This past week, the National Football League approved the request of the St. Louis Rams to relocate to Los Angeles. This, despite an aggressive push by St. Louis and Missouri political and business leaders to keep the team through the partial public financing of a brand new stadium along the Mississippi riverfront. This news story has a lot of angles, from the bonkers $2.6 billion stadium/NFL Disneyland proposed on the LA suburb of Inglewood, to the callous greed of modern sports. No doubt readers of this blog felt some envy for St. Louis, which despite attempts to the contrary, did not throw away half a billion dollars of desperately needed public money. As a state recently extorted by the NFL, Minnesotans can relate.
But I admit that I’m most interested in the alternative world in which the city convinced the team to stay. The world in which Minneapolis-Saint Paul currently resides. What convinces a city like St. Louis or Minneapolis to put down tremendous sums of money to keep teams around? What convinces leaders to spend time and money at the whim of pro sports? This despite the mountain of evidence from economists that sports teams provide little to no economic boost. This despite the incredible opportunity cost of financing the massive stadiums of the NFL.
At its heart, this is a simple question with an easy answer that you know already. Politicians finance sports stadiums because they fear that their constituents will punish them for losing the team, or reward them for keeping or attracting it. Push past the inflated economic figures and the dubious redevelopment claims, and it boils down to civic pride, which is what sports tend to be on the field for many people as well. In these discussions, you’re hearing a debate about what it means to be a “major league city”. Lose the Rams and St. Louis won’t show up on the maps anymore. Lose the Vikings and the Twins, and Minneapolis will be a cold Omaha.
I don’t think too much of this argument as a justification for spending half a billion dollars. But I think there’s more to explore here, especially after I read this Reddit thread, entitled “Are you hopeful for the City of St. Louis and the region more generally?”
The original poster poses the question in the wake of the Rams’ departure, but there’s more context needed. It’s been a rough few years for the city. The shooting of Michael Brown in the suburbs, the racial chasms it uncovered, the destructive riots, the militant police response, a crime wave, and other disappointments large and small have piled up to make the departure of the Rams take on outsized significance. It doesn’t help that in the relocation application filed by the team (which were under no obligations to publicly release, but did anyway) absolutely savaged their own city, casting it as a miserable, impoverished, post-industrial backwater. You don’t need to read the entire Reddit thread, but here’s the most relevant quote:
I do still think that some cities are better than others. And as a logical result of that, the fact of the matter is that some cities have to be among the bottom tier, just as some cities, by definition, have to be among the best.
And I know this is a horrible thing to say, especially in this subreddit, but it is an honest question (and I don’t just mean this as a provocation): Are we among the bottom tier? Are we heading there?
Yes we have restaurants. Yes we have arts districts. Yes we have a tech startup community. Yes there are pockets of revitalization. But, at the risk of sounding incendiary, doesn’t every city have these things? Surely it’s not enough to cite their presence as a reason to be overwhelmingly hopeful about our city.
What’s more remarkable to me is that the response to this post wasn’t indignant or offended. People engaged with the premise. Most people openly agreed with parts or all the original poster’s crisis of faith. The general thrust in the thread was a faintly hopeful one. Many comments didn’t dispute the city’s poor run of recent news, or the city’s grave challenges. Still, they found things to be positive about. But they didn’t exactly dispute the idea that if you ranked all the big cities, St. Louis probably wouldn’t challenge for the top.
I can pick up a common thread here. When I moved to Philadelphia to attend graduate school, the first thing that struck me about the city’s character was a palpable inferiority complex. Philadelphia has a lot going for it, whether it’s history, its unmatched urban fabric of colonial-scale streets and alleyways, or its position at the center of the Northeast Megalopolis. Yet it was impossible to miss, in just my first day, how poorly the city’s own residents regarded their home. The good things people told me about were transparently ordinary (craft breweries! food trucks!). The bad things always seemed to creep into conversation. There are things I’ve since come to discover are wonderful and unique about this city, and nobody told me about them. Back in the day, the city’s tourism department put up a billboard on the highway that read “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” That still might be true.
Philadelphia hasn’t lost any sports teams recently, but they might want to consider it. Of American cities with teams in the “Big Four” sports leagues, only Philadelphia could not count a single team in the playoffs this past year, and they are on track to repeat that feat again this year. Sporting success is a license to feel pride in where you come from or where you live, and I truly do believe that a lack of it matters. It’s definitely not the role of government to find the next coach of the local football team, but I do think that we urbanists tend ignore somewhat spiritual things like the success of local sports teams, and I wonder if these things matter more than we often consider.
Now is when I belatedly explain that there aren’t any bright ideas, new research, or relevant answers in this post. It’s just a discussion.
To me, my thinking arcs naturally back to Minnesota. Despite great pains to appear otherwise, Minnesota is a remarkably self-confident state, and MSP is a remarkably self-confident city. It’s not an audacious feeling of superiority, like that of the city of my birth, New York, or the country of my ancestry, the Netherlands. It’s a quiet, upbeat confidence. I cannot for a moment fathom the idea of a Reddit conversation of Minneapolitans debating where their city ought to rank itself, because the conception that MSP is, or ought to be a leader is basically a given. To the extent of self-parody, Minnesotans expect to challenge for the lead of every state ranking. Minnesotans expect to be underestimated, but Minnesotans are remarkably tireless at setting the record straight. I used to think that Garrison Keillor’s bit about the children of Lake Wobegone being “above average” was just a joke about well-meaning homogeneity. Now I know it’s actually the state standard.
Does this matter?
I don’t really know if it matters on a larger scale. But it does matter to me. I have some degree of choice about where I live, as do many people in my generation. I want to live in a place that’s optimistic about the present and the future. I want to live in a place where people feel emotionally invested in their city, not just their property. I want to live in a place where there are common points of pride. I want to live in a place where people know what makes it special. I want to live in a place with some kind of esprit de corps. I’ve written about this before. I suspect that if it matters to me, it matters to other people as well. Maybe that’s over-confidence.
All of this was bouncing around in my head this week, and then I saw Sam Newberg’s well-timed piece about the perverse joys of subzero outdoor football, and I found myself thinking “That’s a piece of what I’m talking about!” I don’t really give a damn about the Vikings, to be perfectly honest. But I tuned into the game anyway and watched it all the way through, because I knew that if I still lived in Minnesota, that’s what I’d be doing. I poured a beer that I had shipped from France 44. Sports aren’t why people move to one city instead of another. But I suppose you could see them as something as a proxy for the health of a city, because for most cities, their sports teams are their most visible ambassadors. What does it mean about St. Louis when their football team leaves, burning every bridge with the city in the process? What does it mean about Minneapolis that the football team stayed and is building a stadium that looks like a goddamn sand crawler, and it’s going to host the Super Bowl in the middle of goddamn winter? Is perception reality?
City pride is a total unknowable. You either have it or you don’t, and it’s immeasurable anyway. Also, it’s either worth something or its not, and that amount seems impossible to determine. (I’m reminded here of the famous confidence fairy.) There’s a lot more here that could be said that I’m unqualified to discuss at length, especially I think, of the racial implications of the St. Louis-MSP comparison, and how Minnesota’s Wonder Bread-whiteness plays into this conversation. But I think it bears considering (especially given sports’ historic role as society’s vanguard for diversity and racial tolerance).
This piece doesn’t really end, I just stop writing. My hope is to spark comment. I want more help in answering the question posed in the title. What are sports and stadiums worth to a city’s sense of collective self-worth? And what is that self-worth really worth?