Sport Heritage Review

Is it sport heritage? The challenge of ancient and medieval sport


Defining what necessarily qualifies as “sport” is as old as the institution of sport. Huw Richards, in his 2007 book about the history of rugby union, argues that a sport – in essence – is “born” when its rules are codified and played by others in different locations using those same rules. Tom Hinch and James Higham, in defining sport within tourism, define sport as having clearly defined rules, uncertain outcomes, competitive and contest based, playful or incorporating a sense of play, and physical or kinaesthetic in nature. Certainly, many a barstool argument has been waged over whether auto racing or poker or professional wrestling is a sport. Seemingly, discourse also plays a role. If something is called sport, and perhaps is covered by sports media, does it then become sport?

However, what do we make of “sport” from ancient or medieval worlds. Could we call cock fighting, bear bating, and chariot racing, types of sports – and, for the purposes and scope of this blog – sport heritage? Do they fit more into forms of leisure and recreation heritage rather than sport, considered in a similar vein to other forms of gaming such as dice?


Delineating what is – and, perhaps, is not – sport heritage is a challenge. Much of what is included in ancient and medieval sport most likely would have had an understood – if highly localized – set of rules, and certainly would have had a clearly defined winner and loser. That said, its not as if there were governing bodies per se for these practices, and it would seem that the rules would vary from place to place – so codification and transferability may be in question. Similarly, the fact that many also include animals – often in life or death situations – it is a wonder whether one could call, for example, bear bating a form of play (particularly for the bear) or if the participants had any agency in their participation. That said, the discursive use and practice of both sport heritage – in particular heritage researchers, promoters, and agencies – must give us pause for thought. Two medieval sport places in London, Cockpit Steps and Bear Gardens, are listed in Simon Inglis’ Played in London book – which is part of the English Heritage sport heritage project, Played in BritainSimilarly, the British Museum offers tours of “Sport in the Ancient World” specifically curating part of their collection as sport-based. While much of what we consider as sport heritage comes from the last two centuries, in large part because of codification, governance, and transferability, anything before this period raises questions about what we ought to include – or ignore – in our study and understanding of sport heritage.



History Jackie and Heritage Jackie


This past weekend on April 15, Major League Baseball (MLB) celebrated the 70th anniversary of  Jackie Robinson‘s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he became the first African-American player in the big leagues in the modern era. The fact that it was the 70th anniversary was remarkable and included events like statue commemorations as well, although MLB does celebrate Robinson every season on April 15, most notably with all players wearing Robinson’s number 42 for games on that day. However, as many commentators noted, these commemorations and celebrations ignore much of Robinson’s story. In this, we see the differences between “History Jackie” and “Heritage Jackie,” though the perspectives might not be as far apart as they seem.

As scholars of heritage (and probably history as well) will tell you, history and heritage are different – they have different audiences, different purposes, and different outcomes. Sport historians are correct in pointing out that Robinson’s story is not a fable meant to reassure us, but rather is complex. In this, they ought to question the ways in which Robinson’s accomplishments are recognized today – particularly in what history is ignored. A critical heritage studies perspective would not necessarily ask what differs between the historical record and the contemporary commemorations, but rather why, by whom, and to what end Robinson is being remembered.  This might include remembering (perhaps in a self-congratulatory way) the moment when something that happened on a baseball field transcended the sport itself, the need to attract African-Americans to play baseball, and even selling merchandise based on the commemorations. The historical perspective is about the past, and the heritage perspective is about the present and future, though they almost certainly inform one another.

This is not to suggest that MLB should stop recognizing Robinson every April 15. In fact, from my perspective, it is one of the best things that MLB does. That said, perhaps the commemorations ought to include more public history, where the complex story of Robinson is translated for a general audience. Similarly, what does Robinson’s story tell us about what other issues we have to address, besides baseball enrolment and selling more tickets and merchandise (which primarily helps MLB)? Robinson undoubtedly continues to serve as an inspiration – but what else might his legacy inspire baseball and its fans to do? In this, “History Jackie” and “Heritage Jackie” might become more aligned towards not only a fuller understanding of the past, but where that past takes us today and tomorrow.

