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Sport Heritage in 2015
2014 was an interesting year in sport heritage. The ways in which the sporting past is used today seemed to garner a fair amount of public interest. This was particularly the case with the anniversary of the First World War and how sport became one of the primary avenues of public remembrance. Debates continued as to the content of sport heritage, particularly in the US as to how controversial pasts – particularly in baseball – ought to be recognized It was also exciting to see the organization of the first National Sporting Heritage Day in the UK, and I am pleased to see that sport heritage will again be celebrated on September 30 of this year. There was also plenty of great sport heritage research published, highlighted by the special sport heritage issue of the Journal of Heritage Tourism.
As for 2015, there appear to be the continuation of certain trends from the previous year, as well as sport heritage going in some new and exciting directions:
Commemoration – It seems likely that sport heritage will continue to be used in commemorations of particular anniversaries and events. Many First World War commemorations continue, and though it seems unlikely that there will be as many public events as in 2014 for the centenary, it would seem likely that the sporting arena may continue to be the vehicle for remembrance. Similarly, with the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War this year, it will be interesting to see if sport is used in these commemorations. Also, in any given sport there are numerous anniversaries of famous events, athletes, and moments which, undoubtedly, will be recognized.
Commodification – The commodification of the sporting past would seem to continue in 2015, as heritage remains a strong, saleable good for sports franchises and leagues. Heritage-based sporting events continue, and continue to be popular (such as with the numerous outdoor hockey games throughout North America and Europe), historic “moments” can be planned in advance along with various forms of memorabilia (Derek Jeter’s retirement from the New York Yankees in 2014 showed how lucrative this practice can be), and the perceived stability of the past – particularly when compared with the unpredictable present and unknowable future – seems to draw our attention and precious (and finite) leisure time.
Politics – 2014 witnessed a transformation of sorts for sport heritage, from a benign “ye olde tyme” nostalgia trip to a tool of political and social change. The fight over sport heritage space – and, indeed, what heritage space looks like – took a decidedly political turn in London in 2013 and 2014 during the fight over the Southbank Skatepark. The “I Can’t Breathe” movement, particularly in the NBA, cited John Carlos and the 1968 Olympic protests as inspiration. No doubt more globally integrated networks mean that different people from different backgrounds will lay claim to different sport heritages, and it seems likely that what sport heritage is – and who gets to shape it and speak on its behalf – will continue to evolve.
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.