Gimme Back My Crumbling Hellhole

[from The Art of Sports / April 26, 2007]

A friend tells a great story about going to the last Browns game in Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

“It was tremendous. People showed up with full toolkits and no one at the gate said a word. They had to turn around every time the Bengals got past the 50-yard line because the Dawg Pound was throwing batteries at their players.”

Toolkits? Batteries?

“It was the end of that stadium. People working those gates, they were all fans. Everyone in Cleveland is a Browns fan and every Browns fan didn’t give a damn what happened to [then-owner Art] Modell or the stadium about to get destroyed because he didn’t know how to run a goddamn football team. We loved that place and we all wanted to keep a piece of it.

“I know a lot of people with stadium seats in their basement,” he says with a laugh. “A lot of people.”

In and of itself, Cleveland Municipal Stadium wasn’t much of a gem where stadiums are concerned. It lacked any kind of remarkable design and served only a utilitarian purpose.

And yet…those Browns fans loved it anyway.

And like so many other sports operations around the nation, ownership got between those fans and the place they filled to the rafters, week in and week out. This is the same thing as what happened on the South Side, and as what is about to happen on the North Side. Ownership knows how much these teams are worth to people, and like any other evil American business they’re willing to screw their loyal customers to help their bottom line.

Give us a new stadium or we’ll move, they’ll say.

Let us scalp our own tickets so we can build a better brand of loser, they’ll say.

Imagine what would happen if other entertainment companies tried to pull such a stunt. Imagine HOB Entertainment going to Mayor Daley and saying “hey, build us a new House of Blues or we’ll close up the club on Dearborn.” Or AMC telling the state they needed money to renovate their theaters, lest they decide to pack up and move to Indiana.

It’s a safe bet Daley and Blagojevich wouldn’t panic; in fact, they could recommend a good mover.

So why should a sports team be any different? The answer, unfortunately, is all too simple: money. Lots of it. If the Cubs represent a $8 million influx of cash to the city during each home game, and the Bears are selling seat licenses for thousands of dollars and still have a waiting list, owners are going to be smart enough to recognize demand when they see it. Demand exceeds supply, and in that situation the seller always wins.

Unfortunately, for the seller to win, the buyer must lose. And that buyer is all of us.