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The Global Recognition and Protection of Sport Heritages

Sport heritage has been, until recently, a relatively obscure topic. People working at sports sites and museums have formed professional associations such as the International Sports Heritage Association, while a small, international group of academics (including the author of this blog) have been engaged in sport heritage-based research. Anecdotally, public interest in sport heritage appears to be growing, given the proliferation of sport heritage-based sites, attractions, and experiences, while there has been a steady growth in interest and research output about sport heritage in academia.

However, two recent developments point to a growing interest in sport heritage – in particular, the recognition of sport heritage as an important cultural practice that, in some cases, may require protection.

The first major development is that ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites – which “works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage places” – has declared “The Heritage of Sport” as its theme for the 2016 ICOMOS International Day on Monuments and Sites. This declaration is an extraordinarily significant form of recognition for sport heritage as a field. ICMOS is a very well known and well regarded international heritage agency, and is probably best known for its considerable work with the UNESCO World Heritage program. Details about the “Heritage of Sport” day – which is on April 18 – have yet to be released, but it will nevertheless an important milestone in sport heritage.

23 June 2010; Daire Plunkett, Dublin, in action against Paul Murphy, Kilkenny. Bord Gais Energy Leinster GAA Hurling Under 21 Championship Semi-Final, Kilkenny v Dublin, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny. Picture credit: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

The second major development is the fact that the Gaelic sport of hurling is likely to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. In an article in the Irish Times, the Irish government looked to the inscription as “provid(ing) a significant opportunity to showcase the uniqueness of hurling, uilleann piping and Irish folklore beyond our national boundaries.” Although several other sport-based cultural practices are on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, such as Taekkyeon – a traditional Korean martial artChinese Dragon Boat races and festivals, and tugging rituals and games in Southeast Asia, sport is not the primary focus of these inscriptions. However, hurling is a popular, codified, spectator sport that also has cultural meaning. In other words, the sport component is of primary significance in its potential inscription on the List.

These developments at UNESCO and ICOMOS raise some intriguing questions for sport heritage scholars. Will these efforts lead to sport being properly considered an important part of global heritage? Will heritage recognition and protection of sporting practices enhance or detract from the sport? Can the sports adapt and change over time, or will they ossify? Certainly, as a sport heritage scholar, I welcome these developments, and I look forward to seeing how sport is recognized by the global heritage community.

Team Nicknames and Local Heritage

Few aspects of sport engender as much passion – and debate – as team nicknames.  Beyond the fact that they are often divisive, particularly when announced for a new franchise, they are also frequently triggers for larger social debates – including, most notably and recently, debates about racism. In the contemporary global sports marketplace, team identifiers (such as names, but also uniform logos and colour schemes) are commodities.  Heritage, of course, plays a significant role in team names – often, names are linked to local or regional histories and traditions, or have long-standing links with (for example) legacies of success. In this, heritage is both a signifier and commodity; it separates the team as something unique and special while also selling those unique signifiers to a global audience.  On the other hand, if the heritage is too local, it may not resonate with a wider audience.  In January 2014, I wrote about Hull City FC formally adopting their “Tigers” nickname in order to appeal to a global fan base, with some accusing the club of turning their backs on local history, heritage, tradition, and sentiment.  I wrote at the time:

What is fascinating about this is how the team’s heritage is seen as both a global marketing opportunity and a burden.  On the one hand, the fact that the club supporters have informally used the “tigers” nickname for many is a benefit that may resonate globally and separate the club from its rivals.  Essentially, it is formalizing and institutionalizing an informal heritage that has existed for years. On the other hand, the team’s “proper” name – which, too, has a long history and heritage – was seen as too local and too common and, as such, burdened the club internationally.

I would suggest – though I don’t know this for certain – that an animal nickname, such as tigers, perhaps too closely resembles American sport or other franchise sports (such as the IPL) and lacks a certain authenticity, as well as the public trust/connection to community that is traditionally view as part of English football. Perhaps this is part of the local resistance to the name change?

In Hull City’s case, local heritage was viewed as a burden, particularly to their global ambitions.  But, can a turn towards local history, heritage, and signifiers actually benefit a sports club?

