13 January 2011

The Biggest Prize in Sport

Dubai Sport City

The business of sports, and it's relationship to the city, has been on my mind. A while back, this op-ed ran in the New York Times positing that rising ticket prices linked to tax write-offs for business entertainment has ruined baseball as a working-class diversion. Then this post, from the Guardian's soccer blog, on how in direct contrast to the English Premier League, Germany's Bundesliga has maintained a focus on the fans, kept ticket prices low and built impressive new stadiums, and as a result has the highest average attendances in Europe (if not the world). These caused me to revisit a post that Aaron Renn had over at the Urbanophile some time ago on pro sports naming rights. Get ready for some tangents.

I want to start off comparing apples with much larger apples. First, here is a satellite image of Toyota Park in south suburban Bridgeview, Illinois, home of Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire...

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...a perfectly acceptable small soccer stadium, one of the first specific-use facilities built in this country. Seats around 21,000 for a game. Now, here is Arsenal's new Emirates Stadium (still under construction in this shot), which holds just over 60,000...

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...notice anything? These are shown at the same scale. Here's the answer, from Ticketmaster's UK site: "PARKING: VERY difficult, street parking in a residential area with SEVERE restrictions." I chose Emirates to highlight a key difference in thinking when it comes to stadium development between the US and Europe. The stadium is a short walk from two London Underground stations, a British Rail station, and several bus routes. Meanwhile, Toyota Park is surrounded by parking lots and seriously awful pre- and post-game traffic jams, and a single bus line which gets stuck in that same traffic. And this for a stadium that would be considered adequate for a second or third division team in England or Germany. Compare it with the new Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington, Texas, which holds 100,000 and sits in the largest city in America with no public transit. Even more notable was the fate of Arsenal's beloved old ground, Highbury Stadium. Rather than tear it down, as would likely be the case in the US, it was converted to luxury condominiums for sale to well-heeled fans.

Aside from being yet another symptom of our national automotive addiciton, there's a serious public safety issue at play here. Anybody who has ever attended a professional or collegiate sporting event in America knows that folks like to throw back a few cold ones during the course of the game. But at the same time, we are effectively inviting people to drive home drunk by not providing adequate transit options. In Green Bay, a state legislator went so far as to suggest that installing roundabouts near Lambeau Field was a bad idea because it would be too difficult for drunk drivers to navigate.

New stadiums being built or proposed tend to fall in one of two camps: those in downtown cores, like LA's Staples Center or San Diego's Petco Park; or those nestled in exurban sprawl, like the aforementioned Cowboys Stadium. Los Angeles, in it's quest to lure an NFL franchise back to the city, is torn between the two models. The argument against the downtown stadium focuses on congestion and parking, and suggests that people wouldn't go to games if driving there was inconvenient. To which I ask, what are the two most-cherished stadia in the United States? Arguably, Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field...both of which are situated in dense, old urban neighborhoods with good transit connections, and neither of which provides much in the way of parking. Sure, a baseball stadium is different than a football stadium, but if you include transit improvements (which Los Angeles is already doing anyhow), and give people places to go hang out before and after the game, they will go. Besides, if people will go see the Cubs play, they'll see anybody.

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