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Divided the stands: how skyboxes brought snob appeal to sports.

The Morgan Stanley trader reclines on the sleek designer sofa, glancing occasionally at the massive TV screen spread before him. This isn't a half-bad way to spend an evening, he thinks as he summons his waiter to the table and peruses the menu impatiently. Filet mignon? No, thank you. Beluga caviar? That's not quite it, either. Dom Perignon for an extra $300? Well, maybe. But what he really craves, he discovers sheepishly, is a hot dog.

No wonder. He's at a game at Madison Square Garden. Or, more precisely, on the Garden's exclusive skybox level, where the carpets are plush, the bathrooms spotless, and a hot dog as rare as a hat trick. Here, hidden behind Plexiglas, lurk some of America's most privileged sports spectators: lawyers, bankers, publishing powerbrokers, and various and sundry CEOs. Like their brethren at Los Angeles's Great Western Forum, the Houston Astrodome, and countless other arenas nationwide, they shell out tens of thousands of dollars every year for the privilege of sweat-and scream-free sports. At New Jersey's Meadowlands, Giants and Jets boxes go for $95,000 per season. At Texas Stadium, home of the Cowboys, boxes can fetch a million dollars each - even during the lean years. Who's buying all these skyboxes? Mostly American corporations, which use their sweet seats to build profitable friendships and impress clients.

Given that businesses are inclined to lay off workers before setting aside their season tickets, one might credibly argue that the deluxe box is but another emblem of misplaced corporate priorities. Yet the real cost of the skybox doesn't register on the GNP curve. Instead, it registers in the hearts and minds of sports fans and in the communities they represent. Eating key lime pie high in the sky, these afficionados are undermining one of the last bastions of democracy in America: sports.

For better or worse, professional sports occupy a place of elevated civic importance in 20th-century America - a place that has traditionally offered refuge from the status anxiety otherwise entrenched in American life. While a few sports have consciously courted the elite (tennis's maxim "whites only" often seems to apply as much to attendees as to attire), baseball, basketball, and football have historically attracted a sociological spectrum from the Astors to the Average Joe. That mass appeal only widened in the latter half of the century, as an infusion of black athletes into major league sports brought new audiences to the arena. By the sixties, pro games had emerged, however unintentionally, as a paragon of old-fashioned American class-mixing - capable, at their best, of evoking what former Yale president and baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti once described as that "Emersonian crowd feeling." When it rained during a game at Miami's aging Orange Bowl, the filthy rich got drenched along with the great unwashed. The powers-that-were shifted foot to foot in the same nasty bathroom lines as the pressmen and their 10-year-old sons. They heard the same cheers, unfiltered by a Plexiglas shell. That proximity of rich and poor may have sometimes made both sets uncomfortable, but it also evoked a sense of community and connection capable of radiating far beyond the stands.

That, sadly, was yesterday's stadium. Today, the city's spanking-new Joe Robbie Stadium is a model of the new skybox ethic. With a 10-foot wall between the skyboxes and the stands, it offers the affluent literal insulation from fandom's hoi polloi.

Even if heavily champagned mortgage bankers aren't too worried about the American stadium's new social separations, the rest of America should be. Skyboxes, for all their cozy frivolity, speak to an essential flaw in American social life: the elite's eagerness, even desperation, to separate itself from the rest of the crowd. What's doubly disturbing about skyboxes, however, is the change they imply. Professional sports, once an antidote to status anxiety, have been stricken grievously by the disease.

The boys in blue pinstripes

It's a latter-day Secret Service man's nightmare: President Calvin Coolidge at Yankee Stadium in the twenties, surrounded by a screaming, sweating swarm. Coolidge has a choice front-and-center seat, of course, but he is also right in the thick of the crowd's tirades and tobacco spit. And he probably never gave it a second thought, since, in the first half of the century, the noise, the frenzy, the egalitarianism of professional sports seemed a fundamental part of the game.

In Washington at the turn of the century, when sergeants-at-arms rushed to Griffith Stadium to retrieve senators needed in committee meetings, they had to scour the stands to find them. In each of the three great New York stadiums - the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, and Yankee Stadium - being a direct descendent of a robber baron would ensure you a good seat between third and home, but you still had to wait 10 minutes for a soda. During the fifties, at Yankee Stadium, the price difference between the best seat in the house and the upper-deck bleachers was less than 10 bucks.

