The winners when communities fight over sports teams are the team owners, not the communities

The Daily Herald editorializes about who will win as Chicago, Arlington Heights, and other taxing bodies consider where the Chicago Bears might end up:

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In a pair of radio interviews last week, Lightfoot poo-pooed a potential move, saying Arlington Heights can’t match the offer Chicago will make — or its tourist trade…

While the prospect of reelection is much more imminent for Lightfoot than where the Bears end up, any signs that she is relenting to Arlington Heights would be the death of her political career.

It was just a few months ago that Lightfoot was overtly dismissive of the Bears’ purchase agreement for the 326 acres at Arlington Park Racecourse — enough land for a world-class stadium plus all manner of ancillary entertainment businesses from which the team could profit…

If Lightfoot thinks she can keep the Bears at Soldier Field — even with a dome — she’s nuts. The constraints of the NFL’s smallest and oldest stadium won’t allow Soldier Field to host a Super Bowl or, as is important to the team, to allow the Bears to do what has become commonplace around the league: develop the stadium as an entertainment complex that generates more cash…

The only sure winner in this tug of war will be the football team.

The research consistently finds that team owners are the biggest winners in the battle to provide tax breaks, monies, and other benefits for sports teams who consider relocation. Yes, it would be a PR and status blow to Chicago to lose the Chicago Bears to a suburb – even a denser Arlington Heights – but people will still spend money in the city and the team will still be in the region. Do not go into taxpayer debt just to enrich a private football team.

It will be very interesting what kind of “best offer” Chicago will provide. And how public will this all get as the city tries to avoid losing the team?

Oakland, do not give in to the A’s ask for tax payer money for a new stadium

As the 2022 baseball season is underway, so is the quest by owners to get public money to fund a new stadium. From Oakland, California:

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By 2020, the A’s were the only team left. But they made it clear they were prepared to leave, too. Last May, majority owner John Fisher and team president Dave Kaval—resident cartoon villains of what remains of the Oakland sports scene—began threatening to follow in the Raiders’ footsteps and relocate Oakland’s last pro team to Las Vegas … unless the Oakland City Council voted to help them build a $12 billion stadium “district”—replete with condos, hotels, and apartment buildings—on a wedge of waterfront property operated by the Port of Oakland just west of Jack London Square. If approved, the project would constitute one of the largest and most transformative development deals in California state history. It would likewise require hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding to complete. Fisher, who is heir to the Gap Inc. fortune and has a net worth north of $2 billion, has committed to privately finance the construction of the stadium itself, but the project isn’t viable without a suite of infrastructure improvements to the surrounding area. These improvements are what the A’s asked the city to find ways to pay for.

It was a familiar ploy. As journalists Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan write in Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, since roughly 1984, when the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis, team owners across the country have worked systematically to “supplement profits by extorting money from their hometowns,” usually “under threat of moving.” Starting around last summer, Fisher and Kaval began to expand upon their means of municipal extortion. In the run-up to a series of contentious City Council meetings, Kaval took to posting videos of himself on Twitter jubilantly attending Las Vegas Knights games, as if to spur the city into supporting his proposal out of jealous insecurity. Fisher, meanwhile, enlisted MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to act as muscle. “Thinking about this as a bluff is a mistake,” Manfred told the BWAA in July 2021. “This is the decision point for Oakland as to whether they want Major League Baseball going forward.”

Oakland has been struggling to make that decision ever since. Some, like Marcus Thompson, an East Oakland native, 2021 California Sportswriter of the Year, and author of Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry,resent Fisher and Kaval’s tactics, and say that Oakland’s political leaders “should not be caving to an owner” worth over $2 billion who has “shown zero desire to be a meaningful member of our community unless it is profitable.” Certain Oakland political leaders, such as Councilmember Carroll Fife, who represents the district in West Oakland where the A’s stadium would be built, agree. “There are so many dire issues in Oakland right now,” Fife told me in February—citing, among other things, Oakland’s crises of gentrification, affordability, and homelessness, which the United Nations has singled out as “cruel.” Fife said she doesn’t believe “a sports team is going to address” any of them. “We should use public resources toward addressing residents’ immediate needs.”

