Infamous Sites and the Sport Heritage Visitor

Do we actually know why people visit sport heritage sites?

This seems like a bit of an obvious question, and perhaps one that has been answered (or, at least, assumed) by marketers, managers, and academics alike.  But, I got to thinking about it the other day that, perhaps, as researchers we’ve rather guessed at the reasons why someone might go to a stadium, or hall of fame, or heritage sporting event (though, perhaps the reasons for each are different).  As a colleague mentioned to me this weekend, perhaps sport heritage research needs to come up with a visitor typology (add that topic to an ever-growing list of potential dissertation topics for a future graduate student).  However, one thing I – and others who research this topic – have noticed is that not everyone who visits a sport heritage site is a die-hard, super-keen fan.

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Sean Gammon at the University of Central Lancashire raised the observation in his excellent chapter “‘Sporting’ new attractions? The commodification of the sleeping stadium” that people on, say, a stadium tour aren’t always major supporters – if fans at all:

…stadia tours will often comprise of highly identified fans, who display a degree of veneration towards many of the tour highlights, as well as the less-attached visitors whose interests are far more casual, and ephemeral at best. (p. 125)

In terms of visitors to stadia, and certainly this has been my observation as well, that many people go to them – and perhaps go on a tour, but on many occasions go just to be near the venue.  Or, as Gammon again contends:

…the stadium has grown in importance, from an often aesthetically indifferent utilitarian structure into an iconic symbol of a place, team, sport and/or event. (p.116)

This idea that some sport heritage sites are infamous – that they are famous for being famous – is perhaps an obvious one, though I think it is frequently overlooked in understanding sport heritage.  If we are to understand heritage sport tourism as, in part, a kind of heritage tourism, then it stands to reason that some visitors will go to sport heritage sites simply because they are interesting, or representative of a particular culture, or because they are famous and it is something that “you do” when on vacation.  Indeed, visitors to Rome need not be entrenched in the classical history in order to want to visit Pantheon, just as visitors to Paris need not have a background – or any knowledge, really – in the history of the French monarchy to want to visit Versailles.  Perhaps sport sites will attract more knowledgable visitors, as sport is such a global phenomenon and a knowledge of sport is perhaps easier to acquire than a knowledge of the writings of Marcus Aurelius, but is it that far-fetched to have visitors want to go to Old Trafford without being fans of Manchester United, or Yankee Stadium without being New York Yankees fans, or the museum at Camp Nou without being hardcore Barcelona supporters?  I suppose the other aspect is that, if we have some knowledge that not every sport heritage visitor is necessarily a massive sporting fan, might there be a case for adjusting how a site is interpreted? Could we appeal both to the hardcore fan, who might be looking to venerate and nostalgize, as well as the casual or non-fan who might see the site as representative of a place, or a city, or a culture? Might this transition also provide for broader narratives, where sport is explored both in terms of achievement as well as a social process?  This is also not to place visitors in a binary relationship – sports fans may also desire critical narratives, and non-sports fans could be attracted to the spectacle, drama, and pageantry of the sporting past.  Still, in my experience, there is much work to be done in exploring this aspect of sport heritage, as we probably don’t yet know why people visit these sites and what they are looking to experience.

PS – I was going to write a post yesterday about an anniversary of sorts. When writing a cheque for my son’s daycare fees, I noticed that the date was October 20.  On that date in 1991, my hockey career (such as it was) abruptly ended, which sent me into a tailspin for a few years.  Perhaps one day I’ll write about this event and what it meant in my life in more detail, but for now I was thrilled to see this story yesterday about the mask of Edmonton Oilers goaltender Ben Scrivens supporting mental health awareness.  Good on ya, Ben!

Saturday Nights and Snow Hockey

One of my strongest and fondest memories of childhood were Saturday nights during the autumn and winter, when I would play hockey against myself (!) in our basement at home while my family would watch Hockey Night in Canada. I would sometimes take a look at the game, particularly when (all too infrequently in those days) the match-up featured my favourite team, the Edmonton Oilers. However, mostly I would be lost in my own world of childhood play, making spectacular shots and unbelievable saves while acting as a player, goalie, referee, PA announcer, and play-by-play broadcaster…simultaneously!  And, while sometimes I would pretend I was Gretzky, or Fuhr, or John Vanbiesbrouck, mostly I would pretend that it was actually me in net or scoring the goal, with some CBC commentator amazed at the play he just witnessed.  Saturday nights were special.  I can’t say that they were formalized or “appointment viewing” or anything like that, more that it was just what we did as a Canadian family – watch Hockey Night and, in my case, pretend that I was part of it.

