Fanfare Without the Fans

The luxury suites in modern stadiums are reminders that capitalist society values elite consumption over public enjoyment.

Nicha Ratana-Apiromyakij / Jacobin

You don’t even have to like football to have a fine time at Metlife Stadium. A regular ticket gets you access to more than twenty different types of concession stands, including one operated by cable television’s Food Network, which serves up buffalo mac and cheese alongside signature sloppy joes.

After taming your appetite, hop on over to the Flagship Store Powered by Reebok. Just in case anything exciting happens on the field while one of the store’s more than fifty associates is ringing you up, the $1.6 billion facility features cameras that beam replays directly to your smartphone.

For those who find these amenities too spartan — and indeed, there are some who do — Metlife Stadium also offers an array of premium seating options. Holders of season tickets for any of the venue’s 9,500 club seats (all of which are cordoned off on their own tier) receive “roomier, cushioned seats,” as well as access to the “two luxurious 50,000-square-foot, climate-controlled Chase/Lexus Clubs.”

These clubs offer more upscale food and drink, a private entrance, and a place for classier fans to schmooze without having to worry about crossing paths with the regular-admission crowd.

A single club seat sells for anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 for the entire season, not including a $5,000-to-$30,000 “personal seat license” just for the right to buy the tickets. Fans desiring an even more exclusive experience can spring for one of the stadium’s 212 luxury suites, which accommodate up to thirty guests in a private enclosure. Each suite features its own bathroom, refrigerator, and wet bar, not to mention multiple flat-panel televisions. Some lease for as much as $1 million annually.

Perhaps more than any other phenomenon, Metlife and the rest of the current generation of sports stadiums in the US encapsulate what Mike Davis describes as capital’s “recolonization [of] inner-city retail markets.” Far from signaling the retreat of the state from investment in urban economies, this process has witnessed the shift of robust public spending on cities away from public goods like affordable housing and toward spaces and structures designed to provide the elite with new opportunities to consume conspicuously.

The boom in construction of taxpayer-subsidized luxury stadiums and arenas during the last quarter-century exemplifies the breadth and intensity of this shift. Between 1987 and 2010, 104 new Major League Baseball (MLB), National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), or National Hockey League (NHL) facilities opened — most of them in or around the downtowns of major cities, and all of them financed to some extent by public money — while only 70 debuted between 1950 and 1986.

The newer venues have invariably boasted new luxury amenities and dramatic increases in premium seating capacity. For example, Giants Stadium, the venue Metlife replaced in 2010, had only 119 luxury suites and a paltry 124 club seats.

Several developments have led major-league sports franchises to reconfigure their stadium-related growth strategies around elite consumption.

Firstly, by the 1980s working-class fans had become less attractive to teams as consumers. Growth in real wages had ground to a halt during the 1970s amid severe inflation, and wages actually declined in the next decade as a result of business’ assault on unions and the government’s retreat from policies that kept a tight lid on unemployment. The ultimate outcome: an upward redistribution of income that motivated firms in the entertainment sector to redouble their efforts to capture spending by those at the top of the ladder.

Moreover, by the 1980s, most franchises already enjoyed robust markets of ticket buyers from the professional and corporate classes, who had limited outlets for conspicuous consumption at older stadiums and arenas. Maximizing stadium-generated revenues took on a new urgency for team owners at the end of the twentieth century, as the organization and growing assertiveness of players’ unions (one of the few corners of organized labor that saw gains in this period) placed much stricter limits on the ability of team owners to control labor costs.

In some leagues, owners rushed to build massive banks of luxury suites not just because they added a new, robust revenue stream, but also because they offered teams a way to evade mandates for revenue sharing. In the NFL, for example, which has long required teams to commit a certain amount of their earnings to a shared pool in the name of competitive balance, league rules have historically exempted money from suite leases from the collective pot.

In ceding to franchises the power to totally control money from luxury boxes, the exemption provided yet another incentive to construct as many of them as the market could sustain.

