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Sport Heritage Re-Enactments: A Look at Vintage Base Ball

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One element of heritage, particularly public manifestations of heritage, is that heritage is much more fun to do and to watch rather than to read-about. Most museums and historic sites will provide opportunities for visitors to touch, feel, and try particular activities from the past. Many will also incorporate forms of live interpretation and re-enactments, in order for visitors to see the past “come to life.” Certainly, these opportunities provide a much more diverse learning opportunity for visitors and provide a sensual, and perhaps empathetic, link between past and present. However, these kinds of activities are also enjoyable and make for an entertaining day out. Perhaps this is why forms of heritage events, such as the ubiquitous Renaissance Fair and Battle Re-enactments, are so popular. Of course, the forms and types of authenticity in these kinds of representations can vary. In my earlier life working at a pioneer village, we worked with several re-enactment groups, and while I found there was an intense fidelity to the accuracy of their outfits, there was little understanding – or care – of the broader social, cultural, and political issues of that material culture…or most anything else, really. At times, it was a cosplay, albeit with real or imagined educational overtones. At other times, I have seen re-enactment done very well, where it is entertaining, accurate, and informative.

Sport heritage has been relatively slow to the re-enactment game, although this has been changing. Certainly, sports museums employ interactive exhibits for a variety of reasons, from entertaining visitors to recruiting the next generation of athletes, though given the ludic nature of sport, it is surprising we have not seen more sites use more interpretation and re-enactments. Similarly, sport re-enactments and historical demonstrations may be akin to experimental archaeology, where historical sports are attempted to see how they work in time and space. However, there appears to be a rise in forms of sport heritage re-enactment and demonstration, particularly in the United States using early manifestations of baseball.

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Vintage Base Ball, as it is called, uses rules from the mid-to-late 19th century, and includes players dressing up in period costume and – in some cases – using antiquated language. The sport is a bit of a hybrid between contemporary baseball and cricket, most noticeably in that the pitcher is called the bowler and fielders don’t use gloves. As The Guardian describes it in an article from August:

It’s an intriguing slice of Americana. A blend of historical re-enactment and competitive endeavor, the game could be said to occupy something of a fraught intersection between where baseball was and where it is now…(T)he sport also counts hipsters in search of something off-mainstream, and conservative types attracted by a sense of nostalgia, a period when gentlemanly conduct pervaded the game. Even those who crave a scintilla of officialdom.

Certainly, there are broader ideas – and ideals – of simplicity and something of the rural pastoral, which is indicative of many forms of heritage. The Guardian notes that there has been a significant rise in the number of teams in recent years, and while this could be simply the latest heritage/leisure trend, perhaps there is a larger issue going on – what Philip Moore calls “practical nostalgia” – whereby the nostalgic past becomes a roadmap for how to cure the ills of the present and future. Perhaps Vintage Base Ball is the latest antidote for coping with contemporary society.

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Earlier in October, I had the chance to actually play Vintage Base Ball as part of the Georgia Peaches – representing the Ty Cobb Museum in Royston, Georgia – as they took on the Shoeless Joes – representing the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, South Carolina. The event is held each autumn, and the host museum flips back and forth (this year’s event was held in Royston). While many heritage-based events have goals related to awareness, or an attendance increase, or to raise funds, this annual event appears to exist simply to exist – that it is a way to celebrate, and perhaps redeem and rehabilitate, two of baseball’s infamous antiheroes: Joe Jackson, kicked out of baseball and banned from Hall of Fame induction, for allegedly being part of a group that fixed the 1919 World Series, and Ty Cobb, one of the game’s greatest players, but who might be most well-known for having an extremely short, violent, and possibly racist temper. Shoeless Joe has become a bit more of a folk hero in recent years, perhaps because of his link to the work of the late W.P. Kinsella and the film Field of Dreamswhile Cobb – though still largely viewed in a negative light – has inspired recent scholarship that challenges much of the popular negative depiction of him.

