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Capital Lies

Seats of Power


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Tom Frank

Seats of Power

1995 has been a year to be proud of. You've voted in a Republican Congress, decertified the backward-looking union in your workplace, thwarted the benighted opponents of "free trade," enthused over the rule-breaking entrepreneurial possibilities of the cyberworld, and whooped it up generally for the new order of all-American business values and corporate rule. You close the special issue of the New York Times Magazine focusing on the excellent ways of "The Rich" and breathe a contented sigh: all's right with the world, at long last!

But then you turn on the TV and find that Your Team, the professional sports franchise in which you've invested years of passionate devotion and in whose honor you've consumed not a few six-packs, is packing up and preparing to leave. Not, it's true, to Mexico or some other place where players can be compelled to destroy their bodies for thirty cents an hour, but to somewhere distant enough to suppress your ardor for their adventures. Just to make matters worse, they're departing only after announcing a series of scarcely believable demands: here in Chicago the Bears' owner, in an inspired burst of civic blackmail, recently proclaimed that he would leave unless the city enacted a tax earmarked especially for him, the purpose of which would be to guarantee that his profits would never fall below 25 million dollars a year.

And why? Well now that we've entered a golden era of capitalist hegemony and nobody needs to conceal anything, Your Team's owner is free to tell you: it's a complicated situation, but when it comes right down to it they're moving because they can get a better deal elsewhere. They are no longer Your Team, if indeed they ever were: they now belong to the scheming business leaders of Gary, or Baltimore, or Saint Louis, or Indianapolis; to whoever is willing to put up enough cash (or to float enough bonds, or enact enough new taxes) to pay for a new stadium complete with a bountiful array of skyboxes. Skyboxes, it turns out, make the sports world turn; they are the holy grail of franchise profitability, the legal tender of the glorified form of civic blackmail that professional sports have become.

LetUs get the obvious out of the way quickly: skyboxes are civic obscenities. Skyboxes are a grotesque affrontery to authentic fandom, a preposterous bowdlerization of pure spectatorship. The logic of skyboxes demands that ancient and beloved stadiums, places of enormous sentimental investment, be destroyed and replaced in order to satisfy a tiny number of corporate spectators. Nothing seems to be able to stop the skyboxes and their attending bulldozers: even when city governments accede to every team demand and retrofit older structures with the quasi-posh quarters the corporate fans demand, the warm populism of the bleachers is doomed by simple economic fact. The mindless enthusiasm of ordinary fans is now irrelevant even at $8 a head; we can always be counted on, the owners seem to have decided, to show up, shell out, and shout regardless of what they do to the stadium or where they move the team. The war of team owners on their fans is as depressing to watch as it is predictable. Walk through old Soldier Field sometime, the next stadium to be sacrificed to skyboxes: the very features that give it such resonance are the ones that make it doomed. What today's corporate fan demands are gourmet concession stands, lobby-like appointments, and elaborate barriers between themselves and the rabble. And either he will receive these things, or you will have no team at all.

You shouldn't be surprised. Skyboxes are what's happening in America. Not just in sporting events, either: the ascendance of the skybox is just highly visible proof, if you needed any, that American society is being reorganized around corporate needs--a perfect symbol of our new two-tiered Businessman's Republic. Everywhere the corporate elites are sequestering themselves in better and better secured sanctums, a trick they learned from their brethren in South America and South Africa: gated suburbs, 24-hour omniscient electronic surveillance, special floors in hotels, special waiting rooms in airports. The primary cultural law of the 1990s seems to be a sort of Inverted-Capra Principle: that any public setting once celebrated for its democratic mixing of peoples shall, whenever it is even remotely possible, be segregated rigidly by social class. Before the skyboxing of America, a sports stadium was one place where the executive elite might rub shoulders and share enthusiasms with the common people who made them their fortunes. Now most of the mingling occurs at the entrance to the skybox inner sanctum, where members of the corporate class present their credentials to smartly uniformed service workers who are lucky to be earning $7 an hour to keep their friends and neighbors on the other side of the velvet rope. And what do the classes say to each other in this rare moment of social intercourse? "Enjoy the game, sir." And, "Where's the bathroom?"

