Stadiums are clearly the new silverware. The trouble with sport, see, is its unpredictability. From a business point of view, at least.
There are 20 teams in the Premier League, for instance, and only one can win it. Not great odds if you deal in pounds and pence and common sense. So it only makes fiscal sense to recalibrate what constitutes success and what screams ‘WINNER’ louder than a glitzy new pad replete with a microbrewery?
Take Tottenham Hotspur. They haven’t won the English league since 1961. Yuri Gagarin was making history as the first man in space back then,was big in the box office, and George Clooney was melting hearts from his crib. It’s 11 years now since they have won anything of note and even that’s debatable, given it was only a League Cup.
Not a great track record for a self-professed ‘Big Club’. No, Spurs have been far too Spursy to be deemed anything close to a success in sporting terms but their residency in a new, state-of-the-art 62,062 capacity stadium in North London pulls off the neat trick of increasing their odds of success on the park due to increased revenues while ensuring that any continuing drought is offset by the same bump in readies.
The inspiration for this slight but not so subtle shift in approaches may well be AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Dubbed ‘Jerry World’ after Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, it is 10 years old now but it marked a quantum leap in what stadiums are and can be in the popular imagination, with its enormous HD screen suspended from the ceiling, climate-controlled interior, and an appetite for energy that, according to one report, eats more electricity than the entire country of Liberia.
The Cowboys still kinda suck but the AT&T remains an attraction in itself.
Super-sized stadia with space-age technology are all the rage now. Real Madrid are to drop half a billion on an upgrade to the Bernabeu, Roma are building a new home that is said to be inspired by the Colosseum, and Barcelona are planning work which will take their capacity north of 100,000. And there’s plenty more than those besides.
The sums involved in these projects are staggering and yet they are built to make money rather than throw it away. A new stadium invariably means increased ticket prices, gourmet burgers that cost much more than the traditional pasty or pie, and a bewildering array of attractions/gimmicks bent on separating punters from their purses.
Stadiums are being built or proposed that will include shopping malls, 360-degree video screens, retractable roofs and floors, a Nike megastore, and water pools. Come for the football, stay for the smashed avocado. It’s an arms race with no prospect of a peace treaty in the offing given the egos involved and the vast sums of money that are at stake.
Sports have cottoned on to the absurdity of building draughty, concrete bowls that cater for people once every two weeks and for just a handful of hours. For years, stadiums served as magnets for surrounding pubs and restaurants. These local enterprises were insects feeding off the hides of a passive elephant. Now they’re pests to be swatted aside with their tails.
This is about business, baby, and it has distorted the viewing experience.
The lines have blurred between passive observation and active distraction. The sight of fans filing up and down the aisles with food and drink has been par for the course in the US for decades but sports as fragmented as baseball, American football, and basketball catered for such fluidity of movement and compulsive spending. Rugby, football, and GAA possess no such in-built pauses.
Some events are being ruined by a chain gang of not-so-engaged spectators swarming up and down steps with burgers and beers, like a hive of ants hoarding a stock for the long and barren stretches when a ball may — gulp — go out of play.
The recent Leinster-Ulster Champions Cup game at the Aviva Stadium was 20 minutes old before the trail dwindled to a trickle.
To be fair to Tottenham, they seem to be catering for all sensibilities. For all the attractions packed into the concourses, there has been a determination to ensure that the atmosphere pitchside is second-to-none with stands sitting closer to the turf and the enormous 17,500-seated single-tier South Stand designed to amp up the noise levels in much the same way as Borussia Dortmund’s famous ‘Yellow Wall’ at Signal Iduna Park.
All of which is fine and dandy but even know-nothing event junkies — and there are more and more of them per square inch the larger the venue and more high-profile the game — will be more likely to pop by of a Saturday afternoon to dispense with their hard-earned if the main product is alluring.
“White Hart Lane is a great place,” the comedian Les Dawson once said. “The only thing wrong is the seats face the pitch.”
Mauricio Pocchetino’s side are doing enough to make any updated version of that barb redundant for now but the terrible beauty of their new home and others like it is that flowing football is no longer deemed enough to please the masses and the money men.