Enter the Greenville Swamp Rabbits

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The Swamp Rabbits are an ECHL ice hockey team located in Greenville, South Carolina, and are one of the minor league affiliates of the New York Rangers of the NHL.  They have been in Greenville for five seasons, though this is the first year they are called the “Swamp Rabbits.” Previously, they were known as the “Road Warriors” – a subtle and generic nod to the community’s current automobile manufacturing economy (metro Greenville is both the national headquarters of Michelin and the BMW’s only US plant). However, the name never really resonated outside of a small, hard-core group of fans.  So, the team turned to local heritage for their new name:

“We determined that we wanted our new identity to honor a piece of Greenville’s history while also being relevant within the community today,” said Fred Festa, owner of the Swamp Rabbits. “Ultimately, we selected the Swamp Rabbits because the name holds dear to a variety of residents, businesses, popular recreational areas and the historic landmark, the Swamp Rabbit railroad, dating back the 1920s in Greenville.”

The railroad, which linked the South Carolina city with the coal fields of Tennessee, became known as the “Swamp Rabbit” by locals who would use the freight train as a means of transportation to picnic in northern Greenville County. 

In a recent, long-form interview on the Tao of Sports podcast, the team’s Executive Vice President Chris Lewis describes that that the name change (though controversial among some supporters) not only links the franchise to the community through one of its most locally resonant histories, it also provides a strong symbol that the team is committed to the community.  Furthermore, he notes that it is meant to spur local interest in the team – both from sponsors and the general public – and drive new merchandise sales.  Surprisingly, this turn towards local heritage has resonated across North America, with both American and Canadian sports media outlets – as well as a nationally-trending social media – covering the name change.

Though it remains to be seen whether the Swamp Rabbit’s name will ultimately pay-off in terms of increased local interest, it does point to the fact that there remains a strong link between sport and broader forms of local heritage, and that local heritages are often unique, appealing, and (dare I say) authentic. It would make little sense, outside of Greenville, to name a team the “Swamp Rabbits” – but, in Greenville’s case, it appears to be a perfect fit. In addition, while Hull City rejected their local heritage to embrace a more palatable global brand, Greenville seems to have attracted inadvertent national attention while attempting to solidify their local footprint.  It also suggests that teams need to find ways of connecting themselves to their communities, and embracing a local heritage can be one of the ways to do this.

New Research – “Too Much Nostalgia? A Decennial Reflection on the Heritage Classic Ice Hockey Event”

I am pleased to announce the publication of a research note in the journal Events Management titled “Too Much Nostalgia? A Decennial Reflection on the Heritage Classic Ice Hockey Event.”

From the abstract:

This research note explores the legacy of the Heritage Classic, an outdoor ice hockey event held in Edmonton, Canada in November 2003. The event explicitly and successfully evoked nostalgia for former players, past teams, rural environments, and the egalitarian nature of childhood games, becoming a major international media and tourism event as well as the template for numerous outdoor ice hockey events held around the world. It also provided the Edmonton Oilers hockey club and the event’s organizers with both emotional and economic capital at a time when the franchise required support. However, the success of the Heritage Classic meant that the National Hockey League (NHL) and other hockey leagues would organize subsequent outdoor hockey events, thereby minimizing the ability for individual franchises to benefit from their heritage as the Oilers did. Furthermore, little was done locally to build on the success of the Heritage Classic, while the proliferation of similar events globally may have minimized both the media and tourism impacts of subsequent outdoor hockey games.

This research note is a follow-up to my 2006 article “Place Identity and Sport Tourism: The Case of the Heritage Classic Ice Hockey Event” (co-authored with Dr. Tom Hinch of the University of Alberta) published in Current Issues in Tourism.  Given the proliferation of outdoor ice hockey events, both in North America and Europe, it seemed time to reflect on the legacy of the event that started it all.

Should you not have access to Event Management through an institutional subscription, please drop me a line and I would be happy to share a copy of this research note with you.  Feel free to contact me by email, on Twitter, or by direct message on Facebook.

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Heritage and the Empty Stadium

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.

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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.

Health and Sport Heritage

Heritage is used for a variety of contemporary needs and circumstances.  As we know from Critical Heritage Studies, heritage is used in legitimizing and underwriting particular claims from particular groups about who gets to speak for and about the past, and to what end. Heritage is also a major part of education, of identity creation and maintenance, and of nationalism. We also know that heritage is used in tourism development, particularly in building, growing, and diversifying the attraction mix at a particular tourism location or destination.  Similarly, we know that heritage is something tourists seek when on vacation; that many – if not most – leisure tourists encounter heritage at some point during their trip. We also know that heritage is vital in terms of urban planning, that heritage areas and districts can be good for attracting and retaining businesses and people to a city, and that built heritage can provide diverse and interesting architectural styles to communities.