Technically, skyboxes are enclosable, climate-controlled rooms that overlook the playing field at various sporting arenas. With such amenities as mini-refrigerators, tiny sinks, liquor cabinets, and bad art, they often resemble the sort of second-rate hotel rooms in which business executives are accustomed to pass their weekends. (This resemblance is reinforced in the lexicon of skybox glorification, which strongly prefers the term "luxury suite.") Skyboxes are generally leased to corporations at exorbitant prices (at Soldier Field they presently go for $65,000 a year, not counting the cost of the overpriced liquor and catered foor consumed within). [MIKE: HERE IS WHERE TO PUT THE NEW FACTS, WHEN THEY COME IN] Older stadiums are generally lacking in skybox amenities, while the newer stadiums with which they are replaced (most recently that of the Detroit Tigers, a team which still holds an annual Eugene Debs Kazoo Night [MIKE: DEBS WAS NOT THE TIGERS MANAGER; I WAS MISINFORMED]) boast row upon row of opulent appointments. But the crucial fact about skyboxes is that the public bears much of the financial burden of constructing and maintaining them. Whatever else it might be, the skybox is a stunning lesson in the new priorities of the Businessman's Republic, a brilliant invention for transferring wealth into the hands of the already-wealthy: we taxpayers shell out so that our old, democratic stadiums can be razed and replaced with new, class-segregated ones; we pick up a good portion of the bill as the corporate class gorges itself on "luxury" items and provide them with an amusing tableau by screaming and cavorting below; we promise to tax ourselves more in the future in case the team owner's receipts fall from usurious to merely mercenary; and, best of all, because corporate "entertainment" expenses are tax deductible, we subsidize the cost of the food and booze! The only thing more gratifying to the corporate mind must be the spectacle of thousands of us, caught haplessly in the rush to exit the stadium's parking lot, listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio and getting ourselves worked up against the "politically correct." Genius!

For all this, skyboxes are never the best seats in the house. Sometimes they are so poorly positioned for watching the athletic action that they appear to have been designed that way intentionally, that disregard for the vicissitudes of the contest is an integral part of the skybox aesthetic. At the United Center, where the Bulls play, some skyboxes are found at the uppermost reaches of the stadium, seats that would ordinarily be the least desirable (and cheapest) in the place. Skyboxes simply are not about spectatorship; everyone I talked to insisted that skybox denizens, if they're interested in the game at all, watch it on the closed-circuit TV set.

Skyboxes are designed to deliver a much more intoxicating pleasure: that of conspicuous elitism in an aggressively democratic setting. It's fun to be an elite, sure, but it's positively thrilling to announce your status brazenly to a populist gathering. Skyboxes are always conspicuously separated from the rest of the stadium by elaborate security systems--at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, one of the first to be designed with skyboxes (it was completed in 1972), they are arranged in a "Golden Circle," a level of their own between the upper and lower bleachers that is visible to everyone but rendered inaccessible by ten-foot-high fences and credential-demanding guards. The people in the skyboxes may not care too much about the game, but the other fans can easily make out the shadowy godlike silhouettes behind the glass and wonder about the power and importance of those shimmering people chuckling so intriguingly over cocktails.

Skyboxes can't be invisible to the rest of the stadium, as they would be were they designed more discreetly. While careening recklessly through Parisian slums in a gilded carriage is only a distant fantasy for most inhabitants of the gated suburbs, skyboxes make the dream possible: flashing credentials and stepping into the private elevator bank-- -at a baseball game! Munching hors d'oeuvres and drinking whatever liquor our colleagues believe to be the classy stuff this week-while the louts bellow for beer and blood below! Attending a game in a skybox, I'm told, packs a heady frisson and teaches a basic political lesson at the same time: this may be a democracy, but it's a democracy that we *own*.

