Monday, April 15, 2013

Baseball and Civic Identity

A week ago, I wrote about watching baseball in urban places in and near the North Bay.  Walking through an urban setting toward a ballpark is a great thing.  But there’s another side to the baseball/city interaction.  Baseball, and other sports, can give something back to cities.

It’s an article of faith among most urbanists that cities shouldn’t spend money on ballparks for sports teams.  To the extent that much of the “economic benefit” of a sports team consists of redirecting dollars from other entertainment options in the metropolitan area, the position is reasonable.

But there are other benefits that a professional sports team gives to a community.  The benefits may be hard to assess, but are nonetheless real.  Those benefits are national credibility and community spirit.

Studies have shown that the presence of professional sports teams can help attract new businesses to a metropolitan area.  As expected, much of the attraction can be explained by factors such as appropriate labor force, local business practices, availability of suppliers, etc.  But after those factors are normalized, there is a residual impact that can be best explained by the city’s name appearing in the sports pages on a daily basis.

Let me offer an example.  Let’s say that you want to open a new office in Ohio.  And that city population would be a key factor in your decision.  Without doing any research, how would you rank Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus?  And how difficult would the decision be?

Do you have an answer in mind?  Would it surprise you to learn that Columbus is the most populated of the three cities?  And that not only is it the biggest of the three, but that it’s more than 100,000 people bigger than Cincinnati and Cleveland combined?

I’m sure some of us underestimate Columbus because it had a lesser role in national history than the other two.  It was never the center of oil refining or pork production.  But another factor is that Cincinnati and Cleveland have the Reds, Indians, Bengals, Browns, and Cavaliers.

Poor Columbus doesn’t enter the national sports scene, at least in the professional arena, until we consider the National Hockey League.  And even then, many people probably can’t recall the team nickname.  I’m always surprised to be reminded of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Nor is the national awareness always limited to major league clubs.  Thanks to Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger of M*A*S*H, the Toledo Mud Hens have a national identity.

As we move down from a metropolitan region to local cities, such as in the North Bay, a national identity is less important.  If the North Bay has a national reputation, it’s for wine, not sports.  Nor is any business like to pick San Rafael over Novato as a new home because the former has a professional ballclub in an independent league and the latter doesn’t.

But professional sports still have a role in creating community spirit, whether on a regional or a local basis.  A few years ago, I participated in a Sacramento book club.  The selected book was a history of cities.  The author argued that many early cities were founded around religion, with local residents having a pride of place because of religion.  As civilization evolved, many later cities thrived around issues of production and trade, with local residents having a pride of place over the commercial success of their city.

In a pre-meeting email, the book club organizer posed the question of what filled the role of religion or trade in the contemporary world.  Many came to the meeting with the same answer in mind.  Sports.  Residents of the Sacramento, even if not basketball fans, have a pride of place from the Kings.  And the Bay Area feels the same about their franchises.

My wife and I live a few blocks from an elementary school.  When I drive by in the spring, I note that the playground is disproportionately filled with children wearing the orange and black of the Giants.  In the fall, the color becomes 49er red.  It’s a community bond, which makes me feel good.

Nor need the attachment always be rational.  For several seasons, I was in the ownership group for an independent professional baseball team in Oregon.  We had a speedy, but undisciplined centerfielder named Marcus McGowan.  If he had worked on his bunting, he might have made a career for himself.  Instead, he usually swung hard, trying for a double that he could stretch to a triple with his legs.  It was fun for the fans, but not good baseball.

At the same time, Ken Griffey, Jr. was building his career in Seattle as one of the best players in baseball.  So I was amused during a spring training session for the Bandits to overhear a group of 8- and 9-year-old boys in the stands arguing over who was better, Marcus McGowan or Ken Griffey, Jr.  It was a ridiculous question, but I wasn’t about to disillusion them.  Instead, I quietly enjoyed their youth and their connection to the local nine.

I’ll offer one more story about the Oregon ballclub.  I was dining in a Chinese restaurant one day when a party of three was seated at the table behind me.  It was a mother and son, plus a family friend.  The boy had a developmental issue, as his emotional age was less than his physical age, but he was unfailingly pleasant and polite.  The family friend took note and asked the young man, “Johnny, why are you always so happy?”

Johnny had a ready answer.  “’Cause Mom takes me to lots of Bandit games!”

It’s hard to make money in independent baseball.  If ownership works hard, perhaps they can break even, with their only profit coming as good to the community.  Johnny’s response was my profit for the season.  And it was more than enough.

This doesn’t mean that cities should open their wallets for over-elaborate ballparks provided at far below market value.  That’s a flawed model that must be eliminated.  But if a city chooses to assist in parcel assembly or offsite infrastructure, or to offer an existing ballpark at less than market rate, that can be a rational decision.  Sports can offer repayment in less-than-obvious ways.

One last objection to having a professional sports team in your community is that you might be surrounded by boors who paint their faces on game days and otherwise over-identify with the local club.  But as reported by the New York Times, the reverse seems to be true.  Avid sports fans are actually more well-adjusted that the average person.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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