Basketball and heritage in Charlotte

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a Charlotte Hornets basketball game at the Spectrum Center (formerly the Time Warner Cable Arena). I had been to the arena on a few occasions since moving to the Carolinas in 2009, seeing both basketball games and minor league hockey games at the venue over the years. This particular trip was mainly about taking my five-year-old son to his first NBA game and, given that the game was on a Sunday afternoon and against the Phoenix Suns (who are not the most marketable opponent) it was an affordable weekend outing.


Despite having been to the arena on several occasions, I hadn’t stopped to think about the many different representations – and layers – of sport heritage on display at the venue. For example, in the entrance foyer there is a large mural depicting various teams and players from (I would assume) college basketball in North Carolina. Interestingly, not only was there a representation of basketball heritage that wasn’t from the professional ranks, much of the mural was dedicated to women’s basketball. Many arenas tend represent the heritage and history of the current tenant – such as at Rogers Place in Edmonton, they tend to be about famous players and championships – whereas this heritage mural not only was not about the Hornets/Bobcats, it had college sports, women’s sports and, more specifically, African American women’s basketball. From the arena’s website, the mural is described as “the History of Basketball in the Piedmont and the action of the game.” All heritage representations are as much about exclusion as inclusion, so it is interesting that many different forms and types of sport heritage that are often excluded are explicitly included in this mural:


In a similar vein, most sport heritages – particularly at venues – tend to be celebratory (again, representing famous moments and championships, etc.) One of the more interesting heritage displays at the arena was the history of professional basketball teams in Charlotte. Of course, many facilities will link the current team with teams from previous eras. The interesting aspect of these displays is that many of the teams that were represented had, for lack of a better term, ignominious histories – in that they ceased operations or were relocated to other cities. Again, the fact that there was at least a bit of a “warts and all” acknowledgment of the history of professional basketball in Charlotte was both welcome and surprising.


Finally, there are the multiple and layered heritage narratives with the Hornets nickname. Charlotte’s first incarnation of NBA basketball were known as the Hornets, and when the team moved to New Orleans in 2002 – taking the name with them. Charlotte regained their NBA franchise in 2004 but, as the “Hornets” name was still being used in New Orleans, the new franchise called themselves the Bobcats. Only in 2014 did the Hornets moniker return, so there is a (as myself and Sean Gammon termed it) “heritage of sport” association with the name. Similarly, the Hornets name was used in minor league baseball in the city for many years as well.


However, it also has a broader association too, as the Hornets name is associated with the city’s resistance to the British in the Revolutionary War. In particular, according the to the Mecklenburg Historical Association (Charlotte is located in Mecklenburg County) “Lord Cornwallis came to Charlotte in the fall of 1780 on his way to destroy the Continental Army, but he only stayed sixteen days.  The local partisans were just too hot for him, and he later referred to Charlotte as ‘A Hornet’s Nest of Rebellion.'” Although there is nothing at the arena that necessarily denotes the association between the team’s name and the Revolutionary War, it is assumed that for many Hornets fans there is a dual heritage relationship: both that of the city’s sport heritage as well as its broader identity in American history.

Although the many sport heritage representations at Spectrum Center are, ultimately, nostalgic if not celebratory, the forms and types of heritage were different than many similar venues that I have experienced. Celebrating and recognizing different types and forms of sport heritage – and not merely myopically reflecting the past of the current franchise – provides a unique form of sport heritage. In many ways, it felt more like a celebration of basketball in Charlotte rather than just using heritage as another form of advertisement and promotion. Even the heritage markers that were sponsored had a surprising amount of depth and were not simply about selling jerseys and t-shirts. Given that I went to the game with a five-year-old, I didn’t have the freedom to explore the venue’s heritage representations in more detail (although, I did notice that there were many displays simply about the city itself, and not necessarily linked to basketball or sport). However, I think the Spectrum Center provides a good template for other arenas and sports facilities looking to represent their sporting past.

Sport Heritage and Reminiscence Therapy

Over the last few months, I have been involved in the development of exciting project involving the use of sport heritage in reminiscence therapy. In particular, the project is developing, implementing, and evaluating a non-pharmacological, sports-based reminiscence therapy kit and protocols based on Clemson football’s history and heritage for use at assisted living and memory care facilities in upstate South Carolina. This project was inspired by programs like the Sporting Memories Network in the UK, and hopes to use the local passion for college football in a healthcare setting. It is sponsored by the Brooks Sports Science Institute at Clemson University.