The immediate comings and goings of the players on the field may not mean a great deal to skybox spectators, but clearly 'The Game' as a metaphysical abstraction does-otherwise they would set up cubicles over a bus depot and do their elitist preening as the hoi polloi scurry to make a cheap ride to someplace where there are jobs. No, The Game is important for businessmen, not in its intricate points, but in its allegorical significance. The Game, not the bus depot, is the place to make deals; The Game, not the society ball, is the place where it's important to be seen eating petit-fours.

This is because the myths of sport, if you hadn't noticed already, have become identical to the myths of entrepreneurship. Twas not always thus: most sports lend themselves just as easily to socialist or existential interpretations as capitalist (proletarians versus bourgeoisie struggling on the gridiron of history). But now, everywhere from the pseudo-analytical chatter of the announcers to the vapid 110-percentism of the postgame interview, The Game teaches the same lessons as Dale Carnegie books, and football coaches routinely augment their income traveling the corporate lecture circuit as motivational speakers. Skyboxes have become a place of choice for corporate deal-closing because the proximity of stylized struggle, of grunting and sweaty dedication to the Team, of headphoned and brightly-festooned Leadership, of shouting chains of command and desperate struggles to prevail, are enough to raise the conduct of business to a higher, more ethereal level. A deal closed in a skybox with the roar of The Game in the background is a special deal, a deal witnessed by a higher Notary, a deal blessed (like a peace treaty signed in a cathedral would have been to an earlier generation) by the reigning divinities of the age.

The French Revolution ended the pleasure-taking of the people in the gilded carriages, but skyboxers apparently anticipate no such uprising. The skybox represents a perfect class system, a society in which vast inequality is explained simply and without controversy. The new corporate elite, as just a few minutes of any Rush Limbaugh program will convince you, is an elite that believes its deeds represent the will of the people, that identifies liberals and academics and something called 'big labor' as the dangerous classes. And maybe they're right: just as we've convinced ourselves that popular entertainment represents public tastes, our outrage at having our way of life yanked summarily out from under us has so far been directed exclusively against everyone except those responsible for the deed. We rail against the greedy players and the shameless team owners, but the swells in the skybox are the objects of nothing more sinister than jealousy. Heckling from the galleries was once part of the price one paid for finer seats at the opera, but skyboxers have little reason to worry. No one that I spoke to showed any trace of resentment towards them. At Arrowhead Stadium, where the class division is particularly acute, I asked a pair of Chiefs fans in the upper bleachers what they thought about skyboxes. "You've gotta be awfully rich to sit down there," was all they were willing to venture. But are the skyboxers real fans? "Sure. Everyone here is."

So brace yourself for the worst: as the overclass rediscovers the joys of segregation, the triumph of the skybox becomes an almost inevitable phenomenon. Furthermore, on the scale of corporate meaning by which nearly every civic project must now be measured, pro sports franchises rank just below lotteries and the construction of gigantic convention centers as evidence of a city's willingness to do absolutely anything for business. A city without a sports team, a city without skyboxes, is like a city without entrepreneurship. It could easily get even worse: skyboxers could demand that they be cheered as they file into their 'luxury' quarters, and cities would have no choice but to comply. Or the various Major Leagues could one day concede to the ultimate demand of the skybox owners and install in the skyboxes some sort of device whereby they, as Roman emperors decided the fates of gladiators, can whimsically overturn the rulings of umpires.

Sports purists may be appalled, but skyboxes are the future. And it gets worse: Next year the hot topic will be the "personal seat license," an ingenious new wrinkle by which fans can be forced to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of buying a regular ticket. The time is not far distant when stadiums will be filled entirely with millionaires not watching as other millionaires cavort around on the playing field, the crowd noise piped in like a laugh track on a sitcom. In this age of the frayiing safety net and disappearing medical care, being an "average" American is a matter of considerable expense and privilege; someday soon being one of the People will be a luxury most of us can't afford.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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