There is also an element of kinaesthetic learning to Vintage Base Ball. Like experimental archaeology, Vintage Base Ball could be considered a form of experimental sport heritage – trying a game from the past, in the present, and seeing how it works. I noticed that the game when relatively quickly – we played two games, in fact, and neither took more than 90 minutes or so. In part, it seemed that this had much to do with the rules, in particular that an out could be achieved from catching the ball after one hop (rather than in the air, as is the only way contemporary baseball). Similarly, you could see the echoes of cricket in the game, particularly in terms of fielding and style of play. Certainly, in the 1860s there was a transition from cricket to baseball, though beyond terminology and the lack of gloves, there is also an apparent shared yearning for a more civil form of recreation and leisure. Finally, although there was some fidelity to authentic representation (one player for the Georgia Peaches came all the way from St. Louis, and wore a vintage Detroit Tigers uniform for the game), it was more about celebrating the achievements of Cobb and Jackson, as well as creating a tradition in their name.

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.

Sports Venues and Historic Preservation: What the Astrodome tells us about heritage

One of the major issues facing historic preservation appears to be making the case for the preservation and protection of relatively recent sites and structures. I think this is particularly the case for buildings that were, at the time, considered futuristic or having a space-age design, or represented some kind of forward-thinking, progressive age – in fact, the polar-opposite of heritage. A recent non-sport example would be something like the site of the Kennedy Space Center, which seems to be much more about the glorious past of the US Space Program than about any kind of future discovery. Seemingly overnight, the site went from a symbol of the future to almost a relic of the past, although in some respects it still exists in a kind-of liminal space where there are still echoes of a future to come. Of course, the Kennedy Space Center still has a purpose, primarily as a tourist attraction as well as the site of occasional launches from private firms, and as such is probably spared from any real threat. However, most recent historic structures aren’t so fortunate, and it can sometimes be difficult to position them as worthy of preservation and protection.

Many sports stadia and venues from the recent sporting past also exist in a kind-of liminal space, particularly as cities and communities struggle with whether the multi-use, multipurpose venues built in the 1960s and 70s are worthy of designation, protection, and repurposing. I have argued many times – both in this forum and in academic publications – that nothing is so dead as an unused and abandoned stadium. A stadium can’t often simply exist to exist, as other historic properties might. In many cases, such as in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Philadelphia amongst many others, multipurpose venues were simply demolished. However, the case of the Houston Astrodome, and the current debates over of what to do with it, might add to the broader debate about the preservation of recent sites and buildings.

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The history of the Astrodome is well documented, though needless to say it has arguably been the most important sporting structure – in events, design, and legacy – in the US in the past 50 years. It is undeniably an important building in telling the story of American sports since the mid 1960s, and if it were a more conventional building the debate over its preservation wouldn’t be in doubt. However, because it is a large, abandoned sports venue, it becomes a little more complicated. There remains an ongoing debate about what to do with it, from the unusual suggestion of maintaining it as site for “ruin porn” tourism to the more conventional adaptive reuse options, but the fact that it hasn’t been torn down and that there are various proposals about what to do with it is encouraging – not just for those who value the building itself, but for proponents of a much broader understanding of historic preservation. The idea that sports venues are not only icons of place but repositories for memories and intergenerational bonding, sites where spectacular feats happened and amazing people performed, and sources of all kinds of artistic inspiration, are not new. However, the notion that the much-riducled multipurpose sports venue also possess heritage qualities is unique, and might make us re-think all kinds of structures from our recent past. Of course, we probably don’t want to save every stadium or every building built since the early 60s – this is simply neither feasible nor desirable. But, the example of the Astrodome demonstrates that historic properties come in all shapes and sizes, and that heritage value is much more than simply a case of a structure being particularly old or particularly ornate.

The Geography of Celebration

There are moments in our lives that we anticipate will be memorable – graduations, weddings, the birth of children, the death of those close to us, and so on. We typically take steps to plan these events, both from a practical standpoint but also because we know that these events will be milestones; moments that either we want to remember and cherish (particularly if these are positive events) or know that we will remember, even if they are painful.

