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Athletes and the Paradox of Sport Heritage

On Friday evening, I will be going to Turner Field in Atlanta (the former Olympic Stadium which will close at the end of this season) to watch the Atlanta Braves take on the Miami Marlins. Though there are several reasons for going to this game in particular – perhaps, in part, connecting a summer leisure activity to a kind-of American traditionalism and nationalism, not to mention the fact that though I dislike the Braves immensely, I like the Marlins…and I love attending live baseball games in the middle of summer – one of my main considerations is seeing Ichiro Suzuki play one final time before he, likely, retires at the end of the season.

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Ichiro was, in many respects, baseball’s first global superstar, having established himself in Japanese baseball before joining the Seattle Mariners in his late 20s. Recently, his combined professional hits total topped that of Pete Rose – and though there is some controversy as to whether his Japanese career “counts,” there is little doubt that Ichiro changed the game of baseball, both through his playing ability and through his global reach. He is certainly a first-ballot Hall of Fame player, and arguably one of the best baseball players of all time.

I first saw Ichiro play live in Seattle in 2006. I took a seat in right field – Ichiro’s then position – and was surrounded by fans from Japan, all there to see him play. In fact, much of the in-stadium signage – as well as many of the on-field advertisements – were in both English and Japanese, suggesting just how much of a magnet Ichiro was for fans overseas. Friday’s game will be my third time seeing Ichiro (the other was a mid-April Braves-Marlins game last season), and though I don’t expect to see the same reaction as I experience in 2006, I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t a few fans there who, like me, want to see him play one last time.

In many ways, my desire to see Ichiro play reflects on our understandings of sport heritage, namely that athletes represent a kind-of “living” artefact or heritage object. Sean Gammon, in his 2014 paper “Heroes as Heritage“, argues that athletes represent a type of dual sport heritage, in that they themselves are living heritage objects and that their accomplishments and feats represent a type of intangible heritage. I wrote, in response to Gammon’s paper, that

The heroes and the sporting moments they create then, as Gammon argues, become artefacts, and though we can relive and replay the achievement (and, in a sense, preserve the moment(s) in time, perhaps through both personal memory and vicariously through media) we cannot preserve “the object” in the same way that we might other forms of tangible heritage. The relationship between the achievement and the athlete, in fact, demonstrates a paradox in sport heritage. Athletes age, change, and are no longer what they were – indeed, athletes are some of the few heritage “objects” that are not aided by the patina of age. However, their achievements may become more glorious – or heroic – as time goes on.

Ichiro is certainly not the player he once was, and though he’s had a bit of a renaissance as of late, at 42 years of age he now a fourth outfielder (essentially filling in from time to time from starting players) and is battling well down the line-up (as he often strikes out more than he puts a ball in play these days). But, I am not going to see Ichiro as he is now – I am creating anticipatory heritage for myself (the “tell my grandkids about” moment), and celebrating his past achievements – making them, and he, more glorious and heroic as we are farther removed from them.

Art and Dissonance in Sport Heritage

The idea of dissonance as perhaps the central, innate characteristic of heritage is not new. Indeed, if we accept that all heritage is not neutral, the notion that all heritage could have a counter narrative seems reasonable. In this, we understand – as many in critical heritage studies do – that heritage is often, and perhaps always, about power.

In sport heritage, we have not necessarily considered dissonant heritages that often. While Sean Gammon and I, back in 2005, argued that the sporting past in tourism ought to be called heritage rather than nostalgia – in large part because heritage had the capacity for dissonant narratives – there actually aren’t that many dissonant narratives at sport heritage sites. Of course, there are many reasons for this – as most sport heritage sites like museums and halls of fame are primarily about celebration of achievement and, as such, more challenging views are frequently ignored. Still, there appears to be very few outlets where more challenging approaches to the sporting past – at least in terms of cultural sites like museums – are seen. Similarly, many non-sport cultural entities tend to avoid sporting exhibitions, perhaps viewing sport as too common and popular to represent at, say, a gallery or as part of a broad-based exhibition.

However, there are a few examples I am familiar with where art, dissonance, and sport heritage have met. Perhaps the best example was the Arena: The Art of Hockey exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 2008. The exhibition both embraced and challenged many of the links between hockey and Canadian national identity. On the one hand, many of the works embraced – if, somewhat subversively – the role hockey plays in Canadian identity. I recall one work which was little more than a nude male and female holding hockey sticks. On the other hand, there were many works that challenged hockey culture and heritage. One work, in particular (and, forgive, I forget the name – though it appears that there are still exhibition guides available) was a collage of images set on an indigenous reserve that featured scenes of hockey as well as suicide, alcoholism, racism and sexual abuse. Although I suspect the work could be read in many ways, I took it as the fact that hockey – and sport in general – does not necessarily address, and perhaps masks, larger social issues.

