Professional sports, like most of our popular culture, can be understood only partly by its exiting plays and tremendous athletes. Baseball and football most of all are not only games anymore but also hardcore businesses. As businesses, sports leagues can be as conniving, deceitful, and manipulative as any other businesses in the world. No matter what the circumstances are, it seems that Politicians are always somehow right around the corner from the world of sports. These Politicians look to exploit both the cultural and the economic dimensions of the sports for their own purposes. This is what is known in the sports industry as “playing the field”.
In the last decade, almost all the big cities in the United States, and a few small cities as well, have battled with each other for the right to host big league franchises. Cities spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build new stadiums and offer enticements to private franchise owners. Politicians often push for stadiums and other favours to teams despite not having support from neighbourhoods and general opposition across the whole city, especially where these high dollar stadiums would be built.
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Some of the most prolific franchises in sports, like the Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Colts of the National Football League, have moved to other cities breaking off their loyalty to the hometown fans. More important than the actual moves are the more frequent threatened moves. When teams “play the field” and explore the option of playing in other cities they are able to lure interested cities into giving them just about any royalty they want. New stadiums are only the beginning. The willingness to threaten departure has secured for teams a variety of land deals, lower taxes, more revenues from parking and concessions, control of stadium operations, guaranteed ticket sales, renovation of stadiums with luxury seating, control over neighbourhoods and transportation systems, and that’s only the beginning of the list.
Franchises are able to control their own destinies and have major advantages over city officials. This is what as known in the sports industry as the “uneven playing field”. City officials react to the offensive strategies of team owners but never can anticipate what the owners are prepared to do. Team owners have complete control over the city officials when it comes to the terms of development in team deals. This type of political confrontations enables teams to control debate, leaving city officials playing defence.
Possibly those who are most affected by the sport’s industry’s willingness to abandon a community are the dedicated fans. When Al Davis moved the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles, he pulled away from some of the sport’s most loyal fans and also hurt his football team. The NFL’s Colts and Cardinals have also had failures on the field since their moves. These three teams are proof that all the greed that was put into the moving of their franchises hasn’t brought them more success or in some cases less success.
In every move, there are two sides to politics. There are the teams themselves and there are the cities that fight to keep them. In May 1991, Sharon Pratt Dixon, Mayor of Washington, D.C. said, “We’re going to do whatever it takes to keep the Redskins here. Sports has become an industry, and to the extent that we can guarantee jobs for the District residents, we will do whatever it takes, including building the stadium ourselves” (Euchner 1), this is one view of how a city official fights for a team. The other viewpoint is from the side of the team owner, Al Davis, managing general partner of the Raiders said, “just build it” (Euchner 1). These viewpoints are why sports teams move and cities fight to keep them.
The first cases of political disputes over sports stadiums and team location started in the 1950s when economic growth of the South and West created pressure on the leagues to expand into these non-sport incorporated regions. Probably the most emotional and controversial moves were those of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to Los Angeles and San Francisco after the 1957 season. The 1957 move of the two teams to California has left a bitter and long-lasting reaction that could have threatened the future of the major leagues. Columnist Arthur Daly wrote, “The only word that fits the Dodgers is greed” (Euchner 17). Claims of betrayal can still be heard in New York today.
Footballs own version of the Dodgers and Giants is the Baltimore Colts. The Colts were really the first NFL team to shift to a different city in order to get funding for a new stadium and other royalties. The Colts left Baltimore in the middle of the night, without even the slightest clue that they were moving. Author William Gildea said, “I went to sleep one night and when I woke up my boyhood team was gone” (Gildea 269). The Colts left Baltimore to play in Indianapolis, where they haven’t had a championship season since they left.
Ironically, the Cleveland Browns of the NFL who were a playoff-calibre team every year, who had loyal fans and good attendance, lost their team to the city of Baltimore. Owner Art Modell moved his Cleveland Browns team to the city of Baltimore, with the promise of a cost-free state of the art stadium, built by taxpayers, and a larger market for their team to play in. The city of Baltimore welcomed the team wholeheartedly, after going through the same loss of a team, the Colts. The team is now called the Baltimore Ravens and play in a beautiful stadium complex in downtown Baltimore, Maryland. They have great fan support and Baltimore is once again a football town.
The city of Cleveland on the other hand has been in shock after losing a team they loved and supported and are not very fond of Art Modell. The city of Cleveland will once again become a football town, with the expansion Cleveland Browns preparing for their inaugural season, beginning in fall of 1999. The city is once again very excited about the NFL and the “Dog Pound” will live again.
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