Others believe the economic benefits of a new stadium are worth pursuing in and of themselves. “Building the new A’s ballpark would be a blessing,” Mitchell Schwarzer, historian, professor, and author of Hella Town: Oakland’s History of Development and Disruption, told me in an email. It would “bring crowds to adjacent Jack London Square,” and fill “its vacant spaces with places to eat, drink and shop.” Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, agrees, calling the A’s stadium project “a world-class waterfront ballpark district” with the potential to “benefit Bay Area residents for generations to come.”

No major city or leader wants to lose a major sports team. And the Oakland case is unique with multiple teams leaving in recent years.

However, the price that is often paid to keep a team is not worth it. The costs are too big, taxpayers lose other opportunities, the money would be spent elsewhere in the city if not at sporting events, and the owners are the ones who truly win with the increasing value of their team.

The Oakland case is also different because of the way the Athletics are run. The team has a Billy Beane approach that suggests an excellent team can be created with a limited payroll and an ability to exploit market inefficiencies. The A’s have done this a few times in the last two decades…and then they sell off all of their good players and start again. They just did this going into the 2022 season and have a minimal payroll of just under $50 million, second-lowest in baseball and roughly one-fifth of the biggest spenders in the sport. In addition to the economic case for taxpayers, is this a team worth supporting?

What happens to an athlete’s McMansion when they go to a new team?

Quarterback Matt Ryan is now a member of the Indianapolis Colts after a trade from the Atlanta Falcons. What happens now to Ryan’s suburban McMansion outside Atlanta?

At the least, Ryan can enjoy lounging outside his large dwelling by a ping-pong table and think about handing it off to Jonathan Taylor?

I wonder what the market is for large houses of former athletes. I know of some high profile houses in the Chicago region where pro athletes sell their homes to other athletes who are coming to town. Some big houses, such as Michael Jordan’s mansion, languish for years.

From what I saw, Ryan’s home is not a mansion or a megamansion. Because it is more of a McMansion, it likely will find a buyer in a growing metropolitan region among those with resources to purchase such homes and who like such homes. Perhaps it might depend on how much football the house reflects; for example, see former Bears coach Matt Nagy’s house listing.

Of course, it will also be interesting to see where Ryan settles in the Indianapolis region. Will he settle in the wealthy suburban communities of Carmel or Fishers where I would guess some McMansions can be found?

Charismatic authority and football coaches as “leaders of men”

The Chicago Bears hired a new head coach this week. Prior to the hire, the conversation about what qualities the new coach should have reminded me of sociologist Max Weber’s definition of charismatic authority. Here is how one scholar summarizes the concept:

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According to Max Weber’s concept of “charismatic authority,” charisma is based on a social relationship between the charisma holder and the charisma believer. The Weberian perspective is not focused on analyzing the personality of the charismatic leader, but rather on the structure of the charismatic social relationship. The social structure that comes out of a charismatic relationship represents an emotional collectivization held together by an emotional bond with the leader. A charismatic leader is not only a person who is given great expectations and trust and to whom special skills are attributed. A charismatic leader constitutes a new leadership, a new structure of social relationships, and a new cognitive definition of the situation of social action.

Contrast this with some of what I heard a successful coach should be able to do:

-connect with players

-hold players accountable for performance

-have a track record of success

-help players develop and grow

-command any situation

-show confidence

-have a plan and execute it

-build and sustain a (successful) culture

-WIN!

Many of these traits can be expressed in different ways. Measuring some of them is difficult. Can a number of them only be ascertained by having a close relationship with the coach and/or being in the same room and experiencing the charisma and magnetism of that coach?

To some degree, these traits apply to numerous leadership roles. The football coach as a “leader of men” is glamorized and masculinized but business, civic, and political leaders are supposed to embody at least a few of these these traits as well. Those who do well might have the charismatic authority, those who do not make it do not.

The collective joy of millions who came out to celebrate the Cubs’ World Series win five years ago went where?

