Two coinciding events have put the city of Detroit, at least temporarily, back in the national spotlight: debates over the auto industry bailout and Michigan State University’s ascent to the Men’s College Basketball Championship Game, held at Detroit’s Ford Field. In the above clip from ESPN, a few former Michigan sports stars reflect on changes in the city and the impact of sports on civic pride.
The clip points to a very interesting relationship between sports and the economic vitality of a depressed city. There was some talk in the week leading up to the National Championship game about what an MSU win would mean for the spirit of Detroit, a city boasting a 12% unemployment rate leading up to the game. The implicit assumption is that the magical power of sports can uplift a city, inspiring poor urban dwellers to pick themselves up by their bootstraps as they find redemption, solace, and joy in their team’s victory.
This sports euphoria certainly has some merit. The scene at Shea Stadium in New York after 9/11 was an important moment that inspired a nation. More generally, the common love for a home team can cross racial, ethnic and class lines at precisely the times of greatest racial, ethnic, and class strife. However, the business of sports doesn’t exactly help the economic vitality of urban centers. In the clip, Detroit mayoral candidate and former Detroit Pistons star Dave Bing makes the astute observation that people rarely visit Detroit unless it’s for a sporting event. Such is the case for many cities facing dramatic economic decline--take Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Baltimore as just a few examples. The presence of a sports stadium does little to bring in sustained resources to these cities. Their spatial proximity to highways makes parking manageable and efficient, but it also makes fans’ stays brief. The fact that it’s easy to get to Comerica Park in Detroit also makes it easy to leave when the game’s over.
Some sports arenas, like The Palace at Auburn Hills where the Detroit Pistons play, aren’t even in the cities they represent. What about when a new corporate sponsor takes over the rights to house a sports team, what happens to the old stadium? We don’t even need to leave our example of Detroit to answer that question. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, two groups of urban planners spoke to my Urban and Community Studies course. They were discussing the fate of Detroit's Old Tiger Stadium, the now vacant stadium that became obsolete after the construction of Comerica Park. The first group of urban planners proposed a center for cultural activities and youth baseball leagues, while the second group wanted to use the space for high-end boutiques and shops. Each made a solid case for how the vacant sports stadium could aid in urban revitalization efforts. In the end, neither proposal fully came to fruition, as the city decided instead to demolish the entire site.
As much as one can argue that sports can lift the spirit of an economically depressed city, so too is their a strong argument that sports stadiums only add to the marginalization of America’s most needy cities.