More collectively, memories tend to be reactive. That is to say, an event (normally a shocking or unexpected one) happens which becomes a memory; a “where were you?” moment like September 11, 2001. Certainly, in sport, there are unexpected moments – victories (or defeats) that will be recalled and rehashed for decades to come. However, sport also does often offer the opportunity to plan a memory, knowing that a particular moment will likely form a part of a collective biography. As I wrote about last spring, there is a tendency to form an “anticipatory sport heritage” whereby we rapidly assess the impact of a sporting event either in its immediate aftermath or, at times, before the event has even happened. As such, some events are thought to be “memorable” before they’ve event occurred.

This evening is the National College Football Championship, played between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers. As a faculty member at Clemson, we were provided instructions by our Provost – Dr. Bob Jones – on how to academically approach the following couple of days, knowing that many students, staff, and faculty would either venture to Arizona for the game or, at the very least, be distracted (if not a little fatigued) whether the Tigers won or lost the game. In the Provost’s words from an email sent to all faculty, staff, and students on January 2, he notes:

“A national football championship is, for most of us, a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience a key part of American higher education culture. This is true for students, staff, and faculty. It is a special opportunity. We have an obligation to facilitate participation, so long as it does not diminish the core academic mission of the university.”

Of course, it is quite impossible to say whether this event that (at the time of writing) will be “once in a lifetime”, or that we can instantly assess its significance in our own lives or the legacy of our university.

But, we can probably guess that it will be important, regardless of the result. Perhaps if Clemson loses, and perhaps wins in the coming seasons, the “once in a lifetime” will be contextualized in terms of an era of success. Or if they lose, and never return to the Championship, the memory will be bittersweet. If Clemson wins, perhaps it will be something that the Clemson community will view as an integral part of its history; something to be shared, recalled, and nostalgized for years to come.

One of the aspects I will be interested to see, should the Tigers be victorious, is the Geography of Celebration. That is to say, which areas in or near Clemson become the focus of public celebrations? I expect that it will probably be the College Avenue area, which is the main street of Clemson leading up to Bowman Field and the “entrance” to the university:

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Most of the bars in Clemson are on College Avenue, and there is the icon of the Tillman Hall/Old Main building at the end of the street. However, there is not much at this location that is specifically related to football in particular (although the field itself, historically, was once the football field). There is nothing like Auburn University’s Toomer’s Corner in this area, which has become a part of football lore and tradition:

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There are football-related icons in Clemson, particularly Howard’s Rock and the Esso Club:

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Both are near the College Avenue area and, in the case of Howard’s Rock in particular, are symbolic of Clemson football. As such, it will be interesting to see if there are several different celebration locations in Clemson itself, or if they ultimately meld into one particular place.  Added to this geography, however, is the fact that the largest remote viewing party is at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, approximately 30 miles from Clemson University. It is possible, then, that the celebration will be quite diffuse.

Of course, with such a large area – and several different iconic locations – it is possible that, win or lose, there will be a large area to monitor and potentially police. Many sports celebrations, or reactions to defeat, have sparked antisocial behaviours, most notably in Vancouver in 2011:

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Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Clemson’s President, Dr. Jim Clements, sent the following email this morning to the entire university:

“Whether you plan to watch in Arizona, at a viewing party or from the comfort of home, please remember that we are all representatives of our great university. I’m glad that the Clemson family knows that just like our student-athletes and coaches, we win or lose with class, dignity and good sportsmanship.”

Of course, one hopes that such incidents won’t occur. However, the idea that we must plan for many eventualities does have to take place. Furthermore, in the age of mobile technologies, celebrations (or any form of public gathering) can be dynamic; they can form and disperse quite quickly.

From a heritage standpoint, there is something to be said that many public celebrations tend to take place at or near icons of place (many, if not most of which, could broadly be considered heritage). It is also interesting to see which icons are “chosen” as sites of celebration, and for what reasons. In Clemson’s case, I imagine that the College Avenue/Bowman Field area will be chosen in large part because it is central, well-known, has amenities (mainly bars), and, perhaps, because it is next to an icon and symbol of the university. However, it will be interesting to see that, if tonight and the coming days, other symbols and icons – such as Howard’s Rock – become the sites of a broader, collective celebration. Similarly, if they lose, which icons become the sites of mourning and why?

