the metaphysical nature of the universe; they provide no guidebook for the self or community in navigating life.

But, to embrace Chopra’s interpretation of “religion” for a moment, it’s curious to consider the ways in which sports participation has not followed the same trend line as other communal activities. According to organizations like Pew, traditional religious affiliation is steadily declining in the United States; participation in civil-society groups like bowling clubs or parent-teacher organizations has gone down significantly as well. As Americans have pulled away from these kinds of community institutions, their love of sports has stayed relatively constant: According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who call themselves “sports fans” has hovered around 60 percent for at least the last 15 years.

This sounds like a Durkheimian exploration of a functional religion, another area of social life that has some similar characteristics to religion. Sports involve rituals, collective effervescence, totems, and beliefs. This could range from sports (earlier posts involving the World Cup and the belief of some American sports fans that supernatural forces are involved) to following Apple (earlier post here).

I hope, however, this documentary series doesn’t fall into two common traps with this comparison:

  1. Sports are the magic elixir that can bring everyone together. (In contrast, many argue today that religion divides people.) Being a fan alongside another fan may bring individuals together for a moment but does it really make the world a better place? Does racism really disappear? Are cities healed? My answer: no and see these earlier posts on the effect of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the ability of soccer teams to bring about urban revival, and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. .
  2. Putting sports fandom and religion side by side suggests that it doesn’t matter ultimately what people believe; it is simply that common beliefs bring people together. Not all beliefs at the same level. Do sports really dictate how most people make major decisions in their life? Do sports provide ultimate meaning? (They may serve this role for a small number of people but religion is still going pretty strong throughout the world.)

The documentary series will reveal how much it gets right about the sociology of sport and religion…

 

Skepticism of 5 million fans for Cubs parade, rally

Even though the 5 million attendees estimate for the Cubs parade and rally was widely shared after being made by city officials, there is good reason for reconsidering the figure:

“The guesstimates are almost always vast exaggerations,” said Clark McPhail, a sociology professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Politics often play a factor in overblown crowd counts. Runaway enthusiasm also could pump up the final tally, McPhail said.

There is a science to calculating crowds. The most common method is to draw a grid and make an estimate based on the average number of people that would fit into each section.

Another way to gauge crowds, particularly in a city such as Chicago, would be to analyze the capacity of buses or trains to deliver millions of people downtown or along the parade route, according to Steve Doig, the Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State University.

It doesn’t seem like it would take too much to draw a better estimate: there are plenty of aerial shots of the parade route and rally and groups like Metra and CTA could share figures.

Perhaps it isn’t a matter of examining the data: perhaps few people want to. Chicago could use some good news these days and making such a lofty estimate – supposedly making this the seventh largest peaceful gathering of people in human history – can boost the city’s image (both internally and externally). The team probably doesn’t mind the figure: it illustrates how dedicated the fans are (though there are plenty of other ways to do this) and might help increase the value of the franchise. The fans like such a figure because they can say they were part of something so much bigger than themselves.

If a revised lower figure gets released, I suspect it will not reach much of an audience.

Sociologists with their interests in social movements have been at the forefront in estimating crowd size. See earlier posts about counting crowds here and here.

Chicago looked good for the Cubs parade and rally…but was it the real Chicago?

For many, the city of Chicago looked good yesterday: the weather was beautiful for November 4th, the buildings gleamed, the lake was beautiful from the air, everything looked pretty clean, and joyful millions descended on the city (I’m skeptical of the 5 million figure but that may be a subject for another post) to celebrate a win for the whole city.

Yet, I want to continue some thoughts from last week: a championship, even one as unusual as that of the Cubs, does not lead to a transformed city. On the television coverage, they talked of the day’s events bringing the city together, how the team embodied different aspects of the city, and how so many hearts had been lifted. Will the poverty rate decrease? Will the uptick in shootings and murders subside? Will economic opportunities start arriving in poorer neighborhoods? Will the public schools start providing a good education for all students? Will residential segregation lessen? Will the wealthy share more with those with less?

If anything, this win will provide more money for those who already have a lot. The Cubs were already quite profitable before the win and the championship supposedly adds $300 million to a multi-billion dollar commodity. The team’s development work around the ballpark is supposed to help the neighborhood but it also follows the pattern of other teams who are using their sports franchises to make more money in local real estate and development. I know the team gives to charities – pretty much all major businesses do – but does the wealth help others?

And does a win provide Cubs fan Rahm Emanuel – alongside other city leaders who were to receive tickets to World Series games until the public got wind of it – a reprieve from tough questions?

And which Chicago is the real Chicago: the skyline, Loop, and North Side or the other areas of the city?

And how about the pretty white fan base (at least it appeared this way by who was attending the World Series games at Wrigley and those who attended the parade and rally)? How many of those who poured into the city to celebrate are from the suburbs and from outside the region?

It could still be a very good day for Chicago if that same passion and energy displayed in celebrating the winning of a game – men playing with bats, balls, bases, and gloves – could be regularly channeled into improving communities.

 

Naperville marathon fastest-growing? Economic boost?