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Similarly, a 2008 exhibition called “Hard Targets: Masculinity and Sports” looks at the violence and voyeuristic aspects of sport consumption. Like Arena, this exhibition appeared to take sport cultures and heritages into an unfamiliar space, both critiquing and celebrating the physicality of sporting practices.

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Although there are certainly many other examples of art, dissonance, and sport heritage than these, and there are many sporting sites and places that do address dissonant heritages (Although I have a chapter coming out in early 2017 which looks at several sites that employ dissonant sport heritage narratives), there appears to be space within art galleries in particular – which, perhaps is not available to traditional sport heritage sites like museums and halls of fame – to both celebrate and challenge sport heritages. Perhaps some of this has to do with visitor expectations: hall of fame patrons may be looking to celebrate and nostalgize, while gallery patrons may expect subversion. However, these not need be polar opposites – and can exist, in many cases, side by side (as was recently featured in a post about Argentina). Certainly, many stadia – such as Marlins Park in Miami – have incorporated public art into stadium design (and not simply for nostalgic purposes). While this is not always necessarily addressing major social issues – as some of the art in the Arena exhibit might – it nevertheless demonstrates that so-called “high” and “low” cultures and heritage are not necessarily incompatible.

Fútbol and Heritage in Argentina

For the past ten days, I have been in Argentina – specifically Buenos Aires and Rosario – leading a course about soccer and globalization in conjunction with the Clemson men’s soccer program. The students had a series of lectures and presentations pre-departure, mostly based off of Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of GlobalizationFoer’s thesis is that “globalization has failed to diminish soccer’s local cultures, local blood feuds, and local corruption, and may have actually increased the power of local entities.” The students have been asked to reflect on this global/local tension of soccer cultures through a series of seminar discussions and journal entries while we are in country. Upon our return to the United States, the students will have to complete a major paper that, in part, addresses Foer’s thesis as viewed through the lens of their own experiences in Argentina, including playing games against local squads (such as the reserve teams of San Lorenzo and Newell’s Old Boys, to name but two), going to local matches (including at River Plate and Argentinos Juniors), and through their own informal interactions with the sporting and non-sporting cultures of Argentina.

As you can imagine, the students have experienced many different aspects of globalization and its local resistance throughout the journey thus far, from playing an impromptu five-on-five street match against locals in the La Boca community to being swept-up in the atmosphere of El Monumental during a match.

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(Street match in La Boca)

During my conversations with the students, and perhaps because of my own research interests, the role of heritage and its relationship to Argentinian fútbol has become a focal point of our discussions. One of the aspects I pointed out to the students, particularly after we toured La Bombonera – home of Boca Juniors – and visited the team museum, is that heritage (including team traditions, history, rituals, and culture) is one of the products that is packaged and sold to fans both locally and globally. Similarly, I told them that touring team museums and stadiums was, in a sense, an entry-point for many to acquire or re-enforce their fandom. Judging by the number of students who left La Bombonera with Boca merchandise (and who said they would support Boca upon their return to the US, despite the fact we did not actually see Boca play in their home stadium), there is something to the theory that experiencing heritage may lead to support and fandom.

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(Touring La Bombonera)

The students noticed that, despite the local cultures and chants, the teams were largely sponsored by international companies – and, often, American companies like DirectTV. They also commented that most of the music played in the stadiums we went to were American or British artists.

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(Watching a game at El Monumental, home of River Plate)

However, the interesting thing that the students did mention – and related to both globalization and heritage – were the styles of play they were encountering when playing against Argentinian clubs. They noted that it was a very distinct style of play, similar to the style that the Argentinian national team plays, primarily in terms of speed and aggression. Interestingly, they noted that some of the teams they’ve played anticipated a very “American” style of play from Clemson, and were surprised when Clemson played above expectations. Similarly, they have noted both the style of refereeing to be different and, in some cases, more knowledgable than US referees (with a few exceptions). They have also been enamoured with the fact that they are immersed in a soccer culture all the time, something that they rarely get to experience in the US.

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(Clemson versus San Lorenzo, with the Estadio Pedro Bidegain in the background)

One of the interesting aspects I have noticed at each of the grounds we have visited are the murals situated outside of the stadiums. While many are fútbol-related, others appear to be more about social and political struggle.

