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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.
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.
As many sports organizations have realized, heritage is an asset that can be used for a variety of needs and in numerous circumstances. We have seen many kinds of ways heritage have been used in sports, from throwback apparel and uniforms to retro stadiums to nostalgia-based events and experiences (like fantasy camps). Many teams, such as the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, also view their historic stadiums as assets which provide both cultural capital as well as economic benefits (the Red Sox have the second highest revenue generating ballpark in MLB, despite the capacity, in large part because of Fenway’s history and heritage).
When a team moves venues, often for economic reasons, there is normally a celebration of the old venue. Often, as in the case of Yankee Stadium, Anfield, or the Montreal Forum, the old stadium was beloved and reflect the fact that – paraphrasing sports geographer John Bale – sports stadiums are more than utilitarian structures and many supporters feel a strong sense of attachment to them. In the case of both the new Yankee Stadium and the Molson Centre (which replaced the Montreal Forum), care was taken to provide a blend of old and new – where the new venue has either direct references or explicit echoes to the previous stadium (as Anouk Belanger notes, the Montreal Canadiens had a parade of ghosts from one venue to the other). There was generally an acknowledgment by the teams that, though fans loved the old venue, the new venue would provide the club much needed benefits while also maintaining the sense of place and tradition.
However, this year there are two examples of teams celebrating the final seasons at venues that – to employ an overused phrase – they “threw under the bus.” The Edmonton Oilers, who are set to move to the new Rogers Place in Fall of 2016, are celebrating the final season in their longtime home, Rexall Place (nee: Northlands Coliseum; Edmonton Coliseum; Skyreach Centre).
Rexall Place, architecturally, is unimpressive, but as a venue that has hosted numerous notable events – particularly as a hockey venue – it undoubtedly has broad historic value. However, in securing a new arena deal, the arena was denigrated as “antiquated and outdated“. In fact, there appears to have been little mention that the venue had any heritage value at all until the “Farewell Season” commemorations were announced.
Similarly, the Atlanta Braves are set to commemorate the final season at Turner Field during the 2016 season.
The Braves inherited Turner Field, as it was previously built for the 1996 Olympics then converted to a baseball stadium. As such, the Braves were never particularly fond of the stadium or location, and so a celebration of the final year at a (shockingly recent) venue is a bit odd.
Celebrating the final season at a venue can have benefits for both team and spectator. For the team, it can provide an additional revenue stream through memorabilia, as well as an incentive to come to games that season. For fans, it allows them to experience the venue one more time, relive memories, and provides a transition to the new stadium. The tone of both the Oilers and Braves commemorations are a little different though, in that neither organization will shed a tear for their old venues given the apathy and, in the Oilers case, hostility towards their former homes. While I suspect the teams would have had commemorations anyway, the fact that both are teams have had or are expected to have little success in their final seasons, the heritage angle to “visit one last time” is probably an effective motivator for fans to go to games, purchase merchandise, and perhaps acquire memorabilia like seats, turf, signage and the like after the final out/whistle. It is the one season when, very likely, “just being there” rather than victories is incentive enough for fans to turn out. That said, these two celebrations this year come across as slightly hollow, particularly when compared to how other teams have seemingly handled these occasions.
One of the topics that has occupied heritage studies research lately is the process of heritagization; that is to say, the process whereby various pasts are constructed in the present to address a contemporary need, issue or circumstance. As any heritage studies scholar will (or, perhaps, should) know, heritage is about the present and an imagined future – it is never about the past. We leave the past to historians and archaeologists to critically assess.
What we don’t often talk about is de-heritagization; that is, when a heritage is no longer useful in the present and becomes part of, to employ an overused phrase, “the dustbin of history.” We talk of heritages changing, or heritages being malleable, but rarely of heritages simply becoming, for lack of a better term, “not heritage.” Perhaps in some cases – such as when a post-colonial regime looks to new national symbols, for example – heritage truly does transform into materials reserved for the historian or archaeologist. In any event, they are no longer part of our contemporary needs – we no longer use them and, as such, they are no longer heritage.