Team Nicknames and Local Heritage

Few aspects of sport engender as much passion – and debate – as team nicknames.  Beyond the fact that they are often divisive, particularly when announced for a new franchise, they are also frequently triggers for larger social debates – including, most notably and recently, debates about racism. In the contemporary global sports marketplace, team identifiers (such as names, but also uniform logos and colour schemes) are commodities.  Heritage, of course, plays a significant role in team names – often, names are linked to local or regional histories and traditions, or have long-standing links with (for example) legacies of success. In this, heritage is both a signifier and commodity; it separates the team as something unique and special while also selling those unique signifiers to a global audience.  On the other hand, if the heritage is too local, it may not resonate with a wider audience.  In January 2014, I wrote about Hull City FC formally adopting their “Tigers” nickname in order to appeal to a global fan base, with some accusing the club of turning their backs on local history, heritage, tradition, and sentiment.  I wrote at the time:

What is fascinating about this is how the team’s heritage is seen as both a global marketing opportunity and a burden.  On the one hand, the fact that the club supporters have informally used the “tigers” nickname for many is a benefit that may resonate globally and separate the club from its rivals.  Essentially, it is formalizing and institutionalizing an informal heritage that has existed for years. On the other hand, the team’s “proper” name – which, too, has a long history and heritage – was seen as too local and too common and, as such, burdened the club internationally.

I would suggest – though I don’t know this for certain – that an animal nickname, such as tigers, perhaps too closely resembles American sport or other franchise sports (such as the IPL) and lacks a certain authenticity, as well as the public trust/connection to community that is traditionally view as part of English football. Perhaps this is part of the local resistance to the name change?

In Hull City’s case, local heritage was viewed as a burden, particularly to their global ambitions.  But, can a turn towards local history, heritage, and signifiers actually benefit a sports club?

Enter the Greenville Swamp Rabbits

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The Swamp Rabbits are an ECHL ice hockey team located in Greenville, South Carolina, and are one of the minor league affiliates of the New York Rangers of the NHL.  They have been in Greenville for five seasons, though this is the first year they are called the “Swamp Rabbits.” Previously, they were known as the “Road Warriors” – a subtle and generic nod to the community’s current automobile manufacturing economy (metro Greenville is both the national headquarters of Michelin and the BMW’s only US plant). However, the name never really resonated outside of a small, hard-core group of fans.  So, the team turned to local heritage for their new name:

“We determined that we wanted our new identity to honor a piece of Greenville’s history while also being relevant within the community today,” said Fred Festa, owner of the Swamp Rabbits. “Ultimately, we selected the Swamp Rabbits because the name holds dear to a variety of residents, businesses, popular recreational areas and the historic landmark, the Swamp Rabbit railroad, dating back the 1920s in Greenville.”

The railroad, which linked the South Carolina city with the coal fields of Tennessee, became known as the “Swamp Rabbit” by locals who would use the freight train as a means of transportation to picnic in northern Greenville County. 

In a recent, long-form interview on the Tao of Sports podcast, the team’s Executive Vice President Chris Lewis describes that that the name change (though controversial among some supporters) not only links the franchise to the community through one of its most locally resonant histories, it also provides a strong symbol that the team is committed to the community.  Furthermore, he notes that it is meant to spur local interest in the team – both from sponsors and the general public – and drive new merchandise sales.  Surprisingly, this turn towards local heritage has resonated across North America, with both American and Canadian sports media outlets – as well as a nationally-trending social media – covering the name change.

Though it remains to be seen whether the Swamp Rabbit’s name will ultimately pay-off in terms of increased local interest, it does point to the fact that there remains a strong link between sport and broader forms of local heritage, and that local heritages are often unique, appealing, and (dare I say) authentic. It would make little sense, outside of Greenville, to name a team the “Swamp Rabbits” – but, in Greenville’s case, it appears to be a perfect fit. In addition, while Hull City rejected their local heritage to embrace a more palatable global brand, Greenville seems to have attracted inadvertent national attention while attempting to solidify their local footprint.  It also suggests that teams need to find ways of connecting themselves to their communities, and embracing a local heritage can be one of the ways to do this.