On this project, I am working with one of my fellow professors, a recreational therapist, two wonderful recreational therapy graduate students, and Clemson’s football historian. Not being a recreational therapist, it has been a wonderful learning experience for me to understand how sport heritage – and its material culture – might be used to help people with memory issues such as dementia. We are at the stage where we have developed some draft session protocols based on sport heritage themes (such as famous games) and locating materials to use in our reminiscence therapy kit. We will soon be receiving feedback from reminiscence therapy experts on our sessions, as well as reaching out to a local care facility to receive their thoughts and feedback about this program. We also have to submit an application to our institutional review board to make certain our project is ethically sound. We are hoping to run the program over a 6-8 week period over the summer.


Thus far, I think the biggest learning experience I have gleaned from this project so far (besides learning about recreational therapy) is understanding what “Clemson football heritage” actually means. Of course, there are the on-field exploits of the team – most recently winning the National Championship in January – but also how the socialization component of college football has changed. We tend to think of it now mostly in terms of tailgating – which involves grilling, and games, and normally alcohol – but many of the social components of football in the 1950s and 1960s at Clemson was about post-game dances, bringing a date to the game, and more informal forms of tailgating – which was often a bucket of chicken, and normally no alcohol. We have concluded that understanding and representing both the heritage and memories of sporting artifacts (such as the stadium, the games) should be balanced with the memories of the social aspects surrounding the games (something discussed in research by Fairley and Gammon, and Cho et al.)


Book update

As I mentioned in a post last month, I am currently working on an authored book about sport heritage. The manuscript is due to the publisher in Fall 2018, so I have been busy developing chapter outlines and drafts. The book will broadly have four sections based on the sport heritage typology (tangible immovable sport heritage, tangible movable sport heritage, intangible sport heritage, and sport heritage goods and services) which was first developed by Sean Gammon and I in 2005 and later revisited in 2016. In addition, there will be full introductory and concluding chapters in large part based on the ideas of “heritage of sport/sport as heritage.” In any event, it is hoped that I will have a skeleton draft of the book (40-50k words) by August.

One of the aspects of the book which will be completed this summer are additional illustrations and examples of sport heritage, both in terms of type and geography. I will be undertaking a couple of trips to the UK and to other parts of the USA later this year to get some additional topical examples (including sport heritage landscapes, sport heritage institutions, and dissonant or subaltern sport heritages, among others). I have also asked students and colleagues from other parts of the world to send me additional representations of sport heritage in order to make the book, as best as possible, applicable to as many regions as possible. Of course, I would welcome readers of this blog to also submit representations of sport heritage from your part of the world!

I have also noticed since I started writing the book just how many more forms and types of sport heritage I see. While perhaps before I might mentality note these examples for teaching or a manuscript, I find now that I document them much more than I did before. For example, while passing through Chicago’s OHare International Airport last month, I noticed just how much of this Cubs theme restaurant is decorated by symbols of heritage. Even the souvenir stand outside of the restaurant was shaped like Wrigley Field! Heritage is a commodity, we know, and sport heritage seems to be a particularly powerful (and lucrative) one. Theme restaurants are an interesting case of both a sport heritage good and service, as well as having quasi museum-like qualities as well.

The New Arena 

I managed to visit the new home arena of the Edmonton Oilers, Rogers Place, twice this week for two separate games. Rogers Place replaced the Coliseum, a building that was not entirely beloved but did play host to numerous important games and events – in particular, saw Gretzky and the 80s-era Oilers win five Stanley Cup championships in seven years. While the Coliseum was not far from the city core, Rogers Place is directly in downtown Edmonton and includes a surrounding entertainment space called “Ice District” which is largely still under construction. 

From a heritage standpoint, there are a few attempts to give Rogers Place a sense of continuity and legacy – in particular, with the “Glory Years” of the 1980s. There are numerous street-level displays commemorating past Hall of Fame players and championship seasons.

A statue of Wayne Gretzky, that stood in front of the Coliseum since 1988, has been relocated to Rogers Place and now sits in front of an Oilers Hall of Fame  (which also appears to double as a press conference room and event rental space). It appears that there is no public access to the hall of fame. 

Inside the building there are a few large stylized photos of past Oilers, focusing again mainly on the 1980s championship-era teams.

