Spurs need a new stadium, so it seems.
Please, White Hart Lane-Lovers (Lovers Lane is a chain of sex shops in the States), don’t get it twisted. Though I’ve never been to the Lane, I know the emotions and memories that a great, old park can evoke. I’m a life-long fan of the Chicago Cubs, who moved into their current ballpark in 1916, and I can’t imagine a world where the Cubs don’t play in that old park. I may have spent most of the 1990′s ignoring all things Cubs, but they traded Maddux. There’s no excuse for that. Really, one of the greatest pitchers of all time? One of the last pitchers to ever reach 300 wins? How do you let a guy like Greg go? But I digress. This isn’t about the Cubs, it’s about Spurs. This post is about the impending changes at White Hart Lane. This post is about naming rights, home field, and club-support. Again, I’ve never had the chance to visit the Lane, but I can imagine. I can imagine the camaraderie, the brotherhood/sisterhood, the remembrances of times gone by, of teams long disbanded. I’ve been to enough sporting events in Chicago to fill volumes and volumes with my memories. I saw, in person, Michael Jordan. I was at the Mad House on Madison during the Blackhawks’ Stanley-Cup-winning 2009/10 season. I saw Sammy Sosa break his corked bat, again, in person. I saw Walter “Sweetness” Payton play at Soldier Field in his last regular-season game. I’ve been to both Comiskey Parks, but I’ve never been to US Cellular Field.
Naming rights to stadia are a strange phenomenon in the sports world. The reasons for allowing your home park to take on the name of a giant corporate sponsor are obvious. Money, money, and later, more money. It can be a great revenue stream, if your team needs it. My favorite team, across all sports, is the Chicago Cubs. They play at a park named after a chewing gum magnate, but they have never been paid a dime for the name on the stadium. The Cubs took over the park from a failed club. The Cubs renamed it Wrigley. That same chewing gum company owned the Cubbies at the time. Now, there has been news on the Spurs official website that the club may sell naming rights to whatever new stadium they move into. That may be a mistake, in this fan’s opinion.
There is another Major League ball club in Chicago. The White Sox, of the South Side, are very much the second team, in the Second City. Always a runner-up, always an afterthought to the uninitiated, the White Sox have quite a controversial history surrounding their home field. The Pale Hose play in one of the ugliest stadia in Major League Baseball (again, in this fan’s opinion). The Sox had the unfortunate circumstance of struggling to fund a new stadium during a Republican-controlled state administration, going so far as to threaten a move to another city and “stop time” in the State-House. Comiskey Park, the first one, was a real dump when I visited, before it was demolished. Our old South Side park had seen better days. It was a relic of another age. Not without her charm, the old girl was well past her prime. Adding to the Sox’ problems was a brand new ball park in Baltimore. It’s one on my Stadium Bucket List, now. The new Camden Yards has been touted as a fantastic fan experience. Camden marked a sea-change in stadium design. It’s a beautiful park with all the modern amenities fans of today want. No longer would US sports facilities be built to pack-em-in for whatever-sport’s-in-season. No longer would fan-experience be an afterthought… or so we thought.
The “New Comiskey” opened to great fanfare, many expectations, and big shoes to fill. I wish I could say it delivered. I wish it was the last ugly stadium built in Chicago. I wish there was a way to go back in time, show Jerry Reinsdorf the stadia of today. Comiskey Park II was a purpose-built park, there weren’t to be any football games played there (I’d welcome a fútbol match there today, though), no disco demo derbies, no Beatles concerts. Comiskey 2.0 was built for one team, the White Sox. Unfortunately, they dropped the ball worse than the Cubbies after Steve Bartman’s touch-of-history in that infamous game five back in 2003. The Sox built a stadium for as-many-fans-as-possible, not a stadium for-the-fans. In defense of the White Sox, they did retain the old stadium’s name… for a while. It’s a real shame that even the Big Hurt couldn’t keep the butts in the seats at 35th and Shields. Even an All-Star game (the inaugural All-Star Game was played at OG Comiskey) and a World Series Championship couldn’t really keep the fans interested. The behemoth stadium packed in over 47,000 fans at it’s peak. Unfortunately, that was a rather-unrealistic goal. Even the storied stands of Wrigley only hold about 39,000 (three million a season). This isn’t the NFL, folks. This isn’t the Camp Nou. There’s no proven way to get 47,000 fans to the stadium, eighty-one times, every summer. Currently, the park formerly known as Comiskey holds just over 40,000 on the odd-occasion that it sells out.
Again, I digress. I’ve seen the “Northumberland Development Project” plans, I’ve seen the Olympic Stadium plans, and I’m concerned with both strategies. Both plans included naming rights as an integral part of the proposal. Again, I know the economics of professional sports are very short-sighted. I understand the need for cash-up-front. But I also see a trend in fans to more willingly embrace a team that forgoes the near-term windfall in favor of tradition-building and community-integration. The fan needs a home, a castle, a fortress; and the team needs much-the-same. There seem to be two camps of Spurs supporters, as it relates to the Olympic Stadium legacy. One camp, understandably, would prefer Spurs NOT move into the 2012 Olympic stadium. Why uproot a team from its traditional area? The other camp would welcome the move, unfazed by the trek to a neighborhood of questionable safety (or so I’ve heard). The name of that new stadium wouldn’t really matter, would it? If they ended up in East London, as unlikely as that may be, would you still even want the new home to retain the White Hart Lane moniker?
