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In the memoirs of both John McCain and Marco Rubio, each written by a Republican senator with an eye on higher national office, there are two very different approaches to America’s favorite shared pastime: sports. In 1999’s Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir (Random House), McCain offers scant reference to his best-loved professional teams. In 2012’s An American Son: A Memoir (Sentinel HC), on the other hand, Rubio drops no less than two dozen mentions of his home state’s NFL team, the Miami Dolphins.
What a difference 13 years makes.
Presidential hopefuls are nothing if not sensitive to the zeitgeist, and while life experiences explain part of McCain and Rubio’s divergent literary techniques, something else is also afoot, something that tells us a great deal about American society and culture. Sports is a big business, with worldwide annual spending in recent years—an estimated half a trillion dollars—increasing faster than global economic growth. There’s no news flash in that, of course. What may surprise, though, is the growing importance of sports to the civic profile and citizen self-esteem of world-class metropolises—let alone those aspiring to be. More than ever, says ESPN The Magazine business columnist Peter Keating, “to be a Big League city today means having a Big League team.” Specifically, a professional franchise in a major sport, ideally more than one and preferably boasting a star player who looks just as smart on the cover of Vogue as on Sports Illustrated.
Exhibit A: LeBron James, the NBA superstar, whose career moves illustrate the power of sports to shape a metropolitan image. In 2010 the man known as King James merited his own hour-long special on ESPN to announce that after seven futile years chasing a championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was joining the Miami Heat. The splenetic feelings of betrayal among Clevelanders was matched only by the vague sense among everybody else that the city already known in some parts as the Mistake by the Lake was simply not big enough to contain a legend like James. Now flash forward four years, to summer 2014. After capturing two NBA titles, the King decides to head back to his native Ohio, sparking not only the expected elation in Cleveland but also startling consternation in South Florida.
That’s because James’s defection came during a period of unusual sports malaise in Miami: David Beckham’s efforts to build a stadium for a new Major League Soccer team in the city had once again fallen apart, while attendance at Marlins Park, the two-year-old, architecturally daring home of the city’s Major League Baseball franchise, was as disappointing as the club’s performance over the past decade. And few Miamians even bother to get depressed over the generally desultory Miami Dolphins or the Florida Panthers of the NHL. “The Heat with LeBron were loud and sparkly and successful,” explains ESPN personality Dan Le Batard, who’s also the dean of Miami sportswriters. “That sounds a lot like how you would describe Miami. Take LeBron away and what’s left is the impression of a city that sees itself as the envy of the Americas now somehow lessened.”
We’ve been here before, of course. (Western civilization, that is.) Hand-in-gauntlet with the expansion of the Roman Empire was a veritable boom in sports construction. The Colosseum, as city-defining a stadium as has ever existed, is only the most famous. Any Roman outpost worth its salt had its own sporting grounds. “Sports ties in to culture as far back as we can look,” says Miami artist David Le Batard, a renowned muralist, painter and sculptor who also happens to be Dan’s brother. “The Olympics, the Hippodrome, Circus Maximus—these were not only places for the community to come together but also an axis point for political, cultural and social discourse. The sporting event, in many ways, represented the apex of what that community had to offer. I’m not sure that sports in modern times is any different.”
Put another way, anyone relocating to Miami doubtlessly would have seen the LeBron-era Heat as a drawing card. “Sports has become a much bigger deal than it was 30 years ago,” says author and cultural critic Chuck Klosterman. “There are fewer shared experiences in the world, and games can really bring people together. As a result, you have more money being pumped into sports and more casual sports fans than ever before.”
American municipalities regularly throw hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of stadium subsidies and tax breaks at restless team owners in hopes of stealing another city’s crown jewel. “Cities compete with each other fiercely for businesses and well-educated workers,” says Marquette University law professor Matthew Parlow, who has written extensively about the economics of sports teams and stadiums. “Sports teams are now seen as an important attraction, along with other cultural and entertainment amenities.”
In 2008, for example, the Seattle SuperSonics NBA team jetted to Oklahoma City and changed its name to the Thunder. This move especially gives insight into the effect a major-league sports team can have on a region. In the Thunder, Oklahoma City boosters finally had something to brag about that didn’t involve oil. More important, they didn’t have to do much of the bragging themselves; the 24/7 marketing machine that is pro sports does this as a matter of course. As Oklahoma economist Mark Snead said in 2012: “We don’t have mountains. We don’t have a coastline. We don’t have a ski resort. Amenities include pro sports franchises. It’s one of those components that now make Oklahoma City completely in a different category.”
Brooklyn, to be sure, is far from Oklahoma City, literally (1,455 miles) and figuratively (195 million Google hits vs. 101 million). But the borough that never stops talking about itself has benefited nonetheless from its return (see: Dodgers, Brooklyn) to the major leagues. Despite project-threatening opposition to the arena plan upon which their relocation hinged, the Nets and their home court have meant anything but neighborhood ruination. Rather than quashing urban life, the Barclays Center has enhanced it. In 2013, the subway-served arena passed Madison Square Garden as the highest-grossing U.S. venue for concerts and family shows, generating much foot traffic and residential development. “In the end people want to live by sports facilities,” says Jay Cross, who would know. The president of Hudson Yards, a $20 billion real-estate development on Manhattan’s west side, Cross was also instrumental in the development of Miami’s American Airlines Arena, where the Heat play. “Good things start to happen around these facilities,” he says. “There’s a liveliness.”
In fact, cityscapes across America have been dramatically altered over the past quarter-century by a renaissance in sports construction, inaugurated by the much-copied, Populous–designed “retro” ballpark Camden Yards in Baltimore. “Gone are the days of ugly big boxes meant to be all things to all fans,” says Peter Keating, creator of ESPN’s annual Ultimate Standings, which ranks teams in all major sports based on a variety of criteria including stadium experience. “Arenas and stadiums have become destinations unto themselves.”
Indeed, we’re in the midst of a golden age of sports architecture, with some of the world’s top building designers vying for the opportunity to put their distinct marks on landscapes and skylines. This, too, has raised the cachet of sports among arbiters of taste and relevance who judge a place by the artistry of its edifices. Yet another reason why any city worth its Tourism Board and Chamber of Commerce budgets, Miami or elsewhere, will have a sports venue worth touting and—if the stars align—a team or two worthy of filling the seats.