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(Two murals, one fútbol-related at San Lorenzo, the other more politically related at Boca Juniors)

We still have a few days remaining in-country, and I expect there will be more lessons to be learned – both on and off the pitch. We have seen some of the impacts of inflation in the country, and while in Buenos Aires we witnessed several major protests right on our doorstep. The students have two more games to play in Rosario, as well as a number of non-sport activities including a city tour, and I expect we will have many more interesting discussions about globalization, heritage, and soccer.

New Research: Sport heritage and the healthy stadia agenda

I am pleased to announce the publication of “Sport heritage and the healthy stadia agenda: an overview” in the Sport in Society journal. This paper is part of a special issue about the healthy stadia agenda.

From the abstract:

The healthy stadia agenda and sport heritage research appear to have much in common, though their relationship has not yet been explored in any detail. Many sport heritages involve playing particular sports, which may enhance physical activity aims of the healthy stadia agenda, while stadium tours – a staple of sport heritage industry – may also incorporate healthy stadia narratives. Similarly, sport heritage and the healthy stadia agenda are potential partners in public education, both through informal stadia-based public programmes and venue displays as well as more formal curriculum-based programming at sporting venues. However, the relationship between sport heritage and the healthy stadia agenda may also have some issues and challenges as well, as many sport heritages involve health risks and unhealthy behaviour. Ultimately, managers and researchers alike may wish to further consider the relationship between sport heritage and the healthy stadia agenda.

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Health-based approaches and perspectives are relatively new in the the sport heritage field, and this paper is – as far as I am aware – the first that links sport heritage to the healthy stadia initiative, and one of the few that specifically attempts to link sport heritage to health-based agendas.

A limited number of free copies of this paper are available by accessing this link.

I would like to thank the editors and manuscript reviewers, particularly Dr. Dan Parnell of Manchester Metropolitan University, for their comments and suggestions, and for being receptive to a different approach to the healthy stadia agenda.

Section K, Row 14

For the better part of my life, I have been fascinated with sports stadiums.

I have been fascinated with sports stadiums not so much for how they are operated, or constructed, or designed – but, rather, that sports stadiums are somehow meaningful. They are, as geographer John Bale argues, more than just utilitarian structures where games are played. We have imbued sports stadiums with particular meanings, values, and identities that we don’t do for many other places, save perhaps for our own childhood homes or monuments of national importance. We are, to cite another geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, topophilic about them – that is to say, we speak of them as very special places that, in many cases, we love.

Indeed, this interest in the meanings of sports stadiums has driven much of my research in sport heritage, looking at why millions of people will travel thousands of miles simply to tour empty sports venues. In some cases, people go to them because of a famous event happened there, or a famous team or athlete plays there. Other times, it is because the stadium is particularly old, or has a unique design or aesthetics. But, often, the love of sports venues is because there is a personal connection to them – of games seen, and people we’ve gone to see them with.

I’ve been very fortunate to tour numerous globally famous stadiums and, while many of them are important to me personally, few are as particularly special to me as Rexall Place (nee: Northlands Coliseum, Edmonton Coliseum, Skyreach Centre) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada – which is most famous for being the home of the Edmonton Oilers hockey club.

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This week sees the final Oilers game played at Rexall Place, as the Oilers are moving to a new arena next season. The future of Rexall Place has not yet been determined though, whether it is renovated or demolished, it will have little resemblance to it’s current form.

One of the ironic aspects of remembering Rexall Place, particularly in using terms like topophilla about it, is actually just how architecturally unremarkable it is. It is the epitome of the placeless, utilitarian venue both inside and out.

And, yet, I can safely argue it probably is the most important symbol of personal heritage to me. It is a repository of so many memories, of events of all sorts – not just hockey – seen with so many loved ones. I can still vaguely remember my first game, and though the details of the game itself are somewhat lost (1980 or 1981, maybe. Definitely against the Bruins. And, I think, a 2-2 tie), I went with my dad, sat at centre ice about halfway up in the 200s (or the Blues, as we called them), from tickets he had bought from a scalper outside the door. I remember seeing demolition derbys at the summer fair with my family, Hulk Hogan wrestling cards with my best friend, innumerable hard rock and heavy metal concerts with high school buddies. But, inevitably, I come back to the hockey games, because those were the ones I still remember.

And, I was at some pretty famous games: Game Five versus the Islanders in 1984 when they won their first Stanley Cup, and the relocated-from-Boston Game Four in 1988 when they won their fourth Stanley Cup. I should have seen them win the Cup in at Game Five in the 1987 Cup Finals as well – but, the Philadelphia Flyers had other ideas, though my brother got to see them win it in Game Seven a few days later. I was also at the infamous miss the empty net game, and the incredible Game Six victory over Detroit in the 2006 Cup run.  There were, of course, many games – many seasons, even – that blur into memory. During the mid 1990s, when the building was half-full, my friend and I became defacto season ticket holders, as tickets were in very low demand and very inexpensive to obtain (not to mention we could sit almost anywhere we wanted).

