There's a spectacular scene in the new box-office hit Gladiator that re-creates the populist ambience of ancient Rome's most renowned sports stadium. As the lead character, Maximus, raises his helmet in victory from the grounds of the Colosseum, the camera pans up and around to show tens of thousands of digitally manufactured fans cheering from their seats.
Back in the old days, you see, sports stadiums were built for The People. Ticket prices were low. The games were good. Bread was free and plenty.
In modern times, alas, the ruling class has elbowed the average Josephus and Jana out of the stands. Every municipal Caesar, corporate patrician, and senatorial sycophant has his own luxury box now. But the blue-collar workers who paid for the construction of today's sports palaces can barely afford the price of admission _ let alone the price of a pretzel and beer.
An in-depth cover story in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated magazine details some of the grim statistics: The average cost for a family of four to attend an NFL game is $258.50. In Denver, the face value of two rinkside tickets to a Stanley Cup finals game is $510. In Milwaukee, where citizens doled out nearly $200-million for a new Brewers baseball stadium, ticket prices now go for $50 per seat _ almost double what the highest-priced ticket went for at the old ballfield.
According to Team Marketing Report, the magazine notes, the average cost of an outing to see the New York Knicks during the 1999-2000 season "was a staggering $455.26 for parking, four tickets in midrange seats (an average of $86.82 each), four sodas, four hot dogs, two beers, two programs and two souvenir caps." And four season tickets to field-level box seats at home games of the New York Mets will set you back $18,240.
Two of the most common selling points for forking over millions in public stadium subsidies to private professional sports teams are "civic virtue" and "economic development." But where is the civic virtue in replacing regular sports fans and their families with corporate ticket holders, their fat-cat friends and political cronies? Dennis Howard, a professor of sports marketing at the University of Oregon, told Sports Illustrated: "A new building's nice in the short term, but it exacerbates the problems in the long term by narrowing the market of people who can afford to go to the games on a regular basis."
"Sixty percent of season tickets in NBA and NHL arenas are corporate," Howard found. "Teams have made themselves too dependent on businesses, while distancing themselves from their traditional fan base."
The distance is both figurative and literal. Sports Illustrated reports that in nearly every pro-sports arena built since 1990, new luxury suites put ticket holders in the cheaper seats even farther from the action. One former sports fan, who tried watching games from the "cheap" seats at Boston's FleetCenter, complained: "You can't see from up there, and just as bad, you can't hear the sounds of the game. It's like looking at stick figures."
Nevertheless, sports team owners persist in touting the "public interest" during legislative bullying sessions. The Boston Red Sox, who have demanded a publicly financed $545-million stadium, claim a new ballpark would create 3,000 full-time jobs and pump an added $204-million into the local economy. Yet, independent study after study has shown that "saving" a city with a 21st-century Colosseum simply soaks tax-paying plebes. Camden Yards earns $3-million a year in job creation and tax revenues, for example, but the ballpark costs Maryland residents $14-million a year, according to a recent study published by the D.C.-based Brookings Institution.
Now, after biting the hand that fed them, some managers are desperately trying to re-create the populist magic. David Stern, NBA commissioner, penned a memo this season asking teams to shuffle fans from the nosebleed seats to the lower levels during live broadcasts. "We believe our product looks best on television when it shows the seats are filled."
He might want to give the technological wizards of Gladiator a call. Computer-faked imaging may be the only way to bring back working-class fans to public stadiums overrun by pro-sports plutocrats.
Michelle Malkin is a Creators Syndicate columnist.