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Doing their Patriotic duty
Posted: Wednesday December 02, 1998 10:25 AM
The arranged shift of the New England Patriots from suburban Boston to downtown Hartford, Conn., illustrates again how different the business of football is from other sports.
On the surface, of course, it seems insane, to desert the seventh-largest metropolitan area -- one with a population of five and a half million -- for the 30th largest, with barely a million. In any other team sport -- baseball, basketball, hockey -- that would never happen. But football offers a specific economic equation that doesn't require the critical mass that other sports do.
However, make no mistake -- as popular as the pigskin is, football may not be nearly as valuable to a city like Hartford as are the other sports.
It's an ironic trend: the NFL is leaving behind the more populous areas for smaller ones. It chose Jacksonville and Charlotte over Baltimore and St. Louis for expansion teams. It moved Houston to Nashville, and abandoned Los Angeles for St. Louis and Oakland. Boston for Hartford merely continues this upside-down pattern.
But obviously, there's no risk in this municipal downsizing for the wealthy and wise team owners. After all, Green Bay has proved that a town with a population of less than 100,000 can support an NFL franchise handsomely. The more cities that can fight for franchises, the better for the few folks who own the franchises.
The reason, of course, is that football is an event sport. Eight home games a year, virtually all on Sundays or holidays. The other American team games are linear sports. Places like Green Bay or Jacksonville or Hartford could not possibly support a baseball schedule. But in the NFL, everybody shares equally in the monstrous television revenues, so as long as you can fill up 65,000 seats and a fair quota of corporate luxury boxes eight times a year, you too can be the equal of New York or Chicago ... well, anyway, on a handful of autumn afternoons.
In fact, football is such a national television sport that huge cities like Los Angeles and Houston, with no insecurities about their municipal visibility, seem to be more than content not to have to bother with traffic jams and messy franchises. Hey, this way you're assured all the best NFL games on television ... for free.
But the pride of being a big-league city (!) is what animates small city mayors and business leaders to build stadiums to attract NFL owners. Hartford, for example, is justifying its new stadium as the centerpiece of riverfront development.
But are football franchises worth the expenditure? For eight games? A baseball stadium brings in fans on 81 occasions; basketball and hockey half that. The public financing of downtown baseball stadiums and arenas makes psychic sense to me. But football stadiums? A football stadium seem to me to be just one big luxury box.
I'm not so sure that a terrific little downtown minor-league baseball park, like, say, Buffalo has, isn't a better civic bargain than is NFL football -- if a city can just swallow its pride and settle for being minor league. Besides, Hartford doesn't even enjoy the vanity of having its name in the standings. It'll still be the New England Patriots. They could be playing in Kennebunkport, Maine, for all the rest of America knows.
But the United States that has developed is one of city-states, and, since each city-state has an airport and a mall and a chain hotel with an atrium, what else can distinguish you but a team? Especially since nobody votes anymore, sometimes I think we're more a league than we are a nation. As long as that mentality rules, cities on the make will build stadiums. Even football stadiums -- those gigantic luxury boxes.
These commentaries, which appear each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, are posted weekly by CNN/SI.
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