There were a few more contemporary photos from more recent teams, including current players, but the heritage focus is very time specific. Popular Oilers from other eras – such as Tommy Salo, Curtis Joseph, Kelly Buchberger, Doug Weight, and Jason Smith – do not appear to be represented, at least in spaces accessible to fans. Given that a fan would have to be at least 35 – and probably over 40 – to have any direct memory of the 80s teams, the choice is a curious one. Furthermore, the Oilers have a pre-NHL heritage from when they played in the now-defunct WHL and which doesn’t appear to be represented. In addition, the other main tenant of Rogers Place is the Edmonton Oil Kings, a major junior hockey club with a long history of success. However, outside of championship banners, there doesn’t appear to be any recognition of that team’s heritage. 

One welcome non-sport heritage touch are that there are several public artworks in the building, most noticeably Alex Janvier’s Tsq Tsq Ke K’e  (Iron Foot Place) mural at the front entrance. 

As a sporting venue, Rogers Place is a mix of some of the best and some of the worst of sports stadiums. The design and many of the spaces in the arena are impressive. However, a lack of toilet facilities, public water fountains, congestion in concourse spaces, and extraordinarily uncomfortable seating in the upper levels, makes viewing a game there as a mixed experience at best. Indeed, the difference between sitting in the upper and lower levels is as extreme as I’ve experienced at a sporting venue.

Sport Heritage at the Airport 

I’m spending the week in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada before term begins at Clemson, and after clearing customs at Edmonton International Airport late last night, I spotted these displays at the baggage carousel:

Respectively, they are displays celebrating the Edmonton Eskimos football club  (and their many Grey Cup championships), the Edmonton Oil Kings junior hockey club (players from 15-20 years old), and the Edmonton Oilers hockey club.

I think the semiotics of international arrivals lounge at an airports to be fascinating. In fact, in many ways, aiports as a whole tend to be “best of” samples of a destination, whether it be food or art or culture (passing through the Nashville airport en route to Edmonton last night included seeing several buskers playing country music, and many of the recorded airport announcements were done by country music stars. But, I digress…). However, the international arrivals in particular are the first impression travellers have of both the city and, often, the country. 

In any event, Edmonton has one of the best research universities in the world, a beautiful river valley park space and the Northern Lights through parts of the year, and is situated in a province with five UNESCO World Heritage sites – including the Canadian Rockies. And, yet, the sporting culture of the city trumped all of these. This is not, of course, to disparage these displays – as has been argued many times on this blog and elsewhere, sport culture and heritage can be strong place identifiers and promoters. However, I think it was surprising that sport was given the entirety of the international arrivals space – trumpeting that THE defining cultural marker of the city is sport. 

New Year, New Changes

Happy New Year!

The Sport Heritage Review blog has been in operation since mid-2013. The main purposes of the blog were three-fold: 1. to disseminate sport heritage research and views about sport heritage, 2. to discuss the state of sport heritage, both academic and popular, 3. to act as a kind-of reference point, particularly for me, to express ideas about sport heritage which may be used in research at a later date (a kind of research thought diary, as it were). This blog receives very modest readership, although I believe in a few instances it has helped to stimulate some new directions and thoughts about sport heritage and sport heritage research, and not just in my own research. That said, I had hoped it would be something a little more akin to the excellent Sport in American History blog, which has multiple contributors providing consistent and high-quality contributions. I’m not sure this is feasible for this blog – heritage remains a relatively misunderstood and opaque term, and few folks I have approached have volunteered their time and talents – and would take a level of time and commitment that simply isn’t possible at this stage. Furthermore, 700-1200 word blogs every week or two about a sport heritage topic is difficult to continue given my other research, teaching, and service commitments.

That said, I think there are some directions this blog could go, and I plan to try a specific direction out over the next few months or so. Currently, I am sole-authoring a book called Heritage and Sport for Channel View publications – which, to the best of my knowledge, will be the first authored (rather than edited) book about sport heritage. The manuscript is scheduled for submission in October 2018, so I am currently deep into the research, outlining, and drafting stages of the book. This will be my first authored book, and I am finding the process both deeply intimidating as well as wonderfully invigorating. I am also currently lead on a grant project that is using sport heritage in a health-based program, specifically using college football-based sport heritage and sport nostalgia in the development of care programs for dementia patients. I am very excited (though, again, deeply intimidated) by this project, and I hope that we can see how sport heritage can be used in a very different setting. Finally, I have a new doctoral student who is very interested in looking at sport heritage in a Korean context, which could yield some very interesting perspectives about this topic. So, needless to say, there are a few things going on over the next year or two!