In wining a game that started November 2, 2016, the Chicago Cubs secured their first World Series in over 100 years. Two days later – five years and one day ago – the city of Chicago hosted a parade and rally for the winners. According to estimates, millions turned out. Between the end of Game 7 and the Chicago celebration that Friday, Cubs fans felt relief, sadness, and joy.

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Where did all that collective joy and energy go? I recently noted a few things that have happened since that victory and celebration that make it seem like a lifetime ago:

-Just a few days later, the 2016 elections occurred with a result that surprised many. This was part of a particularly contentious period in American politics. What are athletic victories and losses in such an environment?

-COVID-19 came several years later. While this had an effect on sports, it predominated life for an extended period. Looking back through the COVID era can obscure even relatively recent events.

-The Cubs themselves became more like all other teams. After winning, fans and observers had high expectations for more victories. While they did make the playoffs in subsequent years, they did not win an additional World Series and the team traded the remaining core of the team away in the summer of 2021.

Are championships won by local sports teams transformative for communities? I continue to argue no. Those millions who marched and the many others who enjoyed the victory had a good time. It remains a good memory. It can counter long-held sports anguish. But, it does not necessarily translate into changed communities. Did the Cubs win and then fortunes of neighborhoods and organizations improved (beyond the Cubs)? Did people and communities have more courage and trust to tackle issues of common interest? Did the Cubs become a symbol of what can be accomplished with principles or patterns that could be applied elsewhere? Or, did they have a good season, reverse a long-held curse, and life went on?

Does Ben Simmons live in a McMansion or a mansion?

Basketball all-star Ben Simmons has his house on the market and one publication calls it, in the final paragraph, a McMansion:

Now his McMansion, replete with dedicated “Simmo the Savage” room, has popped up on the market for five big ones. It’s almost too perfect to believe.

Is his suburban home a McMansion? Here are more details about the house from the first two paragraphs of the story:

9 Miller Court, Moorestown, New Jersey. Five beds, six baths. 10,477 square feet of high-end appliances, Cambria quartz countertops, and floor-to-ceiling wine walls blooming from an awe-inspiring grand foyer with a spiral staircase climbing up from its center. All of this and more could be yours for just $4,999,999.

Now at this point, you may find yourself wondering: What sort of small-time CEO or TV actor would occupy such an extravagant abode in southwest New Jersey?

I have seen similar stories before: any big recently-built house of a wealthy person could be labeled a McMansion. And this one is owned by a star in the news! But, some of the details above do not line up with the idea of a McMansion:

  1. The size. This is a large house. I would put the upper cut-off for a McMansion more at like 8,000 or 10,000 square feet. This is not a run-of-the-mill large suburban home.
  2. The price. This is a $5 million home. This is out of the reach of even many wealthy people.
  3. The architecture is a bit strange – the facade mixes styles, features a two story entry, and has modern windows – but the interior finishes seem high-end, not necessarily mass-produced. The home overall does not appear gaudy.

While the home may not look like a traditional mansion or one associated with old money, I would argue it is not a McMansion. This is a big expensive home with a lot of finishes that puts it beyond the typical suburban McMansion.

Chicago truly has a grid

Looking at a map of Chicago or seeing it from above coming in and out of the local airports shows Chicago’s road network is a grid. A recent study examined just how much of a grid it is:

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It is right to compare Chicago’s street network to something so obsessively exact. A recent academic study, “Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy,” by Geoff Boeing, looked at the maps of 100 major world cities, and found that Chicago’s “exhibits the closest approximation of a single perfect grid.” Nowhere else have urban planners been so successful in imposing Euclidean order on natural surroundings. On a scale of 0 to 1, in which 1 is a perfect grid, Chicago scores 0.9. (The least-perfect grid is Charlotte, a Sunbelt city whose street system is more entropic than Rome or São Paulo.)

Why such a design?

