The House That Greed Built

Wright Thompson of ESPN presents a fascinating look inside New Yankee Stadium’s Legends Suite:

Much has been said and written about The Moat and how it highlights the divide between the haves and the have-nots. But that’s not quite right. There are no have-nots here.

That’s not automatically a bad thing; a business should sell its product for as much as it can, as long as it’s not putting temporary profit over long-term growth. When a business makes that mistake, longtime pollster Rich Luker calls it harvesting. Starbucks is struggling, he says, because it harvested. Wal-Mart is not because it hasn’t.

“The American sports industry is in harvest mode,” Luker says. “The industry has lost its regard for human beings.”

A recent poll discovered an unsettling trend emerging for the first time. American families whose household income is $75,000 or less now have zero dollars of discretionary income. According to Luker, that means about 75 percent of the country can never responsibly afford to go to a live professional sporting event. Franchises want them to be fans, to buy the gear and pull for their teams and watch the telecasts the leagues are paid billions for. But they don’t need them to come to their stadiums. There are, right now, plenty of rich people who love games. The prices reflect that. The reason sporting events cost so much now, Luker’s research shows, is because they are designed to be affordable only to those making $150,000 or more a year.

This wasn’t always true. Ten years ago, it was cheaper to go to a baseball game than to a movie in half of the big league markets (take away parking at the game, and it was cheaper in every market). Today, there isn’t a single city in America where it costs less to go to a major league game than to a movie. Everywhere we turn, we see examples of the collapsing middle class. This is where that issue lives in the world of sports, and it has predictable consequences.

“The lower the income,” Luker says, “the less they’re enjoying sports.”

His August poll discovered a third of Americans are less interested in sports because of the declining economy. That’s bad news, made worse by a problem he first noticed in 2004 and which has continued since: For the first time, the largest number of sports fans aren’t 12- to 17-year-old boys. The baby boomers are the group that shows the greatest increase in a love of sports, and they’ll be dying soon.

Who will replace them?

By excluding 75 percent of the population from experiencing the best part of spectator sports — actually holding a ticket in your hand — franchises have created a potentially fatal problem for themselves. Luker predicts the future of sports by looking at the decline of soap operas. Once, there were 30. Now, because the audience changed, there are seven.

“We have the first true sustained evidence of less interest in sports than there was 10 years ago,” he says. “It won’t happen overnight. It will take a generation. But in general, sports will not be what it is today. We’re burning out the love of sports.”

Read the whole story here.

Last year, Major League Baseball celebrated the 100th anniversary of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the early 20th century Tin Pan Alley song that eventually became the unofficial anthem of modern baseball. The lyrics were written by Jack Norworth and set to music by Albert Von Tilzer. Norworth was inspired while riding a subway train by a “Baseball Today — Polo Grounds” sign, Ironically, neither of them had attended a major league baseball game when they composed their 1908 hit song.

The verses to the song are now largely forgotten, even as millions of baseball fans sing the chorus during the 7th inning stretch (another baseball tradition) of every game in every ballpark across America:

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do:”

[Chorus] Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

[repeat Chorus]

Saul Steinberg wrote that “It is impossible to understand America without a thorough knowledge of baseball.” Within the next generation, the sublime experience of enjoying a hotdog and a beverage, keeping score, maybe catching a ball hit into the stands, while celebrating what was once America’s favorite pastime will be as unfamiliar to most Americans as the original lyrics to its 1908 anthem.

The New Yankee Stadium or as Thompson calls it “The House Next To The House That Ruth Built,” bears a superficial resemblance to the iconic ballpark where I grew up watching legends named Mantle, Maris, Ford, Guidry, Jackson, Munson, Gossage, Righetti, Williams, O’Neill, Rivera and Jeter. I went to hundreds of games over the years, watching most from unassigned General Admission seats, which let you sit anywhere you liked in the uppermost seats. I’d get to the ballpark two hours early, climb to the top of the park and seat myself directly behind and a couple hundred feet above home plate. At $3 per ticket (movie prices were higher), it was the best entertainment value in New York. Since then, movie prices have more than doubled, but the best seats in the Legends Suite were originally priced at $2,500 apiece, or an 82,333% increase from the cost of my General Admission seat. That’s not harvesting; that’s goughing the customer’s eyes out.

In a strange way, the new ballpark is as much of an anachronism as the 1908 verses of Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Not in the sense that Thompson’s decadent description of the Legends Suite reminds the reader of a scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Thorstein Veblen’s embittered critique of capitalist excesses in The Theory of the Leisure Class. But because the ballpark and its $2,500 seats (since reduced to $1,250 yet still empty) is a monument to a faraway time in 2007 when we all believed our incomes would eventually catch up with our spending and imagined that les bon temps would continue roulez-ing forever.

I don’t know if F. Scott Fitzgerald was a baseball fan, but I suspect he would have found himself equally at home amidst the opulence of the New Yankee Stadium Legends Suite and the financial straits in which we find ourselves. Fitzgerald once quipped that baseball was “a game played by idiots for morons.” When Fitzgerald died not unexpectedly from a massive heart attack after years of alcohol and drug abuse, on hearing the news, Dorothy Parker cried: “the poor son-of-a-bitch.” Fitzgerald may not have understood baseball, but having wrestled with demons through both the Jazz Age and the Great Depression, the poor SOB understood the American Dream, and he knew first-hand the heartache of waking from a dream of a better tomorrow inexorably fading into the past.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out Daisy’s light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning —

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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