Of course, the bookies have long had Spurs chances of moving to the Olympic as long odds. West Ham seem to have the deal locked up, despite the Leyton Orient and Spurs challenges. Which leaves Spurs to find land in one of the most crowded towns on the globe for a big, new building. I really liked the plans for a new park in Tottenham. I loved the way the team intended to play through the construction. I still think the renderings of the new stadium were great. It seemed to be extremely fan-oriented and neighborhood friendly. Neighbors make a ball park. Just ask the a-fore-mentioned White Sox. One of the reasons they can’t compete with the Cubbies for the hearts of Chicagoans is the neighborhood. The Friendly Confines is surrounded by a now-affluent neighborhood abounding with bars, clubs, dining and shopping. Wrigley isn’t just the field, it’s the experience of walking to the park, taking “The El” to the park, finding a ticket scalper, crawling between watering holes before and after the game. “The Cell” is all about the game, zero atmosphere. Sorry, but that’s no longer enough for the average American sports fan.
Now, if Spurs do end up building a new stadium in the old neighborhood, bringing jobs and tourism to the area, it would be like throwing out the baby with the bath water to sell the naming rights. Why let a great name like “White Hart Lane” become a relic of a bygone era? Why let some corporation come in and steal a portion of your history only to fold, or be sold? Ask the Arizona Diamondbacks (the BOB or Chase?) or the San Francisco Giants (SBC or At&t?) about having to change the names on every inch of the building. Sure, Cadillac are the “presenting sponsors” of the Chicago Bears. Sure, Wrigley Field features the Bud Light Bleachers and the CBOE seat auction. None-the-less, the Bears still play at Soldier Field and the Cubs still play at Wrigley. How long would the Blackhawks’ and Bulls’ season ticket waiting lists be if they still played in a building called “Chicago Stadium” instead of the United Center? Aren’t there some Chicagoans that still call it the Rosemont Horizon instead of the Allstate Arena? And don’t get me started on the World Music Theater/Marcus Amphitheater/Tweeter Center/Whatever it’s called now…
I still hope to watch a match in that great, old park, the Lane. If I can’t make that happen before they move to new digs, I still hope to take the tube to the White Hart Lane stop and see the Spurs work their magic in a new White Hart Lane. Of course, seeing your team play in person is almost always better than watching on TV. Seeing your team play on historic grounds is even better. I really hope that the sports big-wigs see what I see. I see a fan-base that accepts a new name, grudgingly. I see a fan-base that understands when their old house gets a face-lift. I am a fan, in that base, that would rather the team work a little harder with the on-field product and not around-the-field branding. Marketing is always growing in its importance to the business of sports. I just think there are better ways to fund your team than plastering some unrelated product-placement all over your stadium. Again, I understand the need for signage and branding, just leave the name of the stadium alone. I believe a company would pay almost as much to sponsor a portion of the house just for a chance to be associated with the greater name on the outside of the building. CBOE was, apparently, so pleased with how well their Wrigley Field front-row seat auction that they decided to repeat the experiment at the United Center. How I’d relish the chance to sit between the benches for a ‘Hawks game! Most of my seats have been up with “the real fans” in the 300-level. Though I’ve usually sat in “reserved” sections of Wrigley, I’ve had seats in the fifth-row at two different Cubs games. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
Again, though, as a Chicago native, I’m thousands of miles from the hearts-and-minds to the Spurs army of fans. I’m thousands of miles from a chance to sing and scream and chant and rant alongside the Lane-Loyals. I haven’t even been to a Cubs game in about a sixteen months. I haven’t seen a Bears game in person since that final regular season cap by Sweetness. Mostly, its economics and logistics that keep me out of the stands. Same, the reasons I’ve only been to London once (the weekend George Best died), and couldn’t attend a match. I did get to catch a match in a Piccadilly pub, though. I would have done anything in my power to go to at least one event during the 2016 Olympics, if Chicago had gotten the bid. I would have done anything in my power to attend a World Cup match in England in ’18 or the States in ’22 or vice versa. But, Chicago has tried to mend their political corruption and (therefore?) lost the ’16 Olympic bid. But, FIFA took corruption lessons from Chicago, apparently, and sold the World Cup to the highest bidders in ’18 and ’22. Can we stop this from happening to the new Lane? Can Tottenham fans rise up and tell Mr. Levy we don’t want a stadium named after a shoe-making, slave-labor-encouraging, multi-national corporation? Can we convince the higher-ups that we down-trodden are the ones that keep them in fresh trainers and pretty, new suits? Can we keep the investment bankers and insurance brokers out of the stadium naming game? This fan sure hopes so. But seeing my state’s former governor now in a court room, for a second time, possibly on his way to federal prison to have a chat with another of my former governors, I have my doubts. Call me a pessimist, but I see it as being a realist.
Come on You Spurs! Come on and keep it named White Hart Lane! To Dare is To Do! To dare to keep corporate interests off the stadium facade is to do your fans right! Let the kits and the touch line boards and the concourses be the domain of the adverts. Mexican Fútbol kits are so plastered with corporate sponsors that it can send an epileptic into an episode, and TV may cut away from the action on the pitch for sixty second commercials, but most of the Mexican stadia retain their original names (I’ll get to Estadio Azteca someday). Few American baseball stadiums are free of corporate names. The only ones now are Wrigley, Fenway, Yankees, Camden, Dodger, Arlington, and Aneheim. That’s seven of the thirty-two Major League ballparks with no (paid) corporate names. ‘s a dizzying look at NFL stadium name chronology. In case you weren’t dizzy enough, here‘s a list of current, former and future stadia for Major League Baseball. Some towns do it right (opinion), and keep the stadia names traditional. Others, not so much.
Judge for yourselves. I’m no economist. I’m hardly a professional critic of architecture or sports. And really, these are just my opinions. I hope we can keep the name White Hart Lane. If we don’t, I’ll still go, someday. I won’t have the same expectations. I hope the product on the pitch makes up for the product placement on the entry gates.
Come on you Spurs!