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I got to thinking about those memories this past weekend when my son, who turns three in a couple of months, and I retreated to my basement at our home here in South Carolina to race his miniature monster trucks and watch (in his words) “snow hockey.”  I have the NHL Game Center app, so we were able to watch any one of 15 (!) games that were available on Saturday night.  We sort of had a game on in the background (I decided on the Ottawa Senators v. Tampa Bay Lightning match-up) as we raced his monster trucks back and forth on the faux-hardwood floor. Sometimes (in keeping with the “snow hockey”) my son would use a small Carolina Hurricanes stick I got him last spring to push his monster trucks around the basement, and sometimes he would be lost in his own play, creating conversations between his monster trucks while I kept one eye on him and the other on the game. We had a blast and, of course, for me was particularly special as I saw a bit of my childhood in him as he played pretend with his toys.

Of course, our Saturday night “snow hockey/monster truck” spectacular wouldn’t have been the same without a high speed internet connection and a choice of of live streaming games available at my fingertips.  Certainly, if I were living in South Carolina even a decade ago, my son and I would have had whichever over-the-air college football game was available in the background, rather than bypassing the local feed altogether and creating our own slice of my Canadian childhood in the rural South.  That said, the fact that the feed we were watching wasn’t Hockey Night in Canada – and that, for the most part, the tradition of Hockey Night in Canada is all but dead – did strike me.  I suppose my childhood Saturday nights were special because an over-the-air national broadcast of a hockey game was still pretty special, and not a routine part of daily viewing.  I guess that’s the curse of on-demand viewing – and while I don’t want this to be a “better in my day” rant, as there are clearly advantages for people like me in non-traditional markets – there is something sad about what’s might be lost through over saturation. On the other hand, I also think that something like hockey, particularly in a country like Canada, ought to be part of the “cultural programming” of a national broadcaster like CBC.  What I fear happens to hockey in Canada is what happened to cricket in England, where a private broadcaster bought the rights and that the sport all but disappears from the public airwaves.  Cricket has yet to recover and has, perhaps, lost a generation of supporters.  I hope hockey doesn’t go the same way when Hockey Night permanently leaves the CBC.

Wanted: Sport Heritage Graduate Student

I am looking to recruit a graduate student (preferably at the doctoral level) with a strong interest in sport heritage research to work with me beginning in Fall 2015 in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at Clemson University.

Sport heritage has in recent years become a powerful vehicle for exploring the social, political, and economic uses of the past. Much of the research to-date has primarily focused on the use of sport heritage in tourism through heritage attractions such as halls of fame, sports stadiums and venues, and sport heritage events among many others. Sport halls of fame and museums, for example, have been examined as to their role in creating and disseminating the sporting past and their relationship to broader social, political and economic agendas. Sports stadia and sporting venues have been explored as potential tourist attractions, their role in commodifying memory, their role in creating authentic experiences, and their part in constructing national identities. Heritage-based sporting events have been explored as avenues for maintaining expressions of cultural identity, as creators of heritage-based place identities, as reflectors of heritage dissonance, as promoters of non-sport heritage, and as constructors of liminal heritages. Sport heritage also has been positioned as a form of secular pilgrimage, as a catalyst for diasporic travel, and as an avenue for memorialization. Beyond its touristic use, sport heritage has also been explored as to its unique management and conservation issues, its relationship to sport history, and its role in creating intangible legacies.

I am seeking a student who will further enhance sport heritage research by developing new and innovative lines of inquiry.  In particular, I would be interested in working with students in the following areas of sport heritage research (though others would be considered):

  • Sport heritage and tourism
  • Sport heritage and pilgrimage
  • Living sport heritage (e.g.: athletes as artefacts)
  • Contested sport heritage
  • Dark sport heritage
  • Sport heritage mobilities
  • Visitor motivations
  • Sport heritage management
  • Sport heritage conservation
  • Best practices for sport museums
  • Performance of sport heritage
  • Existential sport heritage
  • Nostalgia and sport heritage
  • Sport heritage and national identity

Students may be US-based or international.  Funding for up to four years of study at the doctoral level may be available to a qualified candidate.

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Founded in 1889 and situated in South Carolina, Clemson University is a top-20 US public university with an enrolment of approximately 21,000 students.  With 36 faculty and 130 graduate students from around the world, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management was founded in 1966 and is one of the top departments of its kind in the United States.  From a sport heritage standpoint, Clemson University is within close driving distance of many top sport heritage locations, including the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame, and several former Olympic sites. Clemson University also has a strong sporting culture, with several top athletics programs – such as football and men’s basketball – that attract over 600,000 spectators a season.

