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The Placeless Stadium
Last week, I attended the Leisure Studies Association conference at the University of the West of Scotland (it was a fantastic conference with a great group academics – next year’s conference is at Bournemouth University) and one of the comments I heard during a few presentations was that sports venues and stadiums are “placeless.” That is to say that stadiums have become so standardized, particularly in terms of the quality of playing surfaces, of amenities, and so on, that they have become indistinguishable from one another. This placelessness stems from the global transferability of sports and sporting codes, as well as the transnationalism of brands that undermine and, perhaps, replace the local at the stadium. Ultimately, the placeless stadium looks to replicate both playing conditions and the spectator experience – you know what you’re going to get before you get there.
I would disagree…sort of.
I would agree that, for the most part, there is replicability in terms of the playing surfaces, in so far as there probably isn’t a massive gulf between really great playing surfaces and really poor playing surfaces. There’s probably also standardization of amenities, such as for food and beverage offerings. Even from a heritage perspective, replicating historic aesthetics have become commonplace (the retro baseball stadium phenomenon in the US, for example, has been termed “Camdenization” following the number of stadiums that began to emulate Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore).
However, there still seems to be a fair amount that defines place at a stadium. Most stadiums have their own distinct history, traditions and aesthetics. There may be commonalities, for sure, but how a stadium looks, what its famous moments are, who played there, and so forth seems to define each as different. Even the most standardized stadium has its unforgettable games, moments, and players that help to create a sense of place. Certainly, fan traditions create place, even in the most placeless stadiums. I remember watching a game during the final season at Yankee Stadium. Though it was the “House that Ruth Built,” various renovations had made it look, more or less, like a 1970s suburban concrete ballpark. But, it was the stadium’s history, and the performance of the fans, that made it a beloved stadium and gave it a distinctive feel. Aesthetically, it may have been placeless (there wasn’t even a quirky outfield, common with both historical ballparks and their retro equivalents) and, sure, it was Coca-Cola and Miller Lite and hotdogs at the concessions, but you could hardly call Yankee Stadium placeless.
Similarly, I began to think about the standardization of playing surfaces and that this too has diminished a sense of place. Perhaps in certain sports, there is little differentiation between one stadium and another. By and large, soccer is like this – and, when there is a differentiation, it is usually negative in that the pitch is dangerous or unplayable. However, many sports have distinctive aspects to their fields of play that help to define them. This was most recently seen at Trent Bridge for the England v. India test cricket match last week. The wickets at Trent Bridge were known for favouring particular forms of bowling but, as it turned out, standardization of the wicket had made the surface “lifeless.” In this, the groundskeeper admitted fault and would, in future, return the playing surface to a more “local” and distinctive condition. Heck, when I was playing hockey, each rink was different despite the standardized ice surface – particularly in terms of how the boards would “play.” As a goalie, I needed to know this – and, even use these to my advantage.
Ultimately, I understand the placeless argument to a point. Certainly, there is a growing standardization in terms of playing conditions and spectator experience. However, many stadiums are different and have distinct senses of place, in part through their heritage and history, but through other things – like how a playing surface “plays” – as well.