Sports stadiums and white flight

How the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta United went about procuring their stadiums hints at the city’s racial divides:

Accompanying the announcement, the team released a map showing where, precisely, Braves Country was—and, notably, where it wasn’t. That view of the greater Atlanta area was speckled with red dots, each one indicating the home of a 2012 ticket buyer, including season-ticket holders. Only a smattering of red appeared to the east, west and south of Turner Field, while thousands of dots congealed into a ribbon above downtown that expanded into a wide swath in the half-dozen suburban and exurban counties to the north. The new stadium would be closer to the middle of that mass, which happened to embody an older, whiter and more conservative population than the city proper. Those northern suburbs were fast diversifying, yet many in Atlanta—particularly in its black population—felt slighted by the decision, their perspectives colored by decades of racial and political tension between city and sprawl.

Five months later MLS commissioner Don Garber, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and then-mayor Kasim Reed proclaimed in their own press conference that downtown Atlanta would be home to MLS’s 22nd franchise, and the new club, Atlanta United, would take the pitch in 2017, the same year the Braves headed to Cobb. The soccer team would play in the same new $1.6 billion stadium the Falcons would soon call home, but United would be no afterthought. The facility would be designed to accommodate the beautiful game from the start. Pushing back against skepticism and pointing to an influx of young professionals near Atlanta’s urban core, Blank assured MLS’s leaders he could fill the massive venue, even in a market known for lukewarm enthusiasm toward pro sports. Reed boasted that his city’s foreign-born (and, seemingly implied, soccer-loving) population was growing at the second-fastest rate in the U.S. Garber himself insisted these factors combined to make downtown an ideal MLS incubator. The city “embodies what we call a ‘new America,'” he said, “an America that’s blossoming with ethnic diversity.”

Fast-forward five years, and Atlanta United’s ticket-sales map, while not a direct inverse, is considerably more centralized than Braves Country (or even, says United president Darren Eales, a depiction of the Falcons’ fan base). United, meanwhile, aided no doubt by winning the 2018 MLS Cup, has led MLS in attendance in each of its three seasons, averaging 53,003 fans in ’19, among the highest in the world. This echoes the success the Braves found when they chased their audience to the north, the farthest any MLB team had ventured from its city center in 50 years. The Braves’ average home attendance, aided too by on-field success, reached 32,779 fans this season, up 31% from their last year at Turner Field…

Kruse, the Princeton history professor, is blunt in his assessment of such feelings. “These ideas about downtown being a dangerous place are really about the people downtown,” he says. For years he thought that “suburbanites want nothing to do with the city except to see the Braves.” But today? “That last connection has been severed. I see this movement of the stadium as the culmination of white flight.”

Trying to connect with particular fan bases or contributing to decades-long processes of residential segregation and white flight? How about both?

Three additional thoughts:

  1. More could be made here of the public money the Braves received from Cobb County. Plus, they could develop land around the new stadium, now a common tactic to generate more revenue beyond fan attendance. Yes, fan attendance is important but the long-term money may be in investing money in land surrounded by whiter and wealthier residents. Stadium development then just continues the process of limited capital investment in neighborhoods that could really use it and concentrates it in places where wealth is already present.
  2. Baseball is widely regarded as having an older and whiter fan base. Soccer is said to have a more diverse and younger fan base. In addition to the demographics of the Atlanta area, the sports themselves try to appeal to different audiences (even as they might work to reach out to different groups).
  3. It will be interesting to see how many sports teams in the next few decades move to more niche locations while still claiming to be from the big city. Civic identity is often tied to sports teams as most metro areas can only support one team from the major American sports. Can big city politicians still lose when the team from the area decides to move to a suburb (see a recent example in the Las Vegas area) but takes that revenue out of the big city? Can a team that locates in one particular area of the metropolitan region still easily represent the entire region?

Cities ready to offer tax monies for new soccer stadiums

Cities continue to see sports stadiums as good uses for tax dollars. This time, it involves soccer stadiums:

Officials from Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, and Sacramento appeared in New York on Wednesday to place their bids with Major League Soccer for an expansion team. Slots for two teams are now up for grabs in the league’s plans to expand, so cities are lining up to lob promises of tax incentives for stadium construction at the MLS. Picture the mayors of each of these cities lined up for a free kick on goal.

Cincinnati, for example, has secured $200 million in private funds to build a stadium for FC Cincinnati, and the city has pledged up to $75 million in public money to pay for the infrastructure associated with a stadium. Nashville promises $25 million in tax dollars toward build-out costs for a $275 million Nashville Soccer Club stadium, which would be paid for through a public-private financing deal. Representatives for Sacramento Republic FC argued for a plan that would cost the city $46 million to realize a privately financed $226 million stadium.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Express would play on Ford Field, the home of the National Football League’s Detroit Lions, meaning that the proposed soccer team’s owners—who also own the Lions, the Detroit Pistons, and the Cleveland Cavaliers—would merely have to pony up the $150 million franchise fee plus some smaller costs in adjusting the existing stadium.

