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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.

Packers_Heritage_Trail_Logo

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.

 

Excluded Sporting Pasts

It goes without saying that, for most sports entities, heritage is an asset. The past – particularly a glorious heritage or a heritage that induces nostalgia – can be an excellent marketing tool, and an avenue for commodification through souvenirs, events, and other experiences like fantasy camps. Specifically, sports like baseball and cricket have traded off of their heritage, positioning themselves as timeless cultural entities that are intimately tied to the past. Obviously, not all sporting pasts are glorious, noteworthy, or particularly positive but, more often than not, heritage is something that sports entities tend to embrace.

However, Cathal Kelly in the Globe & Mail recently argues that the NFL in particular runs from its past; that it is a forward looking league to the point that it almost denies its history and heritage. His argument appears to hold water, specifically that the NFL’s past is full of broken players who, in the large scheme of things, are almost infinitely replaceable. Sure, there are sometimes memorable players and teams but, by and large, the NFL is a league entirely focused on the present and future, and that the past plays little role in the way the league operates. Heritage, to the NFL, is not an asset.

nfl-concussion

A closer examination might be that heritage is used differently by the NFL than it is other leagues. In sports like baseball, cricket, golf, and tennis, there are masters leagues and competitions, and that the sports – though difficult – did not render ex-athletes incapacitated. This is not to say that the NFL doesn’t use its former and retired players in terms of promotion – this past weekend’s Super Bowl demonstrated that – and that it does broadly market events like Hall of Fame weekend in August. Rather, there is a knowing element – both by the league and the public – that football is a deeply damaging game, and that the men who played it often no longer resemble who they once were. Talking about the “glorious heritage” of the NFL is to embrace how deeply damaging the sport was, and continues to be. This is not to say that other football leagues haven’t openly marketed heritage – the Canadian Football League’s “This is Our League” campaign positioned the Canadian code of football as a distinctive form of cultural nationalism – but for the NFL, constantly reminding the public of the past only fuels some of the issues of the present.

That said, the NFL does embrace an element of continuity – not neccessarily in comparison with the past but, rather, as an entity that always was and always will be. It’s heritage is that endures. And, while Kelly’s argument is certainly convincing, it is worth noting that all sports – to borrow from this book – have excluded pasts. Baseball actively runs from it’s drug and steroid past. Cricket runs from its racial politics. Rugby runs from a legacy of class division. Soccer runs from its fan violence. Hockey – as Keith Olbermann explains – markets a fictional foundational myth. In fact, all institutions have pasts that are excluded for a variety of reasons, from politics to culture to plain old ignorance. Certainly, the ways in which the NFL excludes some of its past – or, at the very least, is uninterested in it – is unique, but it is hardly unheard-of.

The question then becomes not whether sports entities exclude particular pasts, but what pasts are excluded and why? Here, Kelly’s argument is important – “..the NFL – alone among all the sports leagues in the world – has no appetite for reflection. With good reason, no league is as frightened of its own past.” Heritage – or, at least, particular forms of heritage – undermine rather than enhance the NFL. For other sports, heritage is an asset – though, again, only particular heritages are touted, embraced, and commodified.

We tend to think of sport heritages as benign, and quite often they are. However, what the NFL’s reaction to its heritage tells us is that sport heritage can, in particular circumstances, also be a threat. Excluded pasts are often not just unflattering or embarrassing, they can also be dangerous.

Latest Research – Acquired Pasts and the Commodification of Borrowed Heritage: The Case of the Bank of America Stadium Tour

I am very pleased to announce the publication of my latest journal article, “Acquired Pasts and the Commodification of Borrowed Heritage: The Case of the Bank of America Stadium Tour.”  The article was co-authored with Dr. Sean Gammon of the University of Central Lancashire and Dr. Wei-Jue Huang of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and is published in the Journal of Sport & Tourism.

From the abstract:

Contemporary understandings of heritage and heritage tourism have viewed heritageas more than just tangible objects and places but also the social values and practices associated with things and places of heritage. As such, sports heritage venues often emphasize the history of the sport or the team to sustain the legacy of the place and create a meaningful experience for the visitors. However, stadiums that are relatively new lack the recognizableheritage that could be incorporated into their stadium tour narratives. To understand different forms of heritage construction, this study examines tours of the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, home of the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League (NFL). Being a stadium with little history, its tour narratives are not rooted in the heritage of the venue itself but rather in the more intangible traditions, language, and rituals of NFL fandom. In particular, the stadium tour espouses the identity, experience and performance of being an NFL fan, providing patrons an opportunity to not only reflect on their past spectator experiences, but also to create new personal/collective heritage through continued consumption. In addition, the tour borrows heritage from other NFL-based heritage markers in order to reinforce the authenticity of the location and experience, seemingly until such time that the facility and team can establish a recognizable and commodifiable homegrown’ heritage.

A limited number of article e-prints are available via the link here.

The Commodification of Nostalgia

A few months back, I was interviewed on a radio program called The Public on CIUT Toronto. It was a wide ranging conversation, but mainly focused on the uses, abuses, and commodification of sport-based heritage and nostalgia.  The host, Michael McDougall, and I are former work colleagues, so I think there is actually a nice bit of banter between us.  I enjoyed doing it, and I hope you’ll have a listen.