Suburbs wooing the Chicago Cubs highlights the regional nature of sports teams and stadiums

The Chicago Cubs moving out of the city seems unlikely. But, that hasn’t stopped several Chicago suburbs from suggesting they would be willing to work out a deal with the Cubs to build a new stadium:

What the soliciting suburbs believe — and sources close to the Cubs confirm — is that the siblings of Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts are souring on Chicago and growing increasingly concerned the deal will be modified in a way that denies the team the revenue it needs to renovate Wrigley without a public subsidy…

“If this deal looks like it’s going down in flames or not getting done in a reasonable time, Tom will invest in ‘Plan B’ locations. He’d still work with the mayor on a city site. But, maybe not in Wrigleyville. I know people don’t believe it. But, it’s true,” the Cubs source said…

Aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel privately dismissed this week’s public solicitation from DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin as a Cubs-orchestrated negotiating ploy.

“This is all manufactured to gain leverage,” said a top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous.

Last month, Ricketts threatened to move his team out of Wrigley and Chicago if he doesn’t get the outfield signs he needs to bankroll a $300 million stadium renovation without a public subsidy.

This comes after the announcement this week that DuPage County has two potential sites for the Cubs. But, little extra information about these plans were provided.

But, I think a more interesting take is the regional nature of sports teams and stadiums. Sports teams these days are really regional entities, particularly considering that more people live in the suburbs than central cities. It is unusual to have a team like the Cubs so closely tied to a specific neighborhood. Additionally, cities often see sports stadiums as economic engines, even though research suggests spending lots of taxpayer dollars on stadiums doesn’t pay off for communities. On one hand, it is not all that different than fighting over big box stores or corporate headquarters because of the supposed economic benefits. Yet, on the other hand it is a constant status symbol. Could the city of Chicago really afford in terms of prestige to lose the Cubs? I don’t think so. Would a suburb get a big status boost from hosting the Cubs? Possibly. If a suburb was able to woo the Cubs, I imagine they would trumpet this fact and try to build around it for decades.

This has happened before in Chicago. When the Chicago Bears were looking for a new stadium from the 1970s to the early 1990s, several suburbs were involved. The Bears ended up getting a decent enough deal from the city to stay. (Maybe they should have pushed harder. They have the smallest NFL stadium in terms of seats and with it also being an open-air facility, this limits its Super Bowl possibilities in the future. Also, the facility is still owned by the Chicago Park District and this has led to issues over the years.) Again, it is hard to imagine the Chicago Bears, a historic NFL franchise, playing out in the suburbs next to a major highway. What would have been a boon for a suburb would have been a big perceived loss for Chicago.

In the end, these sorts of negotiations can pit cities against suburbs in similar ways to fighting over business opportunities. But, rather than arguing about just money, sports teams are viewed as public goods that belong to a region. Perhaps the worst possible outcome is for the region to lose a team to another region altogether. The second worst outcome might be for the big city to lose the stadium to an upstart suburb.

A reminder that all politics is local (and cultural): avoid the barbecue third rail in North Carolina

National political candidates or officials often have to make sure that they can adapt to many different cultural contexts. Witness this example of Rick Perry and North Carolina barbecue:

And now Perry’s in hot water in North Carolina for a remark he made all the way back in 1992, when he was Texas agriculture commissioner and Houston was hosting the Republican National Convention.

Last week, in the Raleigh News & Observer’s “Under the Dome” politics blog, staffers Rob Christensen and Craig Jarvis wrote:

According to “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue,” in 1992 when Perry was a promising Texas politician but not yet governor, he tried some Eastern North Carolina barbecue from King’s of Kinston, which was served at the Republican National Convention in Houston.  “I’ve had road kill that tasted better than that,” Perry was quoted as saying…

“Holy Smoke” co-author John Shelton Reed, a retired University of North Carolina sociology professor, said Monday that people in his state do not mess around with this form of cooking. “Barbecue,” he said, “is the third rail of North Carolina politics.”

I don’t envy the task of politicians who have to continually switch gears on the campaign trail to keep up with all of the local cultural quirks. However, I wonder if these politicians have some sort of database or chart that alerts them to these local “third-rail” issues to avoid. What would an outsider have to avoid in coming to Chicago or the Chicago suburbs?

If anything, this story illustrates some basic sociological concepts. Residents of North Carolina rally around barbecue, among other things, and see it as a critical part of their state identity. When an outsider comes along and makes the comment that their prized food tastes worse than roadkill, they band together to defend their barbecue, reassert their group identity, and reestablish the symbolic boundaries that separate the group from other groups. It is not that different from sports fans reacting to perceived attacks from the outside, such as the reaction of a number of Chicago Bears fans to a new biography of Walter Payton that reveals his more human side. Even an outsider who might be telling the truth (though I’m willing to bet the barbecue was better than roadkill) still will have difficulty “attacking” one of the sacred features of the group.

Quick Review: Da Bears!

Partly to commemorate the Chicago Bears’ lone Super Bowl title and also to help mourn the recent loss to the Green Bay Packers, I read Da Bears!: How the 1985 Monsters of the Midway Became the Greatest Team in NFL History. A few thoughts about this book, one of many products commemorating this 25th anniversary:

1. A main theme of the book is the ongoing battle between Head Coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. How exactly the team kept moving forward with this kind of tension is interesting.

2. There are claims that the Bears were the team that really helped push the NFL to the top. With their winning plus the actions and charm of their players, the Bears were a kind of media circus in an era where this didn’t happen often.

2a. The problem with a claim like this is that little evidence is presented that might conflict with this narrative. At one point, the book mentions that several teams had recorded songs as teams before the “Super Bowl Shuffle” but it was this 1985 song that really took off. Another (implicit?) claim is that the Bears really pushed athlete endorsements forward. Were other star athletes not doing commercials? In the end, how exactly do we know the Bears were something different in the eyes of the media compared to any other team of the time? I would have liked to have read more perspectives from outside of Chicago – were people across the country as intrigued with the Bears as Chicagoans were?

3. Some things never seem to change with the Bears: defense over offense, inconsistent quarterback play, complaints about the McCaskeys, an inability to follow up on success (with the 1985 Super Bowl team never getting back to another title game), fickle fans who suddenly were worried at the end of the 1985 season with less than perfect play, and more. How long can a team have the same basic identity?

4. As a cultural phenomenon, it would be interesting to track other teams that have captured the heart of a city in the same way as the Bears. While the list of endorsements and radio shows during the 1985 season was impressive, many of those guys are still around in the Chicago media. Will there be a point where the 1985 team is eclipsed by another team or was their combination of dominance and style too much to overcome?

5. It was unclear to me how much of this book was original research versus drawing from existing sources.

Overall, I’m not sure how much new material this book presents: many of the themes are widely known. There are a wide range of perspectives in this book but I think you also find this information elsewhere. I was looking for a new take on a famous team and yet you will hear the same things on local sports talk stations and other media.