Two pieces of information about the just-run Naperville marathon caught my eye:

The Naperville marathon has been one of the fastest-growing events in the country, more than doubling in size over the past few years. Still, it maintains a sense of smallness that is attractive to some runners like Jennifer Maierhoffer, of Seneca. Running a marathon was on her “bucket list,” she said, and she chose the Naperville event due to its size…

Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico said the race is great event for Naperville as it provides not only an economic boost to the city, but also serves as a time in which the community can come together as volunteers to help run the event. This year more than 1,000 volunteers participated, he said.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. Naperville claims to have a small town feel despite its size (over 140,000 residents). So, what will they do to keep this event small?
  2. Keeping the event small could be at odds with the purported economic boost. If you had more runners, there would be more visitors. I suppose the spots in the races could become more lucrative, especially if this is tied to good causes (according to the end of the article, $1 million was raised for charity).
  3. Just how much of an economic boost could a relatively small event like this be? I’d be interested in seeing the figures.
  4. Naperville’s rapid population growth has slowed now that large parcels of land have disappeared but the marathon gives the suburb something fast-growing to hold on to.
  5. What is the saturation point for hosting marathons? Are there suburbs and other places that have stopped hosting marathons in recent years because they didn’t have enough interest or participants?

My argument: a championship does not bring lasting urban hope or change

As the World Series gets underway with two starved fan bases, I’m sure some will suggest that a win for the Cubs or Indians will be good for their cities. A victory will give their Rust Belt cities suffering from numerous problems a needed boost.

I don’t think it works this way. Sports are primarily (1) entertainment and (2) business. On the first point, a win will excite people. It may scratch something off their bucket list to see their team win. There will be joy. But, cities have plenty of entertainment options and people will move on. See the White Sox: they had their own World Series drought before winning in 2005. But, where are they now? They have been an average to mediocre team in recent years and the hope is gone (as evidenced by the lack of fans attending games as well as by the general lack of interest). As the win moves further and further into the past, it will linger in memories but people will find other entertainment options. More and more, fans require their team to win now or lately. Maybe the leash will be a bit longer in Chicago or Cleveland but eventually fans will become upset if they don’t win again.

As for the business side, a win brings in money with more games (tickets, concessions), more merchandise sold, and a higher value for the franchise. Generally, we’re told by team owners and other boosters that sports franchises boost the local economy. However, related to the entertainment side, studies suggest if teams moved elsewhere, residents and visitors would simply spend their money elsewhere (rather than that money disappearing from the city). Who benefits most financially when teams win? Owners.

A championship does not affect the fundamental issues facing cities. Is Cleveland really a better place to live because the Cavaliers finally won? Did the 1985 Bears Super Bowl win set Chicago on a better course? All those Bulls and Blackhawks titles? The fans may have felt better, the city could celebrate, the owners could see their valuations go up, and regular city life would eventually go on. Manufacturing jobs were lost, white residents continued to flee for the suburbs, public schools and other local institutions suffered, politicians and leaders looked out for their own, and so on.

A championship may be for the fans but it is not really for the city.

 

 

Could you design a skatepark that the neighbors don’t mind?

Designing outdoor spaces for teenagers – such as basketball courts – is difficult as many residents don’t like the activity. One Finnish landscape architect thinks there is a way to cut down on complaints:

Though they’re a teen-friendly third space, many skateparks receive noise complaints, and as a result, may be  deemed too much of a nuisance to maintain. Some parks are removed after only a few years of use at the request of nearby residents, possibly resulting in thousands of dollars in city funds squandered. However, Saario doesn’t think this is inevitable. The parks that go astray, he believes, are a result of poor community planning, awareness, and design—and sometimes independent business contractors who don’t have the skaters’ or the community’s best interests at heart.

“If a landscape architect is designing a space like this, they need to take the time and map land that’s accessible, but far enough away from residential areas so as to not disturb local neighborhoods,” Saario says. Cities often have multiple locations where new recreational spaces can be installed, and some idea of the ground conditions they’re building on top of, but Saario says landscape architects are needed so that officials can understand what design options are available within each site, and whether multiple types of users are permissible.

Saario’s final requirement for designing a park is that it’s built around a unique element that encourages conversation between groups and imaginative ideas. “I grew up skating inside an asphalt pool named The Footprint of the Giant,” he says. “When I met other skaters in the city, they knew where we were from—we had an identity. Skateparks need to have a strong concept that creates a sense of place.”

For an example of integrating a local landmark within a new park, Saario points to Fiskars, a village about 100 kilometers from Helsinki. Fiskars city officials recognized the need for a recreational space for kids and teens, but weren’t sure where to place it so as to avoid any disturbances. The officials asked Saario to analyze a number of possible locations for the park and suggest the best placement. Saario’s solution was to tear down a concrete manure silo near an abandoned barn at the edge of the city. In its place, a number of concrete bumps, curbs, and ledges (pictured above) were added to create the park’s surface. The final design used the brick walls from the original silo structure to support the newly poured concrete. “We were able to cut down on the park’s expenses this way,” he says. “And architecturally, there was a nice contrast of new against old.”

The ideas seem sound: reuse old spaces and materials, create unique skateparks that give users a sense of place, listen to the input of the teenagers/users, and don’t locate right near residences. Yet, finding the “perfect site” is likely to be difficult in many communities.

These issues are not new. I recall Herbert Gans noting in The Levittowners that the new mass suburbs offered few opportunities for teenagers away from their homes. On one hand, American teenagers are encouraged to assert their independence but on the other hand, few suburbs like the idea of large groups of teenagers hanging around. Does this help explain the rise of organized and structured activities – the fear of parents and communities that just hanging around will lead to trouble? Additionally, the teenagers themselves often have little voice in the political process as they cannot yet vote and may not like the idea of working with the system.