Perhaps in their favor, the cities and taxpayers would not be investing so much as is required for a top-four sport stadium.

At the same time, this approach is likely a bad idea. The research is pretty clear: the winners of taxpayer funded stadiums are the team owners who tend to already be wealthy people. Cities desperately want to boost their status and look trendy and acquiring a new sports team, particularly one in a sport that is thriving and looks like it is on the rise (just see the number of new teams in MLS in recent years). But, research shows that if do not build these stadiums and acquire teams, residents and visitors will just spend their money elsewhere.

Another interesting piece of the MLS expansion is that it is involving some medium-size big cities. Think Sacramento: they have a NBA franchise and nothing else. Orlando had a NBA franchise, nothing else. Cincinnati has the NFL and MLB. Austin has no major team. MLS expansion offers some new places a chance to get in the sports game and signal that they are major players.

British soccer team not happy at serving as the site for college field trip on gender

One British sociology class plans to visit Millwall FC to examine how gender is performed. The club is not happy:

Varndean College in Brighton is offering AS-level sociology students the chance to watch Brighton and Hove Albion take on the “notorious” Millwall Football Club at their home team’s American Express Community Stadium…

There will also be a chance to observe “issues around sexuality, race and ethnicity,” “women challenging gender norms” and to “even talk to football fans,” it promises.

A schedule of planned trips on the college’s website says the football excursion would help teach students about class, leisure and masculinity, and possible racism and homophobia as well.

But Millwall FC appeared less than happy with the idea of being studied as a sociological phenomenon.

“It does make me wonder why they chose Millwall for that,” a source at the club said.

One Varndean sociology student and Millwall fan said describing the club as notorious was “a bit outdated as we’re no longer in the 1980s.”

Sounds like an interesting exercise in seeing gender in action. I understand that few teams would want to explicitly be charged with racism or homophobia but such attitudes are certainly expressed at sporting events. Soccer has a particular history with racism (see a brief overview here) and even with explicit efforts and sanctions from professional associations, racist actions still occur. And professional sports tend to invoke commentary from some fans about masculinity, which in soccer can be associated with toughness, body times, and typical actions off the pitch (such as using their status to pursue women, drink, etc.).

I wonder if any teams would be willing to take part in such field trips because they had such confidence that students and observers wouldn’t see racism or homophobia. Imagine Millwall said, “Sure. Come observe and you won’t see anything like that” and then the observations backed that up. But, even inviting this sort of opportunity would probably be too risky in the eyes of most teams.

Statistical answer to whether soccer is dull

One British academic looked at all the English soccer scores going back to 1888 to answer the question of whether soccer is dull:

But Curley used the same approach he uses in his academic career: data, lots and lots of data. By cobbling together game results from several different sources, he has compiled what is almost certainly the world’s biggest compendium of English football scores. Sitting on his GitHub page, devoid of any fanfare whatsoever, are the scores of nearly 200,000 English soccer games played in the top four leagues since 1888, the days of Jack the Ripper and Queen Victoria. These 14 megabytes can tell remarkable stories, dating back more than 125 years to the founding of the English football league…

In 85,694 games — dangerously close to half the total — at least one of the teams forgot to score at all. That led Curley to an answer for one of his questions: “Soccer is a bit dull,” he told me…

Scores are likely to be low. In more than 85 percent of all games, neither team scored more than three goals.

Those low scores help lead to thousands of draws — 47,412 since the foundation of the league system, to be exact. That’s more than a quarter of all games. And 7 percent of games overall have ended with no one scoring, and no one winning — there have been 13,475 nil-nil draws.

Statistical evidence that not much scoring takes place. But, this will only fuel the debate as true fans will argue scoring does not necessarily equal excitement. Baseball fans make similar arguments. Yet, there is a common claim that American sports fans are more interested in more scoring (as opposed to simply movement or action). Does this mean English fans (as well as other soccer fans around the world) are more willing to endure low-scoring games? Is this only because they are used to these games or are there other factors involved?

Hypothesis: violence among sports fans related to other social divisions

One sociologist suggests sports violence may not just be about the games but rather other social divisions:

According to a hypothesis put forth by sociologist Eric Dunning in his book Sports Matters, athletic events are realms in which other major issues in society, often related to class, religion, ethnicity, politics, regionalism, historic rivalries, etc. can play out among supporters. Violence, rather than just being about the sport, can be interpreted as an expression of contrasts between populations. That means the conflicts are best studied within the societies where they occur.