As such, I thought I might use this blog to document the process of these three projects in particular, and perhaps others projects as they develop. I envision that this would largely entail short, frequent notes (perhaps 200 words or so, perhaps accompanied by a photo or two) about a particular book or article I am reading in researching my book or a sport heritage place I am visiting as part of the research process, or some of the observations I made while helping to develop the sport heritage/dementia care program, or a summary of a discussion between my grad student and I about sport heritage. I imagine I will likely also use this blog to post questions or roadblocks encountered during these projects, or work through methods issues we might have, or celebrate some of our successes.  I imagine I will, from time to time, have longer, more in-depth pieces as well, as well as promoting some of my own research when it is published, but I think documenting the nuts and bolts of sport heritage research would be both helpful for me and, potentially, of greater interest than what I have been writing on this forum over the past few years.

I feel proud about much of what has been written on this blog to-date, and I think it has – at times – been useful. But, I am excited about this new direction for this forum, and I hope you’ll join me.


New Research: Towards a critical sport heritage

I am pleased to announce the publication of “Towards a critical sport heritage: implications for sport tourism” in the Journal of Sport & TourismThis paper was authored by myself, Gregory Ramshaw of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at Clemson University, and Sean Gammon of the School of Sport, Tourism and the Outdoors at the University of Central Lancashire, and looks at the growing relationship between sport, heritage, and tourism. In particular, it reexamines Ramshaw and Gammon’s (2005) sport heritage typology, particularly given the immense changes in critical heritage studies research over the past decade. From the abstract:

This paper reflects upon the development and increased acceptance for heritage becoming a key component of sport tourism research. The original sport heritage typology, as posited by Ramshaw and Gammon (2005), is re-examined through a more critical lens, revealing additional dimensions that help augment its key components. More specifically, it is argued that future studies should consider the more intangible features of sport heritage, as well as acknowledging the expanding global nature of sport and its impact upon fandom. Also, the case is made for research to explore the dissonance inherent in much of sports heritage, as well as determining where the power lies in allocating and championing current sport heritages. Lastly, the more general implications to the field of sport tourism are offered with particular regard to motivation, place and consumption.

We hope that this paper helps to reframe our original sport heritage framework, noting both how this topic area has evolved as well as suggesting areas where sport heritage research ought to go.

There are a limited number of free downloads of this paper available here. We hope that it helps take sport heritage research in some new and exciting directions.




Sport Heritage Institutions and Organizations


I am currently writing a book about heritage and sport, and as part of my research to find new perspectives about this topic I came across Mike Cronin and Roisin Higgins excellent Places We Play: Ireland’s Sporting HeritageWhile the authors cover many topics one would expect from a sport heritage-based book – including some of the sites, stadiums, and places associated with Irish sport – they also included a chapter about something I hadn’t considered before: institutions as a form of sport heritage. Specific to their topic, they considered in particular non-sport institutions such as the Catholic Church, the YMCA, and schools and universities as “a key set of institutions in Irish life which believed that sport and physical exercise would benefit their communities” (p. 59).

Of course, one can not only consider the non-sport institutions that helped to historically facilitate sport (particularly at the community and grassroots level), often as something – again to quote Cronin and Higgins – that was “morally and physically beneficial” to people. Rather, in addition, could we also consider other institutions that help to create, disseminate, and facilitate sport heritage – such as media, or the military? Or that which protects sport heritage sites, like the law and government? Sport heritage is, after all, used to generate nationalism in many different ways.

And, again, if we take a subset of institutions and think, specifically, about sport heritage organizations – such as interest groups, professional organizations, and the like – certainly these could be part of the sport heritage as well. And, sports and media organizations also have their own heritage – not just in terms of corporate culture and the like, but also in terms of celebrating longevity (anniversaries of leagues, the marking of events such as the SuperBowl, etc.) These are not only marketing tropes, but also give a sense of permanency and trust.

Of course, the role of institutions and organizations in sport has been touched-on in sport history. However, that institutions and organizations are both connected to sport heritage, and how they use sport heritage to meet their current aims and considerations, is something to explore.


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