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Conservation of Sporting Venues

In the past two generations, heritage studies – and heritage conservation along with it – have embraced broader notions of what constitutes a heritage worthy of recognition and protection. Although much of the broader understandings of built heritage have included recognizing and conserving vernacular heritage like industrial sites, agricultural locations, and heritages of everyday home life, heritages of sport, leisure, and recreation have too become part of the contemporary conservation movement. Although it may, on some level, be a stretch to position monumental structures like sports venues – along with the elite (and, in recent decades, well-compensated) athletes who now work there – as heritages of the everyday, these “new cathedrals” are nevertheless important symbols in the community and to the people who use or are impacted by them. In particular, they become more than utilitarian places when they are demolished or when a team elects to move venues. As such, sporting venues become remnants like any other form of built heritage: they are symbols of a past, a repository of memory, and a place that, in many cases, is important to conserve. However, unlike a stately home or even an old factory, an abandoned sporting venue does pose a unique conservation challenge, in whether it makes sense to preserve and conserve a sporting venue when its primary use – a place where sport is played – no longer occurs.

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(The former Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, now home to – among other things – a grocery store and university athletics facility. Photo courtesy of Kate Blair)

Although the much of the focus in the conservation and preservation of sporting venues focuses on the grand and famous, many sporting venues have much more local and regional meanings and, often, are associated more with community leisure and recreation than professional and elite sport. In 2002, English Heritage commissioned a report titled A Sporting Chance which looked at the recognition and conservation of a variety of sporting venues, from famous football grounds through to community pools and leisure facilities to factories which made sporting equipment. In 2011, Historic England (the successor to English Heritage) provided an updated prospectus on the preservation of sport heritage venues, arguing that

Sport and recreation play a major role in modern life. Historic buildings in these categories can therefore elicit strong emotional and sentimental responses. At best, buildings for sport and recreation can be structures of architectural elegance, imbued with considerable social history interest. More commonly they are merely functional in appearance. Yet many of those that survive – and the losses have been considerable – transcend mere utility, and have a character all of their own. (p.3)

The report notes that historic sporting venues have come under threat from commercial and real estate development, from changing health and safety initiatives, and from the need and desire for sporting clubs and sport organizations to maximize revenues (and which may threaten the historic integrity – or continued use – of a historic venue). Furthermore, the report provides numerous other forms of sport venue preservation, including locations associated with ancient and medieval sports like cockfighting and real tennis, as well as more community-based sporting facilities such as billiard halls, cricket clubs, velodromes, gymnasia and drill halls, race tracks (horse, greyhound, and auto), and many more.

Although architectural and historic considerations are important in preserving sporting venues, often it is the emotional connections to these venues which are most pronounced. Losing a beloved venue can be a challenging and even traumatic event for fans and supporters, particularly when it is associated with a the move of a team or the end of a particular era of play. The demolition of Ebbets Field in 1957, the stadium where Jackie Robinson became the first African American player in Major League Baseball, following the Brooklyn Dodgers move to San Francisco has been eulogized numerous times, most notably by filmmaker Ken Burns in his landmark 1994 documentary series “Baseball”:

In 1912, construction began. By the time it was completed a year later, Pigtown had been transformed into Ebbets Field – baseball’s newest shrine, where some of the game’s greatest drama would take place. In the years to come, Dodger fans would see more bad times than good, but hardly car, listen to the southern cadences of a pioneer broadcaster, and witness first-hand baseball’s finest moment – when a black man wearing number 42 trotted out to first base.

In 1955, after more than four decades of frustration, Brooklyn would finally win a world championship, only to know, two years later, the ultimate heartbreak, as their team moved to a new city, 3,000 miles away, leaving an empty shell in Flatbush that eventually became an apartment building, and an even emptier spot in the soul of every Brooklyn fan.

The “empty shell” of a venue no longer has a purpose if games are no longer played there, thus the justification for conservation or preservation becomes a challenge. Nothing is so dead as an empty stadium. In recent years, however, the heritage value of sporting venues have been reconsidered – including for venues that, even a few short years ago, would have struggled to be defined as “heritage.” Sites such as the Astrodome, which ushered in the era of the multipurpose stadium, are now considered important representations of a particular form and type of sport heritage.

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.