These thoughts came to me recently when I began to consider aspects of my personal sporting heritage and, in particular, how they became simply a part of my personal history and not my contemporary identity. The first was when I was in my hometown of Edmonton recently shopping for a used pair of hockey skates. I was a goaltender for most of my life, including through all of my adulthood, and made certain I brought my goaltending equipment with me to South Carolina seven years ago. However, the lack of local hockey opportunities coupled with a busy career and home life meant that continuing to play goal – a central part of my identity throughout my life – was not an option. I certainly thought about playing at times, to the point that I found out my goalie skates had fallen into disrepair and were no longer useable. When I looked for a replacement pair of skates a few weeks ago, I immediately went to the goalie skates when it dawned on me: I am no longer a goaltender, and will never be again. Most of my equipment – and not just my skates – have fallen into disrepair, I have little desire to replace my equipment and, though I might occasionally pine for another game in net, I am quite alright with that part of my sporting life being over. Simply put, being a goaltender is no longer part of my contemporary identity and has ceased (for the time being) to be part of my heritage. This is not to say that it won’t be resurrected as heritage at some point – if my son takes up goaltending, for example, we’ll probably talk about our family’s goaltending heritage. But, for now, it is simply a part of my past.
Similarly, I was recently in Winnipeg, Manitoba when I came across the many advertisements for the city’s NHL hockey team, the Jets. The Jets were, of course, the Atlanta Thrashers at one point – and I was a Thrashers season ticket holder. The franchise’s move to Winnipeg was personally quite difficult. I had come to strongly identify myself as a Thrashers fan, and going to games in Atlanta was one of the ways I came to embrace my new Southern home. I felt quite bitter towards the sport, league, and fans of the Jets for some time. Being in Winnipeg, however, and seeing all of those Jets banners didn’t really hurt anymore. While I can’t say I’ll ever become a fan, they became just another team, and my Thrashers fandom became simply part of my biography and, again, not my identity.
These two personal examples, though hardly earth-shattering, made me think not just about how something becomes heritage, but how we let particular heritages go. Again, we see the letting go of heritage all the time – and it can frequently be a painful and divisive process. And, certainly, some heritages must change and become “history” – for a variety of social, political, and economic reasons. However, I think it is worth investigating the de-heritagization process, particularly in sport. Sport heritage no longer used is not heritage – by definition, it cannot be. I would like to say that there are, for example, Olympic cities in the act of forgetting or “de-heritagizing” – perhaps through neglect, or simply through a new generation not being tied to the symbols of the old. Obviously, each generation creates its own sporting heritage and, perhaps, through the ephemeral creation and consumption of heritage, particular sporting legacies aren’t as durable as they once were. In any event, my two recent personal examples highlighted to me that the idea of letting go of particular heritages is as important to understand as why we created them in the first place.
A number of months back, I took a look at the website of the new College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta to see who were the people involved in interpreting the site. I imagined that I’d easily be able to find the researchers, historians, and curators working at the Hall, as I was hoping to connect with them during my next trip through town. I find that talking with the people directly responsible for presenting and interpreting the heritage helps me to understand the current tensions, struggles, issues, and challenges at contemporary sport heritage sites.
Interestingly, I was unable to find anyone related curatorship or collections management or interpretation at the Hall. In fact, the Hall’s “Leadership” has (from what I can tell) no experience in museological practice. This is not to say that there aren’t any researchers, etc, working at the Hall (they simply might not be on the Hall’s webpage), nor is this to suggest that the Hall itself is lacking in contextual or critical content (I’ve never been to it). But, I did find it strange that the Hall’s leadership not only uniformly comes from sales and marketing backgrounds, but seem to have no experience running a hall of fame or any other museum or heritage attraction.
In their foundational text, The Geography of Heritage, professors Brian Graham, Gregory Ashworth, and John Tunbridge remind us that heritage is a commodity that is sold in different ways to different groups at different periods of time. As such, even at the most traditional museums, the objects and exhibitions at any given time are commoditized in different ways, from selling tote bags and memberships to soliciting political, cultural, and financial support. However, often, even the most brazenly commercial heritage attraction will make at least a nominal nod to being “educational” or having worth beyond its business aims.
Perhaps that’s what struck me most about the way the College Football Hall of Fame is positioned – it makes no such pretension to being anything other than a commercial venture whose job it is to sell the college football “experience” back to consumers (Perhaps the strange thing is that, for many of the visitors, the college football “experience” will be familiar to them – after all, there are numerous top-level college football programs both within Atlanta as well as a short drive from the city. But, I digress…). Simply put, there is little – at least that I could find – about the educational value of a visit to the site (there is a teacher resource guide buried in the site, but that’s about it). Other Halls of Fame are commercial crowd-pleasers as well, but will have centres for public research for example (such as at the National Baseball Hall of Fame or the Hockey Hall of Fame), or will have specific “education” or “learn” sections on their websites perhaps both as a lure for school and family visits, as well as for remote research – say, for school reports. However, the College Football Hall of Fame appears to not view itself as a resource or educational centre at all.