While this economic history is clear enough, liberal commentators have missed the boat as to why it matters. This is not to say that they have ignored the issue. Quite the contrary. Since at least the early 1990s, many journalists, nostalgic for an earlier era of allegedly more democratic spectatorship, have lashed out against the elitism of new major-league stadiums.

Back in 1991, Washington Monthly’s Jonathan Cohn wrote, “Skyboxes, for all their cozy frivolity, speak to an essential flaw in American social life: the elite’s eagerness, even desperation, to separate itself from the rest of the crowd.” According to Cohn, increasing class stratification within stadiums threatened professional sports’ hallowed history as an “antidote to status anxiety.”

A couple years later, the New York Times lamented the fact that “the accursed sky boxes and ‘club seats’ are designed not so much to give you a better vantage point but to separate you from the rabble.” The piece added the requisite nostalgic nod to the past, noting that “while sky boxes might succeed in promoting snob appeal, they are death on the synergism and the shared appreciation that has traditionally tied sports fans together.”

The Atlantic more recently joined the chorus, mourning a “luxury-box America” where “an afternoon at the ballpark is less often the class mixer it used to be.”

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To be sure, the condescension of those in skyboxes towards the outside world deserves ridicule. In the early nineties, for example, a banker who leased a skybox at the Miami Dolphins’ Joe Robbie Stadium confided to one journalist that his rationale for the expenditure was “know[ing] there’s not going to be anybody behind you who’s really obnoxious.”

But the journalistic critiques are symptomatic of a deeper issue. For all of the indignation about the snobbery and pretentiousness of skyboxes, these commentators have had nothing to say about the upward redistribution of resources — into the hands of both private stadium developers and rich sports fans — that has fueled the trend they find so odious.

The shapers of liberal opinion, in other words, have defined the issue in terms of wealthy fans’ behavior, rather than in terms of how class has increasingly come to shape access to urban social and cultural goods like spectator sports.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is precisely the message which, according to Walter Benn Michaels, now dominates conversations about class “at every level of American life”: “there’s nothing wrong with being richer than everyone else as long as you don’t act like being rich makes you better than everyone else.”

That is, the problem isn’t that only a handful of fans can afford skybox leases; the problem is that skyboxes make fans inside them feel superior and those on the outside feel inferior. For liberals, sports stadiums are no different from the rest of American life, where, as Benn Michaels writes, politics “has been reduced to nothing but etiquette.”

Academic critics are no exception to this myopia. Harvard professor Michael Sandel, in What Money Can’t Buy , the oft-cited takedown of the “skyboxification of American life,” writes:

For most of the twentieth century, ballparks were places where corporate executives sat side by side with blue-collar workers … [but] the advent of skybox suites high above the field of play has separated the affluent and the privileged from the common folk in the stands below.

Again, the difficulty for people like Sandel is the unwillingness of the luxury box set to rub elbows with the non-rich — their refusal to partake in a charade of consumer egalitarianism.

But if we reasonably define “common folk” as what economist Michael Zweig terms the “working-class majority” — that is, the more than 60 percent of Americans who work as something other than professionals, small businesspeople, mid- and upper-level management, or elite capitalists — the much bigger problem is that their presence at major-league stadiums, even in the “stands below,” is largely a figment of Sandel’s imagination.

Leagues, teams, and stadium designers have, time after time, reassured “regular” fans that skyboxes and club levels actually subsidize affordable seats in other sections. “They need to have premium areas that cost a whole lot of money,” says Ron Turner of the stadium architecture firm Ellerbe Becket, “so they can always have a ticket that the average guy can buy.”

Such a claim seems plausible inasmuch as stadiums of the current generation are much bigger than their predecessors. (Metlife Stadium, for example, encompasses 2.1 million gross square feet, 1.2 million more than the old Giants Stadium.) In theory, this trend might reflect a design strategy through which teams have added luxury seating on top of existing general seating capacities in order to accommodate fans with a wide range of incomes.

The data suggest otherwise. I recently assembled a database that catalogues the number of premium seats (luxury box seats plus club seats) and non-premium seats (everything else) at the current and previous stadiums of 73 out of 92 active MLB, NBA, and NFL franchises for which data were available (all 73 inaugurated their current facility after 1987).