“Dunning’s hypothesis is that you can’t separate soccer violence from the wider situation—instead it manifests itself along the fault line in a particular society,” Frosdick said.

And, according to Frosdick, the hypothesis fits when we look at recurring incidents of violence. In Spain, regional tensions help intensify soccer rivalries, hence the divide between Barcelona and Real Madrid. In Italy, where the historic split is between the industrial north and the agricultural rural south, tensions arise when Juventus FC plays SSC Napoli.

“In Scotland, religious sectarianism between Protestants and Catholics represents the biggest fault line in society,” Frosdick said. “The manifestation of football violence therefore is when the Catholic Celtics play the Protestant Rangers in the Old Firm Derby.” In 1980, after the Celtics defeated the Rangers 1-0 at the Scottish Cup final, hundreds of fans rioted on the pitch. The incident led to the banning of alcohol at all Scottish stadiums.

This shouldn’t be too surprising given the importance of factors like social class and race in society. Yet, it would also be interesting to then look at how the sports violence is explained by broadcasters and other media. Based on the sports I’ve watched in my life, I would guess sports broadcasts tend to shy away from conversations about social issues or suggest sports bring healing rather than exacerbate existing conditions. While sports may indeed be “just a game,” it is important to many, interwoven throughout social life, and is big business.

Soccer won’t make it big in the US because it doesn’t have enough time for commercials?

Forget cultural differences; perhaps soccer won’t make it big in the United States because there is not enough money to be made.

“Soccer is the least profitable sport on the planet,” says Stefan Szymanski, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan and co-author of Soccernomics. “The whole structure of soccer is totally at variance with the America model.”…

In America, TV contracts have a lot to do with a sport’s profitability. MLS recently took a step toward the big leagues with new contracts that will generate around $90 million in revenue per year, the most ever for the league. But that’s puny compared with leagues such as the NFL, which takes in about $5 billion per year from TV rights. The visibility generated by saturation TV coverage helps the NFL earn even more revenue from sponsorships, ticket fees and licensing deals.

It might be unfair to compare the MLS with the NFL, which is the world’s most profitable sports league and an almost unexplainable phenomenon. But pro soccer in the U.S. may face a chicken-and-egg problem that prevents it from ever following in the NFL’s cleats. Most NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL teams manage to be profitable whether they win or lose. That’s because of revenue-sharing deals, salary caps and other equalizers meant to keep leagues competitive and owners satisfied…

“The MLS is pursuing the America business model, which means it’s not pouring billions into making it successful but is actually limiting player spending,” Szymanski says. “There are probably 30 soccer leagues that spend more on wages per team than the MLS — including the Romanian soccer league.”

I wonder how American sports fans would react to the idea that sports “work” in the US because owners can make lots of money. Sure, the sports may be interesting and the athletes impressive but the owners have to make money and there have to be lots of commercials. The average football game has about 11 minutes of gameplay. It’s more like the sports play around the commercial breaks.

Does this mean American sports don’t really follow a free market model? It sounds more like team owners work together to guarantee their profitability and then others on the outside, like various corporations and television networks, can try to make money.

Soccer and the World Cup as the upcoming functional religion

Soccer may be just a game but some academics see it having the properties of a global religion:

A growing body of scholars see football playing an under-appreciated role as keeper of society’s well-being – providing a sense of identity with an almost religious role…”It provides you with an opportunity to side with your country without being violent to another. So in that way it does replace war,” said David Ranc, a French sociologist who specialises in group identity in football.

“It is a non-violent way of resolving conflict … and taking sides where there is not that much at stake.”…

“Identification with a sports team can provide people with an important identity prop, … a sense of belonging in what would otherwise be an isolated existence,” according to Eric Dunning, a sports sociologist with the University of Leicester…

“The fans of a football team form a community of believers that is characterised by distinctively religious forms of behaviour,” sports sociologist Gunter Gebauer of the Free University of Berlin told AFP…

Football allows people from different social and economic spheres to meet and bond around a common passion, experts said.

 

 

Paging all sociologists of sport – the World Cup is nearly underway. This is a classic “functional religion” argument (a la Durkheim). If you set aside the supernatural aspect of religion, it has several components: rituals (pomp of the World Cup every four years, going to or watching a game), building solidarity (based on a club or national team, gathering with other fans), what is sacred versus profane (the importance of the games versus other aspects of life, elevating certain players). Given the number of people who will be paying attention to the World Cup, this argument makes sense: even religions would have a hard time rallying this many people with such fervor for 32 days.