Rather than this be a critique of the College Football Hall of Fame (again, I’ve never been there), I wonder whether the Hall shows the future of sport heritage, particularly whether sport heritage sites see that they should play an educative role beyond their commercial needs. Furthermore, I wonder whether places like the Hall demonstrate the new wave of sports museums, ones run by marketers and sales people and interactive games designers and without the traditional museum positions of curators, or interpreters, or historians, or educational programmers. Again, this is not to say that sport heritage attractions need not be commercial ventures, or that they ought not look to develop revenue streams – these are integral and necessary in today’s environment. Rather, do contemporary sports museums and sport heritage attractions believe they are educational resources, that they are learning centres as well as attractions, and that they have a role in creating, hosting, and housing debates about sport history and contemporary sporting practices? In other words, do contemporary sports museums believe they have a public role beyond their private commercial aims? Or, are they (and perhaps, should they) only be interested in these roles if they somehow augment their commercial ventures? Does a resource centre or research room or archive only matter if it can somehow help rent museum space for weddings and birthday parties? Is the College Football Hall of Fame model the future in sports museums, and what might that mean for the conservation, interpretation, and dissemination of sport heritage?
There was an interesting blog post written by Dave Cournoyer at his site daveberta.ca recently about the future of Rexall Place in Edmonton, Canada. For the initiated, Rexall Place (as it is currently named) was opened in the mid 1970s and, though it has hosted numerous concerts, performances, and sporting events in its 40 year history, it is most famous for being the long-time home of the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League (NHL). In particular, the arena housed the Oilers during their “Glory Years” in the 1980s and early 1990s when, led by hockey superstars Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and others, the team won five Stanley Cup championships in seven seasons. The arena, arguably, has significant heritage value, in large part because of the Edmonton Oilers, though perhaps to a lesser extent because of aspects such as its architectural value, it role in other sporting events such as the annual Canadian Finals Rodeo, and its historical connection to the Northlands fair grounds.
From a individual view, Rexall Place has significant personal heritage value to me. For decades, it was the place I went to see hockey games with my family. In fact, I actually witnessed two of the Oilers Stanley Cup championships – in 1984 and 1988 – from our family’s season tickets in Section K, Row 14. A number of years ago, while completing my doctorate at the University of Alberta, I got to play hockey on the “hallowed ice” of Rexall Place – which was exciting and thrilling and wonderful, even to a grown man. Rexall Place was also where I went to concerts with friends, saw wrestling cards as a teenager, and had my father take me to an occasional monster truck show. Simply put, the arena was part of the landscape of my growing up and living in Edmonton, and I suspect it has become an integral part of many Edmontonians’ personal heritage narratives over the past forty years.
In 2016, the Edmonton Oilers will be leaving Rexall Place and moving to a brand new downtown arena. Cournoyer’s blog post explores some thoughts and issues associated with what happens to Rexall Place after the Oilers move. As Cournoyer points out, there hasn’t been much thought about this issue, and argues that local residents have not been consulted as to the arena’s future or how the arena might be used after the Oilers leave.
I would add that, part of the consultation about the future of Rexall Place ought to address and assess it’s heritage value, in particular whether the arena’s heritage ought to be recognized and how this heritage recognition would take place.
Empty stadiums and arenas, particularly those with a clear heritage value, pose some very interesting challenges. I argued, in my recent paper “Sport, heritage, and Tourism” in the Journal of Heritage Tourism that, perhaps what makes sport heritage unique is its link to a sense of perpetual play and performance:
“…sport heritage appears to be a very distinct form of heritage, perhaps because of its broad dissemination and consumption, though perhaps more because of its corporal nature. We have to continue to play sport, or support those who play, in order to create future sport heritage. The fact that sport heritage often does not fossilize, that it must continue to be made and remade through play and performance, is perhaps what gives it a distinctive place in the heritage and heritage tourism landscape.”
What this may mean for empty stadiums, in fact, is that they are essentially dead landscapes; that perhaps the heritage isn’t in the building itself but the relationship between the building/landscape, the spectators, and the game/performance. Without games being played – in essence, generating new heritage – the buildings themselves may have limited heritage value.