Even using conservative assumptions and estimation techniques, the numbers tell an unequivocal story: despite massive increases in the average size of major-league facilities during the last quarter-century, franchises have added premium seats in luxury boxes and club levels while simultaneously removing non-premium seats.

Across all three leagues, I estimate that the typical franchise occupies a facility that, as of 2013, had approximately 4,900 more premium seats and nearly 6,800 fewer non-premium seats than the one it replaced. These are not trivial numbers. They translate into an average reduction of non-premium seating capacity of 15 percent.

Instead of using additional square footage to accommodate fans from a range of classes, teams are devoting it to amenities like high-end team stores and cocktail lounges. Combine this with the fact that franchises have continued to expand the number of non-premium seats sold as season tickets, which require large up-front payments — by now some franchises actually sell all or nearly all non-premium seats as season tickets — and it’s obvious that working-class fans have few if any opportunities to cheer on their teams in person.

This is not to say that the previous generation of stadiums actually fostered the idyllic, democratic spectatorship implied by popular commentators. As historians like Benjamin Lisle have documented, they did not. Stadiums designed and constructed in the immediate postwar period increased barriers to entry by reducing the amount of cheap bleacher seating that dominated venues before the war. But those barriers to entry have grown significantly higher and more impermeable in recent decades.

Few examples of this process are as straightforward as the Milwaukee Brewers’ transition from County Stadium to Miller Park in 2001. At 800,000 gross square feet, County Stadium encompassed about 33 percent less total floor area than Miller Park; it contained no premium seats and more than 53,000 non-premium seats. The much-bigger Miller Park boasts more than 4,600 premium seats, but contains 15,900 fewer non-premium seats than County Stadium.

In recent years the Brewers have sold more than 16,000 of Miller Park’s non-premium seats as season tickets, meaning that the stadium really only offers about 21,000 seats that Mandel’s so-called “common folk” have any chance of purchasing.

Moreover, the constriction of supply has fueled a dramatic price spike even for these remaining seats. According to data released annually by the trade publication Team Marketing Report , the nominal cost of an average-priced, non-premium seat at an NBA game (weighted by the number of seats at each price level) rose from $22.52 during the 1991–92 season to $50.10 during 2001-02. After adjusting for inflation, this represents a jump of 73 percent over a period when real wages rose only around 10 percent.

Such dramatic price inflation has manifested itself not so much in the stratification of consumers within stadiums, but rather in the near wholesale exclusion of the working class from them.

Admittedly, secondary ticket markets hosted by websites like StubHub have allowed for the transfer of some season tickets to non-season ticket holders. That said, there is no systematic evidence to suggest that they promote a significant increase in the number of more affordable single-game tickets. In fact, recent studies indicate that, with the exception of a very small window of time immediately before a game, average sale prices for single-game tickets on StubHub exceed those of direct sales from teams.

To appreciate the extent of the barriers to entry faced by wage-earning fans, it’s important to keep in mind that most people don’t go to games alone, and that tickets are only one of many costs involved in attending games. In 2012, the cost of four average-priced, non-premium seats — in other words, the baseline cost of a family outing to a game — registered at $313.42 in the NFL.

This means that the average cost of a family outing to just one game amounted to more than six times the average annual expenditure on “admissions to sporting events” among all US households. Factor in transportation, parking, and concessions, and the financial burden of attendance becomes significantly greater.

No doubt, many fans prefer the comfort of their living room to the bustle of the stadium. The reason all of this matters, however, is that at the same time that major-league teams have transformed stadium spectatorship into a pastime accessible to a narrower and narrower subset of the population, they have invariably benefited from a dramatic increase in the amount of public subsidy dedicated to stadium construction and maintenance.

According to data assembled by Judith Grant Long, when we take into account both initial capital costs and thirty years of ongoing upkeep, taxpayers will have contributed, on average, $352 million for each new major league stadium opened between 2001 and 2010.