The man hired to plat a town at the mouth of the Chicago River was James Thompson, a surveyor from Kaskaskia, and the father of the Chicago Grid. Illinois had already been divided into square townships and sections by the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. Since Thompson was subdividing a township section, he simply repeated that pattern in miniature when he designed Chicago’s first street map. It was less than half a square mile, bounded by Kinzie on the north, Washington on the south, Jefferson on the west and Dearborn on the east, but it was the template for a network that would eventually cover the 234 square miles of Chicago—and extend into suburbs beyond its borders…

Thompson’s grid was interrupted only by the river, and by established Native American trails which became diagonal streets: Elston, Clark, Milwaukee, Archer, Ogden. By 1869, the grid had become so integral to the city’s identity that the Tribune boasted, “There is no city where the opportunities for straight streets are so advantageous as in Chicago,” and demanded, “Give us straight, broad streets, running uninterruptedly from one extremity of the city to the other.”…

In our quest for orderliness, Chicago also has the advantage of being one of the flattest cities in the U.S., lying on a plain that was once the bottom of a proto-Great Lake. It would not be practical or possible to impose an uninterrupted grid on Pittsburgh or San Francisco, where streets wind sinuously around hills. As the study notes, “Boston features a grid in some neighborhoods like the Back Bay and South Boston, but they tend to not align with one another. Furthermore, the grids are not ubiquitous and Boston’s other streets wind in various directions, resulting from its age (old by American standards), terrain (relatively hilly), and historical annexation of various independent towns with their own pre-existing street networks.”

This sounds like a perfect storm of factors: a planner who applied methods from the Northwest Ordinance, a unique landscape that was flat and had only one waterway, and a quest for land development and profit with land that could be easily marked and developed.

Of course, this question of spatial order could be combined with consideration of how these different spatial orders are experienced. Do residents of Chicago and visitors have a better experience because of the grid or are cities, like Boston or San Francisco, with different spatial orders more interesting and vibrant? The grid has particular advantages for navigation but has less charm or uniqueness.

Trying to add round-the-clock, year-round activity at a suburban football stadium

If the Chicago Bears are to move to the suburbs, the change would not just include a stadium: the land all around would be valuable and needed to generate the kind of revenues the team and community would hope for:

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SoFi Stadium was built on the former site of Hollywood Park racetrack, presenting a solid comparison to Arlington Park. According to Noll, the reason SoFi Stadium is in position to be financially successful is the mixed-use development also being built on the property.

Noll believes a stand-alone stadium is no longer a realistic option for NFL franchises because a $5 billion stadium can’t be financed by eight football games a year and the random big-name concert. Year-round revenue must be part of the package…

Glendale city officials, for example, added residential neighborhoods to the area so the entertainment establishments would be frequented at night and on weekends when no game is in town. They added office space so workers would patronize the restaurants in the daytime and not take up parking at night.

“If you’re not able to capture benefit in a meaningful way outside of the football games, it’ll be an expensive proposition,” Phelps said. “We’re seeing tremendous growth in and around the stadium, kind of creating this sports and entertainment hub. I think that’s the future where these kinds of venues are going.”

Creating this sort of suburban entertainment center is a dream of many larger suburbs. Not only would this boost the status of the community, it would add jobs and tax revenues. Metropolitan areas only have so many stadiums and major revenue generators and this could be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (or gamble).

But, this would also be a major change. The article noted that this site in Arlington Heights is surrounded by residences; would a mixed-use area of denser housing, restaurants, and entertainment venues be welcomed? Can Arlington Heights go full[speed into such a project?

As the article notes, it could turn out poorly. There is a lot of money at play. Getting any taxpayer dollars involved could be a risk. It all could take time to develop fully into a true center for suburban football as opposed to a football stadium stuck in the middle of single-family homes near highways.

Given all the history of the Bears in the city, I would be more than 50% confident that they stay in Chicago. The allure of a new, large stadium that could serve other uses much of the years is incredibly appealing. There is money to be made in the suburbs. But, it would certainly be a change for all involved, including Chicago leaders who would have much to answer for if the Bears become the Chicagoland Bears.