Recognizing the heritage value of empty stadiums and arenas has taken different forms, with different levels of success. In situ preservation is probably the least feasible option. Leaving aside ancient sporting monuments, such as the Colosseum in Rome, preservation for preservation’s sake would appear unlikely for any stadium. There are places like Rickwood Field – the oldest baseball stadium in the United States – in Birmingham, Alabama which does not have a core tenant and is probably the best example of preservation for preservation’s sake. That said, the stadium hosts dozens of events each year, from college baseball games and tournaments to memorabilia shows, so it is hardly a “mothballed” stadium.
Adaptive reuse of heritage stadiums and arenas is a popular option. Both the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens have incorporated numerous heritage elements of the old arenas into new retail, real estate, and education spaces. However, adaptive reuse is not always an option. Tiger Stadium in Detroit was slated for a real estate redevelopment that would have incorporated the old stadium in the development, but plans fell through and the stadium was demolished. Frequently, the old stadium sat adjacent to the new stadium, so some form of heritage markers were often used to denote where the previous stadium was after demolition. The “old” Yankee Stadium in New York is now a park next to new Yankee Stadium, and Fulton County Stadium is parking for the new Turner Field in Atlanta, with both examples denoting important markers from the old stadium in the new space (e.g.: location of home plate, etc.) Sometimes, artefacts from the old building are incorporated into the new building. The scoreboard from the old Omni Coliseum in Atlanta is situated in the foyer of the new Phillips Arena, for example.
Of course, many old arenas simply continue on without their core tenants, or perhaps find a different – and often lower tier – sports tenant. The Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, once the home of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, continues as a concert venue, a site for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and is the home of the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League (WHL), a junior developmental hockey league. As such, how the venue’s heritage is preserved or recognized may change as well.
In the discussions on the future of Rexall Place, the heritage of the venue should be raised – and, depending on the future use of the building, how the heritage is recognized will be a key issue. I also think that the heritage of the venue isn’t just the Oilers, but encompasses many different forms – including personal heritages. I would imagine that the venue will end up in some sort of adaptive reuse project – I simply can’t imagine it being preserved in situ, nor can I see it continue without its core tenant given the population size of Edmonton. That said, I hope the good citizens of my former hometown consider a broad range of cases in how to use the venue going forward while still recognizing and acknowledging its heritage value.
Much has been written this week about the Atlanta Braves decision to move from their downtown stadium, Turner Field, to the city’s northern suburbs (so much, in fact, that links may prove a bit overwhelming). It is a strange move for many reasons. The stadium is only sixteen years old and feels like a new ballpark (I only live about two hours from Atlanta and, though I loathe the Braves, I normally go to one or two games a year – and, I can attest, it is a great stadium). The team also moves from the inner city of Atlanta and into the suburbs – reversing a couple of decades of downtown stadium development (though, Turner Field is just south of downtown and really has nothing but parking lots and residential areas around it). Supporters of the move have pointed to the fact that the vast majority of the Braves ticket sales come from the northern, affluent suburbs (and, as Bomani Jones points out in his tweet below, it is way more than a ticket sales map, as Atlanta is a very racially divided city as well):
In any event, the city of Atlanta has announced that it will demolish Turner Field once the team moves north.
Although there are larger issues at play in this decision, such as the willingness for municipalities to use stadiums as a substitute for urban policy, there are some heritage preservation concerns as well – and, as far as I can tell, they haven’t yet been raised. The first, and most obvious, is that Turner Field as a baseball stadium is a heritage venue – perhaps not through age, but through the ongoing ritual of games being played, fans attending, forming memories, and creating a sense of place. Whenever a team moves venues, this is an obvious heritage concern. Secondly – and, a fact that has been largely overlooked – Turner Field was actually also the Olympic Stadium for the 1996 Games. Now, it is hardly recognizable as the Olympic Stadium (it underwent a massive renovation post-Games to make it into a baseball-only stadium) and there are few markers in the stadium now that recognize it’s Olympic past, but this still will disappear once the stadium is gone. Finally, there’s the Hank Aaron wall in the parking lot across the street from Turner Field:
When Fulton County Stadium was demolished to make way for the Olympic Stadium/Turner Field, they kept the wall over which Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record:
Beyond that home run being important in baseball history, it also had a broader impact in highlighting racial issues in the US. In Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, while Aaron’s homerun is showed, the soundtrack is the hate mail Aaron received en route to breaking Ruth’s record. It makes his record all the more superhuman. However, presumably, this location will be gone along with the rest of the stadium area.