This dwarfs the $223 million average for facilities that debuted during the previous decade. As pro sports venues have effectively slammed the door in the face of all but the most affluent fans, supplicant states and municipalities have unilaterally diverted more and more from public coffers — a third of a billion dollars on average for every new stadium — to pay for them.

There are few exceptions to this trend. Some public funding deals are so lopsided that even the spin doctors in team public-relations departments and local newspapers have trouble finding a silver lining. Miller Park, for example, will have siphoned off an estimated $681 million of local taxpayer money over a projected thirty-year lifespan, while team owners chipped in only $137 million for initial capital costs.

But even venues like Metlife Stadium, which the mainstream press reported would be paid for in full by private investors, will cost taxpayers dearly. Long estimates that ongoing maintenance and upkeep costs at Metlife will ultimately leave New Jersey residents with a tab of $376 million.

Teams are quick to differentiate stadium developments from typical urban real estate projects by touting the civic pride and community cohesion allegedly fostered by major-league spectator sports. As sociologists Kevin Delaney and Rick Eckstein demonstrate, franchises have increasingly talked up these “intangibles” when demanding subsidies in order to divert attention away from research debunking claims that stadiums promote local economic development.

Opponents of subsidies have been right to draw attention to this economic development literature, but they would also do well to adapt their rhetoric in ways that directly neutralize teams’ retreat into claims of intangible social benefits. The data cited above on the transformation of stadium seating over the last quarter-century offer one place to start.

They show that rather than bringing residents together, and rather than functioning as legitimate public goods, the current generation of publicly funded stadiums systematically exclude an unprecedented percentage of American sports fans.

Of course, decisively rebuking the rhetoric of teams and leagues will not, in and of itself, solve the problem. This is especially true in a day and age when decisions about stadium subsidies have been largely removed from the democratic process, and when franchises continue to wield threats of relocation like a sword above the heads of residents and municipal officials. Nevertheless, reshaping fans’ consciousness is a necessary starting point.

Ideally, fans should see an intractable antagonism between the potential of spectator sport as a community asset and its current role as a venue for taxpayer-funded consumption by a handful of urban elites. Critics must also stress that, despite what leagues want us to believe, fandom is not necessarily contingent on having a stadium — or even a team, for that matter — close by, especially when attending actual games is unrealistic.

In the short term, transforming this consciousness raising into effective resistance against the sporting arm of the real estate business requires wresting fiscal control away from politicians competing to offer teams ever greater sums of state, county, and city money. This means making anti-stadium-subsidy campaigns part of bigger struggles for social justice in cities, like the rise of a new radical unionism in places like Chicago or recent electoral successes by socialists in urban centers, such as Seattle.

The games will go on even if the handouts do not. Franchises that have enjoyed relatively minuscule public subsidies, such as the New England Patriots (NFL) and Montreal Canadiens (NHL), rank among the most profitable in their respective leagues.

Looking further into the future, we need to imagine a system of publicly owned spectator sports that inverts teams’ current prioritization of growth over access. Many point to the Green Bay Packers (NFL), a team operated as a nonprofit and funded by fan “shareholders” who do not collect dividends, as an ideal worth replication in this regard.

Indeed, the Packers stand as proof that teams can operate successfully outside the traditional growth model in pro sports. But the franchise’s atypical structure has not precluded an increasingly exclusive stadium experience — last season the average Packers ticket price climbed to more than $82 apiece.

Advocates for radical urban development must do more than simply reject profiteering if they intend to build an equitable, widespread network of public recreational spaces. They also have to take pains to design these spaces in ways that promote communal experience inside and out. In the case of stadiums, this might mean the embrace of higher-capacity facilities with no luxury seating, linked to convenient and inexpensive public transportation networks.

Or it might mean the creation of many new, smaller venues and teams dispersed throughout a given city. In any case, the new system would satisfy the unmet demand for game attendance by using team revenues to subsidize an idea as exciting as it is basic: an adequate supply of quality seats for everyone.

So enough with the skybox set, and enough with the thimble-sized servings of buffalo mac and cheese that set you back half a paycheck. Most importantly, enough with the perverse system of corporate welfare that makes it all possible. Fans of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but an obstructed view from the nosebleed section.