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Stadium tours are fascinating sport heritage experiences. The idea of going “behind the scenes” to see locations not normally on public view has become one way in which sport heritage has been commodified; going to the “sacred spaces” of a team locker room, or seeing artefacts from championship seasons can be a powerful experience for fans and supporters.
However, as Sean Gammon at the University of Central Lancashire raised the observation in his excellent chapter “‘Sporting’ new attractions? The commodification of the sleeping stadium” that people on, say, a stadium tour aren’t always major supporters – if fans at all:
…stadia tours will often comprise of highly identified fans, who display a degree of veneration towards many of the tour highlights, as well as the less-attached visitors whose interests are far more casual, and ephemeral at best. (p. 125)
In terms of visitors to stadia, and certainly this has been my observation as well, that many people go to them – and perhaps go on a tour, but on many occasions go just to be near the venue. Or, as Gammon again contends:
…the stadium has grown in importance, from an often aesthetically indifferent utilitarian structure into an iconic symbol of a place, team, sport and/or event. (p.116)
Indeed, part of the appeal of touring sports stadia is that they are, in some sense, a repository of a community’s culture. This is, of course, not to say that sport is all encompassing when it comes to representing culture, but rather that sport – and the places where sport is played – can become one of the representations of culture and cultural performance.
In any event, touring famous sports stadia can be an important tourism experience as well. Places like Boston’s Fenway Park and Barcelona’s Camp Nou are some of the most visited attractions in their respective cities – and, given that each community hosts millions of visitors annually, the stadiums’ touristic importance cannot be ignored.
Having been on dozens of different stadium tours in several countries, and being one of a handful of scholars who study stadium tours, I can attest that many tours follow similar paths and patterns. Almost all begin or end at the team or stadium shop (stadium tours are, after all, a good way of driving retail services on non-game days and in the off-season), and most include stops at the media centre, a luxury suite, at or near the top of the stadium (The “birds-eye” view), the change rooms, and beside the playing surface or pitch.
However, not all stadium tours are alike. I have been on awful stadium tours where I was deeply interested in the team or venue, and been on wonderful stadium tours where I knew little or nothing about the home team (and, sometimes, even the sport!). Of course, what a good stadium tour can do is connect the committed supporter more closely with his or her favourite club, and perhaps even make the nominal or non-supporter gain an interest in the club, venue, or sport.
With that in mind, these are some of the facets I believe makes for a good stadium tour:
- Knowledgeable and passionate guides: Obviously, the abilities of the guide is important on any tour – stadium or otherwise – but, I believe, the best stadium tour guides are the ones that have a strong cultural memory of the club or venue (particularly those with some memories or nostalgia of visiting the venue in their youth), know about the current club, can deviate from the “script” when appropriate, and can answer virtually any question about the stadium’s history and legacy. This is a tough ask, but I have been on a few tours when the guide demonstrates (or, flat-out states) that s/he has no interest in the venue, or the sport/team that plays at the venue.
- Employing the senses: Stadium tours are, of course, about seeing places not normally open to public view. However, the best stadium tours go well beyond just seeing behind the scenes at a venue. Many of the best tours employed all of the senses: asking tour patrons to touch, say, the locker of a famous athlete, or listen to the (simulated) crowd noise piped-in for the tour, or smell the sometime malodorous locker rooms, or the preparation of food before a match. Some tours even suggest that patrons experience something of stadium cuisine before or after the visit. Seeing behind the scenes is great, but sensing behind the scenes is even better
- Imagination: Stadium tours offer a bit of a juxtaposition. On the one hand, patrons are touring an infamous sporting venue. On the other hand, they are touring the stadium it when it is “sleeping” and therefore not as it would be on a match day. As such, the best guides and tours are adept at firing the patrons’ imaginations during the tour. One guide, I remember, when touring the locker room asked patrons to imagine it was five minutes to kick-off. He went through, minute-by-minute, what each one of the players would be thinking, feeling, or doing. He even pointed to different patrons, asking them to imagine that they were a famous player and would say, “You! You are listening to your music in your headphones, head-down, focusing on what will be a very tough match.” Finally, at the end of the five minutes, the guide rapped twice on the door and said, “It’s game time!” I’ll admit, I had shivers up my spine.
- The soft sell: Stadium tours are an opportunity for teams and venues to sell merchandise, rental space, team or venue experiences, and catering. The best stadium tours might mention these, perhaps in passing, but don’t do the hard sell. It’s much more effective and enjoyable.
- Access: The best stadium tours provide the illusion of access – even though the “backstage” is always a kind-of front stage that is dressed-up for visitation. That said, I have been on stadium tours that did not go to the locker room area, or near the pitch, or anywhere that wouldn’t otherwise be available to anyone with a ticket to a game. The stadium tour must provide access that is not otherwise available, and certainly wouldn’t be available on a game day to anyone else but players and team officials.