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More than anything, though, I remember who I went with and, more than anything, those are the memories I have when I think about Rexall Place. My mother, father, and brother are who I think of most, and how hockey games were some of my best family memories growing up. Into my 20s and 30s, it was friends and girlfriends, when the hockey game was part of a night on the town.

I considered coming back to Edmonton this season, just to see Rexall Place one more time. My brother and I, in particular, thought we would try and get some tickets near where our father’s tickets were in the 1980s – Section K, Row 14. Neither Section K or Row 14 exist anymore, the red seats removed during a mid 90s renovation, but I decided against going back. Perhaps because hockey is not necessarily a large part of my life anymore, or maybe because one last visit seemed unnecessary, I simply decided it wasn’t worth it. But I did slightly regret not going back one more time, just to be with my people in a place that meant so much to me for so long.

However, last week, it all came around full circle. My wife and son went up to Edmonton to visit friends and family, and she decided to take our hockey-obsessed boy – along with my parents – for his first visit to the old rink.

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My son, born and raised in South Carolina, experiencing a place that meant so much to me, along with the people who took me for so many years. This is the way it should end.

Farewell Rexall Place.

 

 

 

Sport Heritage Trails

Here in the United States, we have seen an increase in the ways that heritage is presented, marketed, and sustained – particularly in rural regions. Many small towns and communities have museums, historic sites, and heritage markers that – individually – may have challenges attracting visitors and interest. The new approach – which is also seen in broader forms of heritage designation, including at the World Heritage level – is to view heritage more holistically, at least in terms of geography.

As such many sites are linking together as part of theme-based heritage “trails” in order to both adequately reflect connections between sites as well as pool resources for marketing and promotion. Theme-based trails have demonstrated some success in rural economic development and can be important catalysts for identifying, recognizing, and sustaining important aspects of culture, heritage, and industry in rural and peripheral regions. Typical themes for trails include religious and pilgrimage routes, migration and trade routes, as well as industrial, cultural, and literary routes, although food-based trails have also become popular trail theme in recent years. It is assumed that all members of trails share common goals as to the purpose and outcomes of trail development, although this may not always be the case.

In any event, though many other forms of heritage – particularly those specific to popular cultures like music, literature, and food – have embraced the heritage trail concept, there appear to be relatively few sport heritage-specific trails that link sporting attractions, sites, places, and markers together. Perhaps the best local example of this concept might be the Packers Heritage Trail in Green Bay, that links important sites in the community to the heritage of the Green Bay Packers football team. On a broader regional basis, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama is one example of a sporting trail, though the actual historical/heritage component this trail is perhaps not as prominent as would exist in other regional heritage trails like the Virginia “Crooked Road” music trail.

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The seemingly limited use of sport heritage in trail development begs a few questions. First, are there other trails besides the ones listed above that are exclusively sport-based, particularly those that are regional driving trails (i.e.: require a car) rather than a local walking trail? Second, if sport heritage is not being used as a theme for trail development, why is it not being used? Has it not been considered, or has it been considered and dismissed? Third, if sport heritage has been considered and dismissed in trail development, what were the reasons? Does it have to do with marketability, or lack of sites/attractions in a region, or something else (e.g.: competition between sites)?

Sport heritage seems like it could be a strong theme for some kind of trail development – particularly around a common theme like particular sports (baseball, basketball, hockey) or famous athletes. Yet, there are apparently few examples of sport heritage being used in trail development, and I am curious as to why this is the case.

 

Tourism & Sport Heritage: Help or Hinderance?

There’s little doubt that sport heritage can play an integral role in tourism development.

Of course, sport heritage attractions and experiences that are purposely positioned to appeal to tourists are part of this. Sports halls of fame and museums, behind-the-scenes stadium tours and the like can be significant in a destinations year-round tourism. Cities like Boston and Barcelona – both not lacking in tourist attractions – cite stadiums (Fenway Park and Camp Nou, respectively) as some of the largest heritage and cultural tourism attractions in their communities.

However, just as often, attending a game live is one of the best ways to experience authentic local or national culture, traditions, and heritage. When I lived in Canada and was hosting an overseas visitor, inevitably we would end up at a hockey game. In South Carolina, I encourage visitors to come during the fall college football season – or, barring that, come during the spring or summer to experience minor league baseball in the Carolinas.