It is not unusual for teams to “relocate” their heritage to a new stadium – in part for the new venue to have a project a sense of history and legitimacy. I have little doubt that Aaron’s wall – and the legacy of Hank Aaron himself – will move it’s way north and be transplanted in the new ballpark (however, given the antipathy the Braves displayed for the stadium’s Olympic past, I imagine that heritage – at least at that space – is gone). However, this move does raise the issue of in situ heritage, and whether it ought to be part of the discussion in stadium relocation.
I’ve never been much of a souvenir collector – with two notable exceptions. I have always collected ticket stubs, particularly from sporting events, and I have amassed a rather large collection of sports jerseys over the years. Neither collection was intentionally compiled – as in, I never consciously had a thought to keep ticket stubs or fill a closet full of jerseys – but, in both cases, and rather organically, I have done both. What links both my ticket stub collection and my jersey collection (both of which are embarrassingly large, I might add), besides the fact that they are sports-focused, are that they each are about personal memories and nostalgia. I suspect any sports memorabilia person would look at these collections and see little of any monetary value at all. But, to me, they bring back a wealth of memories – great games, wonderful journeys to distant lands, and time spent with family and friends – and that makes my collections priceless. I often find these collections are a source inspiration – that the next game and the next journey may add another sport artefact. However, there are some artefacts in my collection that emit the sweet sorrow of nostalgia, as I know that their power lies in the fact that what they represent is forever in the past and shall never, ever return.
I became an Atlanta Thrashers fan shortly after moving to the South. I loved having an NHL team near to me – I grew up with the game in Canada, and professional hockey in the South was far more affordable to attend live than back home. Honestly, it was nice to see top tier hockey without having to mortgage a house in order to do. However, rather quickly, my interest grew from merely watching NHL games to actually supporting the team. The Thrashers weren’t particularly talented, but they worked hard and, frankly, they looked like a team in need of some love. They had some successful years at the gate but, by the time I came around, they were struggling a bit – both on and off the ice. In any event, when the 2010-11 season rolled around, my wife and I decided to take the plunge and become season ticket holders. Despite the fact we lived two-hours by car from the arena, we loved the ritual of wearing our jerseys, driving in to town and listening to various hockey and non-hockey podcasts, cheering on our boys, and listening to Dan Kamal‘s post-game show until the signal dropped out.
At first, it looked like we had picked a great season to come on board. Through the first thirty games or so, the Thrashers were competitive, and winning much more than they were losing. By mid-December, there was actually a buzz about the team, fans seemed to be coming back, and there was lots of optimism about the team’s future. December 18, 2010 was the pinnacle – a full arena on a Saturday night and a 7-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils, topped off by a hat-trick by tough-guy Eric Boulton.
My wife and I left Philips Arena that night completely enamoured with life and with Thrashers hockey. As it turned out, we refer to that night as “The Last Happy Game.”
The demise of the Thrashers after that game was quick, and very, very painful. Not only did the team begin to lose, and lose often – falling out of playoff contention in the new year – the team was put up for sale in late December 2010 and, after a very short search for local ownership, was moved to Winnipeg in May 2011. We went into a kind-of mourning after the move – I was rather depressed and irritable for some time, and my wife vowed to never love a sports team again. I used to look at the ticket stub from that game against the Devils often in the months after the move, deciding to keep it separate from the rest of my collection – perhaps because it represented something of the antithesis of the rest of my collection. There was no hope, no promise, and no journeys to come.
It has been over two years since the Thrashers last graced the ice in Atlanta. We’ve moved on, both in our fandom and in our lives. For me, I’m not really bitter anymore, but I still miss my team. I try to remember that night in December, not as the beginning of the end, but of one of those magical evenings that happen every once and a while in sport. Without the team moving, I’m sure I wouldn’t remember the night as vividly as I do now. I’m sure the nostalgia I have would simply be trivia. I probably wouldn’t look up what Eric Boulton is doing now, nor would I have purchased the jersey he wore that night.
I plan on framing the ticket and jersey together, hanging it in my basement, and waiting for the day my son asks me about it. I hope to tell him about a great night his mother and I spent watching magic happen, how it was something we’ll always remember, and how it makes us smile. I suppose that’s how heirlooms are created.