Bears stadium at Arlington Park? Just keep the taxpayers out of it

With the announcement that Arlington Park will be for sale, ideas are swirling about how the land could be used. I have heard a few times already the possibility of the Chicago Bears constructing a new stadium there. Here is one example:

The Loop from the North End of Soldier Field

Now it is urgently incumbent upon regional politicians and civic planners to begin a campaign to get a global-class Chicago Bears stadium built as a profitable symbol of the rebirth of the 326-acre site.

Fulfillment of such a bold and visioned plan would bring about a marriage of an NFL team and a suburb that was first discussed between “Papa Bear” George Halas and then-AP empress Marje Everett in 1968…

The question of “How?” can only be answered if there is an enormously creative and concerted joint effort put forth by such potential game changers as Bears chairman George McCaskey, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes and Gov. J.B. Pritzker…

Said Mayor Butts: “From my experience — and I’m talking about my suburb, which is 52 percent Hispanic, 47 percent Black and 1 percent ‘other’ — if you have an inspired plan, proper financing that does not put the host municipality at risk and a resolute ‘will-get-done’ attitude, toss in hard work and you can make a great thing happen.”

On one hand, this is a unique opportunity. It is rare for parcels of land this large to open up in suburbs developed decades ago. Filling a large parcel can be difficult; what can add to the existing community without threatening the current character? This particular location provides easy access to highways, easing travel for thousands of fans. The surrounding area is already used to sporting events on the sites. A suburb could become home to a major sports stadium.

On the other hand, the “creative and concerted joint effort” required to pull this off could become an albatross to taxpayers who often fund large stadiums for wealthy team owners. This is a tax break of massive proportions for a feature economists argue does not necessarily bring added economic benefits to a community. The stadium may provide status to a suburb but this does not always translate into financial gains. And Illinois has a history of this already: just see the state deal where taxes are still funding the White Sox stadium.

How to balance these competing perspectives? Many suburbs would jump at the opportunity as growth is good, having a pro sports teams is an important status symbol, and hearing the Bears are playing in Arlington Heights could be part of a branding strategy. But, I would recommend leaving the taxpayers out of this: they will likely not benefit economically from a new stadium.

Asking tough questions of American athletes

The story of a Danish journalist who covers the NFL and asks certain questions of players hints at cultural differences in approaching both sports and important social issues:

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Back in 2016, Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen lived in Burbank, Calif., for a year with his wife and son. It had always been his dream to spend some time in the States, so when his parent company asked him to help its esports arm transition from Twitch streaming to television studio production in Los Angeles, he jumped at the opportunity. He had a great house and a pool. He had friendly colleagues at work.

But what he noticed over time is that he’d end up having a version of the same conversation every day, one that never broke beneath the surface. He remembered, for example, being confused about a situation involving how to get the local water authority to turn the water on at his house and wanting to ask someone about it—a step beyond hello and how are you. He felt like there was an immediate recoil…

It shines a light on something that seems to permeate culturally, reverberating from the sporting world that Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen finds himself thinking so much about. Maybe it’s the end result of widespread, rigorous media training, which creates a fast-food experience of well-meaning words pieced nicely together but ultimately containing no substance, an appeal to our innate desire to move on. In some unconscious way, does our lack of exposure to actual humility and openness inform our default setting, which is to simply wince through the tough stuff and avoid it in real life, too?…

The phenomenon is not necessarily unique to the U.S. Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen saw, for example, the further any players drifted from Denmark (perhaps to the English Premiere League) the less likely they were to be interested in answering difficult questions or exhibiting any kind of remorse for something negative that had happened. It creates a situation where it feels for Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen like he is doing something wrongwhen he’s merely asking fair questions.

At the least, this story sheds light on how others in the world can view what many Americans would take as normal. The NFL is the NFL. Except when you are viewing it with a different lens. Americans also have the ability to watch many sports around the world through an American lens with an American network and broadcasters providing the commentary and interpretation.

At a deeper level, this asks what we expect to hear from athletes and others regularly in the public eye. Does it generally ring true that Americans just want to stick to sports, rather than consider the actions of athletes and those associated with teams? Probably, even as sports has been an important social scene regarding social change (and resisting it).