*This summer will demonstrate the degree to which sports matter in American society. Athletic games as they originated centuries ago at the beginning of civilizations all over the globe were leisure activities.
Sports were contests designed to amuse the elites and distract the masses from their burden of creating wealth for others.
But in the late 19th and early 20th century sports went through a transformation from being something people did when they were not earning a living to something people did to earn a living. Now in the early 21st century sports are undergoing a second transformation.
Whereas sports franchises used to be something peripheral to a community’s or individual owner’s balance sheet, they are now essential assets that must accrue wealth in the same way as any other business or face the consequences.
This new reality has been revealed in the last two years as sports franchises have become less of a shiny toy for ownership groups.
In the wake of a worldwide economic downturn decision makers have cut their spending making individual franchises as well as sports leagues think up creative ways to fund projects and initiate new revenue streams.
Taxpayers in Minnesota know this first hand as they recently approved public funding for a baseball stadium only to now have the local professional football team threaten to move to Los Angeles unless it receives similar funding.
Season ticket holders in the New York metropolitan area have been put upon by the professional football teams creating personal seat licenses – an extra fee fans must pay in order to have the privilege of buying actual ticket packages. And now this summer we have the LeBron James sweepstakes.
There are estimates that LeBron James is worth up to $100 million dollars to the franchise that is able to secure his services. Such an infusion of capital cannot be taken lightly. Sports franchises that can earn at least tens of millions of dollars can bring a community back from ruin in one instance or turn a stable community into one that is thriving and leading the revitalization of a region. Conversely James leaving the Cavalier franchise would be a serious blow to professional basketball in Cleveland. It became a major hub in the central area of the country because of its strategic importance on Lake Erie. But as our national economy has become less reliant on water transportation so has Cleveland become less important as a city. In addition like so many other rust belt cities Cleveland has also seen a drop in its economic viability as industrial jobs were relocated elsewhere. All of these factors conspire to make the money that the sports franchises bring in vital to the city’s survival and make James’ decision critical.
In the 21st century sports are more than amusements. Franchises are behemoths in local economies that can make or break a community. They are strategic assets that are vital to society.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War and he maintains a blog called This Seems Familiar. You can reach him at [email protected]