What has been relatively late to come, though is picking up tremendous steam, is linking heritage – and, for our purposes, sport heritage – to health and health care issues.

English Heritage just released a report that suggests that “heritage makes you happy,” noting that participation in heritage – either as a visitor or volunteer – boosts self-esteem, life satisfaction, and general well-being to a greater level than participating in similar leisure and recreational activities.  There are a few interesting things to note about this kind of report.  Obviously, from a critical heritage perspective, there are few more divisive topics than heritage, although encountering heritage can also potentially be a bridge between people and cultures. I think it is interesting as well that English Heritage commissioned this report, as it suggest that heritage must now “do” something beyond a) exist, and b) generate tourism dollars.  However, I am not against commissioning such a report, nor its findings.  If we can demonstrate that heritage, in general, is beneficial to the health of individuals and communities, it may also generate greater public support.  An interesting question is whether the topic of the heritage matters in terms of obtaining these health benefits.  That is to say, does it matter whether one is visiting or volunteering at a house museum, or an art gallery, or a castle? From a sport heritage perspective, representations of the sporting past – particularly in museums and halls of fame – are typically very hands on, reflecting not only the nature of sporting heritage but also because hands-on displays may address particular operational outcomes for the museum.  Perhaps there are health benefits – both in situ and afterwards – from these displays? More than this, however, sport heritage – both to its benefit and detriment – is particularly positive, often inspirational, and generates its fair share of collective cultural moments.  It would be fascinating to test whether sport heritage, in particular, “makes you happy.”

However, sport heritage’s primary use appears to be healthcare, at least at this point in time. Peter King in his Monday Morning Quarterback column, discusses the latest – and largest – addition to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and its not a new wing to house trophies or memorabilia.  Rather, the Hall of Fame will be building an addition called “Legends Landing” – a residential facility for former NFL players, particularly those with medical issues and who can’t afford treatment.  From King’s article:

The concept is one that’s been floating around with some league leaders for some time: a central place for medical and physical assistance for needy players, and housing for former players who need a hand. With the Hall of Fame running more and more educational programs for local schools—and research projects on the history of the game and future health of the game and its players—imagine the benefit of having scores of former players on campus as resource people.

I’m told that the type of facility the Hall wants would cost around $75 million and serve upwards of 500 players a year. With brain trauma and other long-term health issues so prevalent, it’s past time the league’s owners follow Benson’s lead and help fund a facility where, as Benson says, the legends can land.

From a sport heritage perspective, this development offers some interesting pieces.  Firstly, it positions the Hall of Fame as a multi-use facility beyond its touristic/events purpose.  Secondly, it posits the “legends” that live at a facility as a kind-of heritage resource, a kind-of “living sport heritage.”  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, by placing this facility at the Hall of Fame, it somewhat acknowledges that the sport has some negative legacies – including the the long term health impacts of playing a violent sport. It is a very interesting development, one that deserves some investigation.

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(The new Pro Football Hall of Fame “village” – including the Legends Landing facility.)

Sport heritage and the sporting past are also being used in healthcare, to great fanfare and success, by the Sporting Memories Network in the UK.  The Network was “established to promote and develop the use of sporting memories to improve the well-being of older people and to help tackle dementia, depression and social isolation.” The Network uses something called Reminiscence Therapy, though as strange as it seems, they mention that sport was rarely used in this kind of therapy.  Furthermore, in speaking with some of my Recreational Therapy colleagues, men are often overlooked in Reminiscence Therapy programs, so sport heritage offers a very strong emotional vehicle to serve an underserved group.

I suppose the point is that, perhaps, we in sport heritage have to consider a wider utility for the sporting past.  This is not to suggest that we abandon our critical heritage work, or that there isn’t room for sport heritage in education, tourism development, urban planning, and conservation.  Rather, perhaps we ought to consider more how sport heritage might be employed in tackling broader issues such as health and wellbeing.

Heritage and the NFL

You may have noticed that the NFL has faced a few issues (mostly of their own doing) the last few weeks.  Some of the issues are explicitly about heritage – such as the nickname of the Washington team – while others have little or nothing to do with heritage, such as player safety, off-field player conduct, and transparency about the NFL’s disciplinary procedure (particularly how these procedures are handled by the league’s commissioner).  The interesting thing to notice will be how heritage is used going forward to as a way of addressing these issues – or, alternately, distracting from them.