In general, this kind of heritage/cultural sport tourism is seen as beneficial for destinations, clubs, and visitors alike. For the destinations, visitors will come to watch matches in the tourism shoulder/off-season, there is the prestige of having global visitation (and, often, the revenue that comes from international visitors), and – in cities like Liverpool – additional local businesses and attractions can be created around visitors wanting to experience something of the club’s heritage year-round. For the clubs, the market for tickets and merchandise becomes global, additional off-season experiences – such as stadium tours and heritage-themed restaurants – can be created, and international competitions can be created. For supporters, seeing a match in the home of a particularly famous team can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

However, it’s not always so rosy. In the case of the Premier League in England, tourists form a significant number of ticket-buyers, often being motivated to experience the history, heritage, and traditions of English football. In fact, nearly 800,000 overseas visitors went to a football match in Britain (most of whom went to a Premiership match), with an estimated economic impact of £684m. Destination Marketing Organizations, such as Visit Britain, have sections on their webpages about attending football matches.

But, the influx of visitors have – in the view of many local supporters – driven up ticket prices, have not embraced local traditions (and, have created new ones, like half-and-half scarves) and created a much different atmosphere in the grounds (as visitors don’t know the chants and are, seemingly, just there to watch the spectacle).

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Recently, the chairman of the Football Supporters Federation claimed that clubs would “lose the atmosphere and link to the local community”, with match-going supporters replaced by “foreign tourists with half and half scarves taking selfies of being in an English ground”.

There is little doubt that tourism has probably driven up prices at heavily-subscribed sporting events like Premiership football, particularly at heritage-based clubs like Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal. While fans of other sports in other countries – like the NFL, NHL, MLB – have more opportunities to sell their tickets on the secondary market (like StubHub) and are able to finance going to some games by selling others at inflated prices, this is probably not as much of an option in the EPL – owing to both tradition (season ticket holders typically go to all games) and security at grounds. As such, there is probably a limited supply of tickets for tourists – and, perhaps, some of the “tourist tickets” are actually sold by the club at inflated prices. Few teams garner as much international interest as English football clubs, and with international travel being relatively easy and inexpensive as compared to previous generations, one can see how tickets to heavily supported clubs have gone up due to international demand and limited supply.

There is also the notion that tourism has changed the heritage and traditions of watching a football match. In this, English football – at least at certain grounds – is probably going through the changes that happen in many parts of heritage tourism. The line between “spectator” and “participant” is a challenge in many kinds of heritage tourism, as many heritage experiences are meaningful, important, and impactful because this line between spectator and participant does not exist. In this, the heritage tourist’s participation is integral to the spectacle – in fact, participation is integral to the heritage existing in the first place. As is the case in many kinds of heritage, the “outsider” coming in to ruin a local heritage can often tinged with a very reactionary form of nostalgia – and, of course, that could be happening here. The “good old days” of attending a top-tier football match in England are long gone, and perhaps tourists (or, particular kinds of tourists) are an easy and available scapegoat for broader social and cultural changes. That said, if tourists are “gazing” rather than participating (or feeling they can participate, which is a different thing altogether) and the number of “gazing” tourists are of a significant number, I can understand why local fans feel that some heritages are under threat.

Naturally, the idea of finding some sort of balance between maintaining heritage and tradition and welcoming tourists is as important in heritage sport tourism as it is in all other forms of cultural and heritage tourism. There have been some proposals to limit tickets to people with local postcodes, or have some other scheme by which local, longtime fans still have access to their home club. One thought might be for local or national destination marketing organizations to promote other sports and sporting experiences as “authentic” forms of cultural and heritage. In the case of Britain, perhaps rugby, cricket, or horse racing becomes the focus, rather than just football. Personally, attending a county cricket match seemed like a far more “authentic” sporting experience than any of the English football matches I’ve been to over the years. And, of course, local rugby teams and county cricket clubs would probably love the additional support! Easier said than done, of course, but actively promoting other important cultural/traditional sport might both ease the pressure on popular sports, help maintain some of the intangible heritage, and help spread the wealth a bit.

Ultimately, most organizations and destinations would love to have the heritage sport tourism issues of the Premier League. And, it goes without saying that the Premier League offers a unique heritage conservation issue that most sports do not have to contend with. By and large, heritage sport tourism is beneficial to destinations, clubs, and visitors alike. Few tourist experiences can rival the authenticity of watching a sporting event live in another country. However, as the Premier League example tells us, this has to be managed, lest local supporters (quite literally) revolt.