And almost as soon as there were benches to sit on, the thoughtful had begun to perceive that the mix of class and mass might have a social benefit far beyond the arena. In 1880, Morgan Bulkeley, the first National League president, actually offered up baseball as preventative medicine for revolution. "There is nothing which will help quicker and better to amalgamate the foreign born, and those born of foreign parents in this country, than to give them a little good bringing-up in the good old fashioned game of Base Ball," he argued - a tactic that would keep them from "spending their hours fussing around in conspiring and hatching up plots when they should be out in the open improving their lungs."

To be sure, Bulkeley was going a little far. But he did correctly fathom a ball game's power - a power that grew more precious with time. In the great educational leveling that followed World War II, people turned to possessions and activities to signify status once self-evident when they opened their well-educated mouths. The rich read The New Yorker, the masses read Reader's Digest. Some drank champagne, others beer. But as activities, costumes, and cuisines evolved from ends in themselves to a means of social identification, professional sports continued to resist the forces of stratification. It was communal. It built social cohesion. And it wasn't long before the elite figured out how to get rid of those qualities altogether.

Spectator sports' metamorphosis into a badge of social status began, not surprisingly, in the capital of conspicuous consumption, Dallas - orchestrated by the Cowboys' canny owner, Clint Murchison. In the late sixties, Murchison realized that his team had outgrown the congenial, crumbling Cotton Bowl. He wanted a big, slick, professional new stadium; problem was, Dallas taxpayers didn't want to foot the bill. So Murchison decided to capitalize on his city's great tappable resource: the nervous nouveau riche.

He talked to some law firms, some airlines, some banks. He talked to a lot of oil men. But it wasn't just good football-watching he was selling. No, Murchison had identified something that appealed to the corporate captains' sense of self-importance, their desire to feel different from all those other, rowdy fans. He promised them seats in the sky. A few years later, Murchison had collected enough cash from advance leases on the club suites and luxury boxes to pay for the construction of his palace. The Cowboys moved in, the boxes sold out, and Texas Stadium became the most admired and imitated facility in professional football.

Texas's sports snobs were powerfully encouraged by the federal government. Until 1988, corporations and individuals could almost fully deduct the cost of skyboxes from their tax returns as business entertainment expenses. In other words, corporations really had no incentive not to buy skyboxes: After all, they'd be forking over the same $60,000 regardless of whether they purchased a box. The only difference was that the Dallas Cowboys or some other sports organization, and not Uncle Sam, would be on the receiving end. Abetted by this skybox shelter, Miami, Minnesota, Detroit, Boston, and a dozen other cities erected stadia in the eighties with insulation for the haughty. The Toronto Skydome's best boxes are actually attached to hotel suites, so a fan can watch a game in bed while nibbling on room service (or a roommate).

The incentive for owners to build such boxes is no mystery. While stadium owners won't give exact figures, the arithmetic is easy. At Giants Stadium, there are 72 boxes selling for $95,000 each (next year, the price will increase to an even $100,000), netting $6.84 million every year. Add in the regular ticket prices (astonishingly, buying a skybox doesn't necessarily mean you get free tickets), and you've got a $10 million annual cache from those 72 boxes alone - almost half as much as the Meadowlands makes on its 76,000 regular ticket sales. That's a tidy cash bonus for the owners.

Less easy to explain, at least in economic terms, is the corporate infatuation with the box. Today, the early motivations that Murchison capitalized on have fallen away. As the affluent eighties ended in recession, cost-conscious executives began to seem more chic than the regulars at Mortimer's. And in 1988, the government clamped down hard on skybox shelters - so hard, in fact, that "luxury skyboxes" earned their own section in the tax code. Under the revised statute, skyboxes and special club seats were worth only the cost of an equivalent number of regular-priced tickets. In other words, a skybox with room for 12 was worth only a deduction equal to the price of 12 regular-priced season tickets - $6,000 instead of $60,000.