If you would like to know more about this opportunity, please contact me at gramsha@clemson.edu.  For more information on my background, publications, and current projects, please see my departmental biography or the “About The Author” section of this blog.

Heritage and the NFL

You may have noticed that the NFL has faced a few issues (mostly of their own doing) the last few weeks.  Some of the issues are explicitly about heritage – such as the nickname of the Washington team – while others have little or nothing to do with heritage, such as player safety, off-field player conduct, and transparency about the NFL’s disciplinary procedure (particularly how these procedures are handled by the league’s commissioner).  The interesting thing to notice will be how heritage is used going forward to as a way of addressing these issues – or, alternately, distracting from them.

On the surface, heritage hasn’t seemed to be a major part of the NFL.  Although at a franchise level, heritage might be mobilized for a variety of reasons from establishing a history and legacy to selling tickets a products, NFL heritage hasn’t been a large part of how the league is positioned, at least in comparison to MLB and the NHL who are quite explicit using their past as a product (the NBA might utilize it’s past even less than the NFL, though that is a different blog for a different time).  There are certainly elements of NFL heritage that are used, such as the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio that kicks off the pre-season schedule, the NFL Films retrospectives, and some teams (such as the Chicago Bears) that use retro jerseys, but by and large the NFL is about today and tomorrow and the draft and next season, and not so much about the past.

However, it appears that heritage is now on the radar a bit more than before.  Mid-September to mid-October is Hispanic Heritage Month in the NFL, a program instituted a few years ago seemingly to both recognize the contribution of Hispanic players, coaches, and media as well as broaden the appeal of the NFL to Hispanic-Americans.  A recent set of ads asks fans to send videos about how football is a part of their identity, and how it helps connect them to others – a kind-of existential authenticity/heritage narrative.  Franchises have also incorporated heritage in new stadium amenities and design, most notably the San Francisco 49ers team museum at their new stadium.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see if the NFL use heritage more than it has in the past.  As we know, heritage is often used when a site or tradition or way of life is under threat.  Certainly, the Washington name controversy has generated heritage discussions, particularly in the case of fans citing team traditions and personal heritage affiliations in support of the maintenance of the team name.  However, at a league-level, might the NFL draw more substantially on its past to remind (or, perhaps, distract) from its current controversies?  For example, next year is the 50th Super Bowl – might the league have a year-long celebration of itself, particularly if some of the issues from the past few seasons carry over to next year?  Could the NFL do something akin to the NHL’s Winter/Heritage Classic, and remind fans of the “roots” of the game as a way of muting these issues and reminding fans what they might lose?  Might there be more programs similar to the Hispanic Heritage month, recognizing the contributions of a particular people while also creating a narrative that the NFL is and has always been a source of social change (similar to Jackie Robinson Day and the Civil Rights Game in MLB)?  Of course, whether the NFL has ever been a source of social change is highly debatable, but that is hardly the point.  After all, heritage is a tool meant to address any number of contemporary needs and circumstances.  As such, it will be fascinating to see how the NFL uses this tool this season and in the seasons to come.

Games and Statues

I’m still ankle-deep in compiling my tenure file, completing a couple of grants (which share a due date with my tenure file – joy!), and the general chaos that is the beginning of the academic year, I wanted to share and offer a very brief commentary on two sport-heritage stories that came across the wire this week.

The first story involved a Penn State v. University of Central Florida game played at Croke Park last Saturday.  Of course, a US college football game being played at the home of Gaelic sport does, in a sense, point to a larger form of sport/culture/heritage mobilities (though, college football games being played abroad – and particularly in Ireland – has been happening for decades).  The interesting aspect is that this game, inadvertently, displaced a Gaelic football match.  I suppose this might point to a conflict between different sporting cultures – and that the international displaced the local – though, it would also seem that it is a sport tourism story, in that thousands of American football tourists are perhaps more lucrative a draw than domestic day visitors. 

The other story was about the city of Philadelphia erecting a Joe Frazier statue, in part, to reclaim it’s “authentic” boxing heritage rather than continue to promote the sport/film heritage of the Rocky films (and, in particular, a Rocky statue that was used as a prop in the film series and is now a tourist attraction).  Of course, the idea that sport heritage, popular culture, and simulacrum are often blended and interchangeable is perhaps most noticeable at the Durham Bulls stadium where the “real” and “fake” baseball heritage of the team are intermingled.  Still, I think this case points to an interesting form of dissonant sport heritage.

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