On the surface, heritage hasn’t seemed to be a major part of the NFL.  Although at a franchise level, heritage might be mobilized for a variety of reasons from establishing a history and legacy to selling tickets a products, NFL heritage hasn’t been a large part of how the league is positioned, at least in comparison to MLB and the NHL who are quite explicit using their past as a product (the NBA might utilize it’s past even less than the NFL, though that is a different blog for a different time).  There are certainly elements of NFL heritage that are used, such as the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio that kicks off the pre-season schedule, the NFL Films retrospectives, and some teams (such as the Chicago Bears) that use retro jerseys, but by and large the NFL is about today and tomorrow and the draft and next season, and not so much about the past.

However, it appears that heritage is now on the radar a bit more than before.  Mid-September to mid-October is Hispanic Heritage Month in the NFL, a program instituted a few years ago seemingly to both recognize the contribution of Hispanic players, coaches, and media as well as broaden the appeal of the NFL to Hispanic-Americans.  A recent set of ads asks fans to send videos about how football is a part of their identity, and how it helps connect them to others – a kind-of existential authenticity/heritage narrative.  Franchises have also incorporated heritage in new stadium amenities and design, most notably the San Francisco 49ers team museum at their new stadium.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see if the NFL use heritage more than it has in the past.  As we know, heritage is often used when a site or tradition or way of life is under threat.  Certainly, the Washington name controversy has generated heritage discussions, particularly in the case of fans citing team traditions and personal heritage affiliations in support of the maintenance of the team name.  However, at a league-level, might the NFL draw more substantially on its past to remind (or, perhaps, distract) from its current controversies?  For example, next year is the 50th Super Bowl – might the league have a year-long celebration of itself, particularly if some of the issues from the past few seasons carry over to next year?  Could the NFL do something akin to the NHL’s Winter/Heritage Classic, and remind fans of the “roots” of the game as a way of muting these issues and reminding fans what they might lose?  Might there be more programs similar to the Hispanic Heritage month, recognizing the contributions of a particular people while also creating a narrative that the NFL is and has always been a source of social change (similar to Jackie Robinson Day and the Civil Rights Game in MLB)?  Of course, whether the NFL has ever been a source of social change is highly debatable, but that is hardly the point.  After all, heritage is a tool meant to address any number of contemporary needs and circumstances.  As such, it will be fascinating to see how the NFL uses this tool this season and in the seasons to come.

Welcome to the Sport Heritage Review

Welcome to the Sport Heritage Review, a blog dedicated to understanding the role that sport-based heritage plays in our society.

I strongly believe that to know a people, you must know something about the sports that they play.  Of course, every sport has inherited or created a legacy – some good, some bad – that can used, abused, promoted, and ignored depending on the circumstances.  Therefore, I see sport heritage being about how elements from the sporting past – be it sporting places, events, artefacts, traditions, memories, histories – are used in the present to address contemporary needs and circumstances, be they social, economic, political, or otherwise.   

When discussing sport heritage, I will sometimes include my own research and travels.  However, I don’t wish this to be simply a blog of self-promotion.  Rather, I hope to describe what I see as some of the pressing topics in sport heritage, disseminate some of the academic and popular views about sport heritage, and promote some of the interesting sites and locations  that reveal something about this topic.  

A couple of caveats, particularly about the notion of what heritage is as opposed to history or other disciplines.  Certainly, one cannot discuss sport heritage without incorporating some element of sport history – though, I see these as very different concerns.  Many trees have perished discussing the differences between history and heritage (in sport or otherwise), so I will simply point you to the work of David Lowenthal (in particular The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History), A Geography of Heritage by Brian Graham, Gregory Ashworth, and John Tunbridge, among many others.  In some respects, it seems that heritage has more in common with geography than history, but I digress.

Secondly, I don’t see heritage as a synonym for old buildings or artefacts or other material things.  Certainly, sporting structures and old sporting equipment and jerseys are, for lack of a better term, material expressions of value, but they are not “inherently” heritage.  Again, much ink has been spilled about this (I refer you, in particular, to Laurajane Smith’s The Uses of Heritage), but heritage is about values and not “stuff” – the “stuff” (be it buildings or otherwise) are only “heritage” because of our contemporary needs and values.  If our needs and values change, so does the heritage.

With that being said, I hope you’ll join me in exploring this fascinating topic!