But while economic realities may change, social snobbery endures. Today, even corporations on the ropes still gladly shell out the big bucks for boxes. At least four S&L-owned skyboxes have fallen into the hands of the Resolution Trust Corporation in the past two years. Ford and GM each posted $2 billion losses this year, but they still maintain boxes in the Pontiac, Michigan, Silverdome. "You don't eliminate everything just because you have bad times," explains Duncan Muir, spokesman for J.C. Penney, which maintains a box at Texas Stadium despite declining revenues. That's clearly the principle adopted by Florida's Southeast Bank. As it reported quarter after quarter of significant losses, eventually filing for bankruptcy, the firm refused to rid itself of its 10-year box lease. Now First Union National Bank, which bought Southeast a few months ago, claims Southeast's box as one of several in its own collection.

What corporate gains actually transpire in those precious glass cages? "You're asking questions I'm obviously not going to answer," Muir snaps. "That's confidential information about our business practices." But a few skybox users are willing to divulge such proprietary information. "I've taken my entire family up there," grins one Wall Street trader who frequents the firm's box at Madison Square Garden. And, boy, did they have fun, chowing down on platters of crudites and chicken wings. "Nobody cares because it's already paid for," he explains.

Above the crowd

The real harm of skyboxes is directed not at stockholders but at the public at large. The construction of special skybox levels, particularly in newer arenas where luxury levels have become even greater spectacles, creates stark physical divisions that endorse the kind of social hierarchies of race and class already so pervasive in nineties America.

The proof is in the not-so-subtle snobbery boxholders exude with every bite of their shrimp cocktails. Gene Kennedy, spokesperson for First Union National Bank, justifies his company's boxes at Joe Robbie and Tampa Stadium by noting businessmen's desire to "have more control over the surroundings. ... You know there's not going to be anybody behind you who's really obnoxious." As Ford Motor Company spokesman Gene Koch advises, "Rank does have its privileges, and there are certain opportunities that aid in the establishment of prestige and a certain image."

While seat users implicitly accept that hierarchy of wealth every time they use their exclusive parking lot and float on their private escalators through the crowd to their suites in the sky, the class alienation promoted by skyboxes isn't always such a subtle phenomenon. The message comes through concretely every time rain soaks Joe Robbie Stadium. Because of a design quirk, water that collects in the upper deck drains through holes in the upper deck wall. The club seat patrons are protected by an overhang; the runoff tumbles through the holes onto the spectators in the bleachers below.

Shed two tiers

Yes, yes, you say, but what of it? The rich have been lording it over the poor since Lazarus kicked the bucket at Dives's gate. Why should we expect Giants Stadium to be any different? Because it has been different. While professional sports have willingly contributed to some of society's most malignant evils (materialism, sexism, egomania), they have seldom been promulgators of pretension. And that traditional egalitarianism has never been more necessary than it is now, as America's delicate social balance becomes increasingly strained. As Kevin Phillips and other political watchers have shown so powerfully in recent years, it's not just that the gap between rich and poor grew wider in the eighties, but that the rich seemed less and less willing to acknowledge that the gap exists - while at the same time more and more willing to put themselves at a safe distance. It may seem far-fetched to suggest that mere games could connect the classes, but as long as there's been a team to root for, history has borne it out. In Chicago, L.A., and Boston, the very experience of watching a team could and did build cohesion among diverse racial, ethnic, and economic groups. That's an opportunity few of America's urban centers should overlook today. Unfortunately, nobody's looking.

The abolition of the two-tier stadium may not renew America's lost compassion, and it may not heal cities' racial wounds, but it would provide, as it used to, a forum in which people of all backgrounds might gather for a common, celebratory purpose and come away feeling good about their team and their town - as they used to in the heady days of the old Orange Bowl. There, blacks, whites, and hispanics would sit side by side, linked for a brief but important three hours by a tiny fiberglass bench and a shared enthusiasm for their hometown team. It was never a lovefest - the frequent fights among inebriated patrons were testimony to that. But it was often a first step toward community understanding. And in the long haul, that's a far more meaningful pleasure than any that can be had ensconced in a sterile concrete booth.
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Author:Cohn, Jonathan S.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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