- Souvenir: Many stadium tours provide patrons a kind-of lanyard during the tour – likely to identify patrons for safety and security purposes, but also to bring home as a souvenir of their visit. Interestingly, many of that lanyards and other souvenirs also have contact information for further tour bookings, tickets, and hospitality services. A nice way to have a memento while also providing a soft sales pitch.
Throughout the tenure of this blog, I hope to discuss some of the sport heritage sites I have been able to visit over the years. While I have termed these “reviews,” I am perhaps less preoccupied with a more Trip-Advisor-esque “should you visit here?” kind of commentary. Rather, I am interested in what is presented, how it is presented, and what kinds of heritages are highlighted (and ignored). Of course, praise/critique may find its way in to this commentary, but I hope to highlight more about what sport heritage these sites present and how they present them.
The tour of Newcastle United’s home ground, St. James’ Park, is the focus of this site review. If you are not familiar with the ground, its history, and the recent controversy over its name change (at the time of the tour in 2012 it was called Sports Direct Arena – though the corporate name has since been abandoned and the original St. James’ name has been re-instated), there’s a good backgrounder available here. Needless to say, it is one of the largest stadiums in Premiership football and, through various incarnations, has been used by Newcastle United Football Club (NUFC) for well over a century.
If you have ever been on a stadium tour, most tend to follow a very similar pattern. They are meant to reveal something of the “backstage” of a familiar venue, providing the both the dedicated fan and curious observer a chance to see places not normally accessible to the general public. Therefore, most stadium tours (which almost invariably begin and end at the team shop) will visit the luxury suites, the media centre, some of the other private rooms and hospitality areas, the view from the “best seats in the house,” and so on. Many tours will allow access to the change/dressing rooms, particularly in the off-season, and some will allow access next to (though, in my experience, never on) the playing surface. Some tours will have a subtle sales pitch (mentioning that particular places in the stadium are available for private rentals, for example), and most venues will offer tours year-round and often on a daily basis, depending on demand. Stadium tours have garnered some academic interest (including from yours truly), though a great place to start is with Gammon & Fear’s research about tours of Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
The tour of St. James’ Park was, really, no different than other stadium tours in terms of pattern – though, I did find it probably the best stadium tour I have ever experienced. Perhaps this is because I had a bit of nostalgia about the place. I lived not far from it while doing my Masters degree, attended a few games while living in Newcastle, and subsequently became a fan – albeit a casual one if compared with many of my fellow tour patrons. The guide was also a local, long-time fan from Jarrow, as well as an employee of the club, so he could tell many “unofficial” stories about players, teams, and his own life-long spectating experiences. In many ways, because the guide didn’t appear to follow a team-mandated script, his commentary felt intimate and authentic. For example, he kept referring to the venue as “St. James’ Park” – and even said that “they” (seemingly, the team owners and management) wanted him to use corporate “Sports Direct” name, though he refused. There has been some research (albeit in a very different context) that suggested that first-hand commentaries about a location – in other words, the personal narrative of the guide’s experiences there – may be more important for visitors than seeing the toured venue itself. I suppose this combination of my own background and a guide that was really and truly a team supporter (even going so far as to criticize the team’s recent performance at points during the tour) made the tour something very special. It didn’t feel like the regular, old Wednesday afternoon tour, if that makes sense.
(John, our guide, beginning his tour of St. James’ Park.)
One of the other aspect that made this tour memorable was the sheer level of access the tour provided. Indeed, the tour did follow a familiar pattern in terms of visited locations, but we did get to linger in both the home and visitor changing rooms, the pitch-side visit went around to the other side of the field (along the touch line, of course), and the guide even allowed visitors to sit in the players’ chairs along the sidelines. Again, I’m not sure if this was standard for the tours – or if it was just our guide – but rarely have I experienced a more physically accessible tour.
(In the tunnel, St. James’ Park)
In many ways, the tour felt like it was of a treasured heritage structure – and important symbol in the community – and not just a big, modern football stadium. Many of the artefacts on the walls in the venue re-enforced the legacy of the stadium (such as old jerseys and photos of players and of the stadium), and that the present physical incarnation was, in some ways, repository for that history and those memories. Of course, our guide was very good at weaving his own heritage into that of the stadium, though I would hardly call him a weepy nostalgist. He re-enforced that many of the decisions – even the name change – are simply part managing a contemporary club, one that needs to compete for labour in a global marketplace. Similarly, when speaking about the changes to the city proper, it was one mixed with pride and sadness. Certainly, Newcastle appears to be a city on the rise – and has become much more cosmopolitan, even in the dozen years since I had lived there. But, those changes have come at a price, and changes such as the demolition of the near-by Newcastle Breweries (and the fact that Newcastle Brown is now brewed outside of Newcastle itself) can be challenging for long-time residents. In some ways, the tour re-enforced that the stadium – as a symbol of the team – would be ever present, even as the city around it changed.
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 ‘heritage’ as 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 ‘recognizable’ heritage 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.